For a room filled largely with media, government officials and students -- i.e. Some of society’s most cynical and often apathetic members -- a sense of genuine excitement and anticipation was palpable inside the NBC Tower studio where Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Jesus "Chuy" Garcia faced off head-to-head for the first time Monday night.
I was one of those in attendance.
None of us knew precisely what we were going to see, but with a relatively close runoff election just weeks away, we knew that the candidate forum, moderated by NBC 5 political editor Carol Marin, had the potential to affect the outcome of the race.
Between Emanuel’s walk-off home run of a race in 2011, and decades of dominance by his predecessor Richard M. Daley, it’s been a long time since we’ve had a mayor’s race as competitive as the current one. In fact, 1982 was the last time a mayoral race was so hotly contested. That was the year when then Mayor Jane Byrne and state’s attorney Daley made the mistake of agreeing to debates with then U.S. Rep. Harold Washington, who would win the debates, raise money in the aftermath and then go on to win the election.
Marin and both candidates walked onto the stage about 10 minutes before the start of the forum. The awkward passage of time before the broadcast was filled mostly with fidgeting, waves and winks to friends and allies in the audience. Garcia or Emanuel alternately spoke to Marin, but not to one another.
What the ensuing hour lacked in specificity or hard promises from either candidate, it made up for in spirit, at least in terms of entertainment value. Both men were relatively sharp and went hard at each other, though with different approaches.
The entire hour saw a contrast between a composed, rousing fire from Garcia and a seemingly forced, steely calm from Emanuel.
The county commissioner was more well-spoken, determined and cutting than he had been at any point prior in the campaign. The challenger was well-prepared rhetorically, and he was unafraid to use strong language and outright insults to get at the heart of Emanuel’s problems as a mayor and candidate, namely his arrogance, the sense that he is a rich outsider who is out of touch with most Chicagoans and who prioritizes big business interests.
Garcia used the above-mentioned claims to attack Emanuel when the mayor touted success with achieving longer school days. Garcia replied that the longer day mandate wasn’t funded. Garcia also shot back when Emanuel claimed a supposed shift in focus in the Chicago police force to community policing and a reduction in crime. “You’re the only one that believes that, that’s the problem," Garcia said.
For his part, Emanuel played up the positive side of his bull-headed coin -- that he is strong and prepared by virtue of his experience in office. The mayor was polite with Marin and kept his voice down, thereby successfully downplaying the negatives of his character -- the quick temper, the irritability and the can’t-be-bothered-with-you tone.
Emanuel worked hard to be calm, and he tried to appear to float above the fray by talking down to Garcia regarding his experience and vague plans.
The mayor also gave more specific plans during the forum, but that isn’t saying much. Garcia did a good job of not letting the mayor frame each topic, and he challenged the veracity of many of Emanuel’s claims and plans. What he missed were his own specific and workable plans.
Garcia did give a quasi-compelling excuse for his lack of concrete ideas by saying that the city is in disarray (it is) and that Emanuel’s administration works hard to keep real budgets secret (it does). He followed by saying that he couldn’t possibly lay out a complete budget of his own or answer -- in full -- certain financial questions, until he himself is mayor and orders audits. Audits and transparency are good and necessary, but Garcia is taking a gamble in not pushing forward a more detailed set of plans.
The former alderman and state senator seems to want to stay the course by focusing his energy on fair attacks on Emanuel’s record as mayor. Emanuel himself isn’t stretching himself too much either.
Both men seemed to believe that rhetoric could take them a long way. Only one of them will be right.
Garcia showed that he wants the job and that he isn’t afraid in the least of Emanuel. The mayor showed that he can last an hour with Garcia without losing his cool and that he’s comfortable with the decisions he’s made.
There’s more work to be done and more debates and forums to be had, but last night’s forum seemed to suggest that voters will have essentially one question to answer when they go to the polls April 7.
Are Chicagoans more inclined to go with whom they are dissatisfied but familiar, or will they take a leap into the unknown based on their dissatisfaction? Both candidates seem content with that question and confident voters will favor them.
Neither Emanuel nor Garcia messed anything up for their campaigns Monday night, but we can’t yet know if either did anything to convince undecided voters. Both candidates preached to their choirs in the forum, and they are now hoping those voices will sing loudly, and in high numbers, on Election Day.