Cook County

Opinion: How WTTW Lost the Mayoral Debate

Both mayor Rahm Emanuel and Cook County Commissioner Jesus “Chuy” Garcia likely had their own supporters in the audience Tuesday night during a candidate forum hosted by WTTW Chanel 11 and moderated by Chicago Tonight host Phil Ponce.

Accordingly, during particularly pithy moments, each candidate roused their shares of claps or chuckles from the crowd during the heated debate.

However, only one person on stage Tuesday night got booed, and that was Ponce. He deserved it.

Garcia’s son was once in a street gang in the Little Village neighborhood where he grew up and where the commissioner still lives. Ponce took time to ask the mayoral challenger, “If you can’t keep your own son out of a gang, how can you steer the city away from gangs and violence?”

Emanuel’s subsequent objection to the line of questioning, as well as nicely done criticisms of it in writing that followed seem to imply that Ponce’s question was inappropriate. Such a description would be a bit charitable, however.

The line of questioning was not inappropriate, it was just bad. Ponce had the right to ask Garcia that question, doing so only revealed that the moderator’s understanding of crime, and perhaps parenting as well, lacked sophistication.

Questions about Garcia’s son made up the bulk of Ponce’s effort to touch on one of Chicago’s most important and pressing problems – crime. Ponce could have asked Garcia to talk about the unique crime-prevention strategies (like specific community policing training for officers and restorative justice programs) he’s advocated for during the campaign, and ask him why he believes they would be effective, and how he would pay for them.

Ponce could have asked Emanuel to talk about the strategies he’s used to deal with Chicago’s horrible crime over the past four years, and how he plans to move forward. Ponce could have also looked into criminology research and data and used some of that information as a lens to view and examine Emanuel and Garcia’s ideas and claims, and follow up with pointed and specific questions that could have helped Chicago voters get a better grasp on what to do about this endemic problem, and the differences between the candidates’ approaches.

Ponce did none of that. Instead, like an unfocused but self-righteous prosecutor he pressed harder about Garcia’s son who has, the commissioner said, a criminal record consisting of two misdemeanors, than he did on any other issue of the night. Ponce certainly pressed harder there than he did on education, with either candidate.

Not one question was asked of either candidate about the record number of Chicago Public Schools closed in recent years during the entire hour. Emanuel was not asked anything about that issue, including why he chose to close the schools he did, the impact on school children and communities, or why more and more money is being used for charter schools when regular schools have been shut down in a wholesale manner.

Garcia, who has made criticism of Emanuel’s school closings a central piece of his campaign, was not asked once Tuesday to say how he would have been able to keep those schools open, find the money to improve them, or specifically how he would reverse course if he becomes mayor.
Perhaps the question of whether or not a mayoral candidate’s son is a part of an organized crime group is one worth exploring. The answer has been given, however, and belaboring it made it seem as though Ponce had an ax to grind.

The question of whether or not Garcia improperly contributed to a law firm benefiting from public work after they had helped represent his son is certainly a valid one, as well. Scale of pay-to-play would seem to also be important, however, and it was disappointing to watch the moderator give more attention to the issue of Garcia’s son’s legal defense than the fact that about 60 percent of big campaign donors to the mayor’s campaign have benefited financially from the mayor directly or tax-payer money, to the tune of millions of dollars.

Garcia’s pained but composed answers to Ponce’s questions about his son were difficult to listen to. “We tried to be as loving, and caring, and as supportive of my son as possible,” he said.

“He made some mistakes. I’m not proud of it. Perhaps all the love that we gave him, wasn’t enough. Gladly, my son learned from his mistakes. He has four children that he’s raising. He is a chef, and he mentors kids in the community. He turned his life around. I’m proud of him.

“We did the best that we could for him. There are other things that you don’t know about my son, and the work that he has done. He’s been a mentor with the YMCA street intervention program, he’s worked for cease fire as a mentor. He’s mentored kids in the neighborhood, and in many other neighborhoods. He has also worked on trauma issues in the city of Chicago. It’s a great story, Phil. If you like, I’d like to introduce you to him.”

Garcia didn’t defend himself from mistakes of his son, as the question seemed to prompt him to do. Instead, the commissioner soberly explained what it is like to be a parent, and then proudly spoke about how far his son has come.

It may have been difficult to watch Garcia answer those questions. The audience’s heart seem to go out to him, with at least one member shouting out, “Come on, Phil!”

However, the real pity for those moments should be reserved for the moderator, who came off more like a half-drunk great uncle discussing public policy after reading a headline, than a journalist with decades of experience, and months to prepare for a debate between two mayoral candidates. As always, it was impossible to tell which candidate “won” this most recent, and final debate.

This time, however, it was easy to see who the loser was.

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