With 8 Days to Go, Candidates Debate

With a warning from Carol Marin that she wanted "cold, hard, specific information" rather than anecdotes or campaign rhetoric, the top four mayoral candidates on Monday night at times took jabs at one another and other times celebrated each others' commitment to the city.

The forum, broadcast on WTTW 11 and presented by the Chicago City Club, came on the heels of a report issued by The Civic Federation sounding the alarm on the precarious position in which the city finds itself regarding pensions of public employees.

The topic dominated the first several minutes of the debate. 

Rahm Emanuel spoke first, talking about his desire to preserve pensions but stating that collective bargaining must be done to make that happen.

"I think you have to be honest and straightforward.  We have a difficulty.  Every city is facing this in the country, and the only way to get out of this problem is to go with the idea that you're going to preserve the pension, but be honest that we have a difficulty in those two choices -- let it run out or raise property taxes -- are unacceptable.

Miguel Del Valle said he believes it would be unconstitutional to change the pension benefits for those already contracted to receive them. 

"We can certainly do that with new hires, but I don't think that with current employees, we should be reducing their pension benefits, even prospectively.  It is wrong," he said.

He said a larger part of the problem is that budgetary restraints have prevented the city from adequately contribute to the system.  He spoke of a need for a new revenue stream -- possibly gaming -- so the city could fulfill its obligations.

Carol Moseley Braun agreed with del Valle, but also said she'd like to find a way to preserve pensions for even new hires.

"That's an essential part of the middle class," she said, adding that the Civic Foundation's report didn't talk about ways to grow the local economy.  "We've got to grow the economy to be able to address the pension, as well as our operating budget deficit issues."

Gery Chico spoke of the "shared sacrifice" that both the city and its employees are going to have to make to solve the pension deficit. 

"This is not as horrible as you're portraying," Chico said to Marin.  "I've talked to people about it.  Here's the big issue: there's never been a face-to-face dialogue about between the mayor and these labor organizations.  We have to get in the room, sit down and work it out."

In the first of a series of pointed, rapid-fire questions, Marin asks the candidates if the city should bill non-profit organizations for their use of water.  Emanuel said yes.  Chico and Moseley Braun said no.  Del Valle said he believed some non-profits should pay for water.

The candidates were also asked if non-profits should pay property taxes.  Emanuel, Chico and Moseley Braun all said no.  Again, del Valle said some non-profits should pay.

A question as to whether Chicago should privatize the delivery of water brings a definitive "no" from Chico and sparks off a few minutes of debate. Del Valle is open to a discussion of privatizing garbage and recycling collection.  Chico is open to a discussion about privatizing Midway International Airport, but reminds that privatization doesn't always work out to the benefit of the municipality.

"They don't always work.  These are not fool-proof.  We privatized fleet operations before in the city, and we didn't get the return on investment we were promised and we brought it back inside.  You have to be very careful and not impulsively go for privatization," he explained.  

A reference to the city's residency requirements for city employees brought the evening's first pointed jab -- and laughter.

Del Valle said Chico's willingness to discuss changing the requirement was the reason he earned the endorsement of the Chicago Tea Party.

"I'm glad you brought that up," said Chico.  "Happy Valentines Day, Miguel."

"I did not seek, nor do I accept -- I don't know who these people are," he said.    "I reject it.  It's a distraction for the issues that are important."

The candidates were asked about their financial problems, which Marin termed their public "rap sheets." 

Moseley Braun refutes a question as to whether she has a financial management problem, citing (as she's done in the past) that the struggles for her Ambassador Organics shop stem from the same economic hardship that much of the nation is dealing with.

Chico, who was part of the law firm  Altheimer & Gray when it failed in 2004, said he returned cash owed to him by the agency in an effort to save it.  It was a collective decision by the firm's board, he said, to close it. 

Emanuel defended his appointment to the board of Freddie Mac, which is blamed for not anticipating the housing crisis. 

Del Valle said the fact that he's raised the least money of the four candidates should not be seen as an "organizational failure," but rather the result of running an "honest campaign" and not accepting money from city contractors.

"I'm giving the voters in the city of Chicago an opportunity to make a real change in the city of Chicago and take pay-to-play out of the description of Chicago politics," he said.

The candidates are asked if they would retain Ald. Ed Burke (14th) as the chair of the city's finance committee and if the city can afford his six-man security detail.

Chico defended Burke, calling him a "wealth of information" about the city's finances.  He expressed excitement about a new City Council being comprised of a new mayor and at least 15 new aldermen.

Del Valle called Burke an "astute and highly effective alderman," but said he needs to "share the load" with other aldermen. 

Emanuel said Burke's expensive security detail "just can't continue." He adds that he will refuse a pension and ask his staffers to take a pay cut.  Chico said he would cut his pay 20 percent if elected.

Marin asked why, if crime and complaints against police are down, the candidates won't retain police Supt. Jody Weis.  Emanuel said the morale battle between Weis and his department is too expensive.  He said Weis has added personnel to the central office without putting feet on the street. 

Chico said that the issue isn't about morale, it's about public safety.  He says it takes too long for citizens to get their calls answered.

Del Valle says Weis has been ineffective in "fighting for and establishing a community policing program."

A question from a WTTW viewer elicited compliments from some of the candidates.  Who among the candidates, the viewer wanted to know, would the winner of the election hire.  Chico said he would not "dismiss out of hand" any of his opponents.

"Everybody here is accomplished and has done something very, very remarkable in their careers," he said.

Braun agrees.  Del Valle draws laughs when he says simply, "These are all nice people."

Emanuel "doesn't believe in those type of endorsements."  He wants to have an election first.

Asked by another viewer if any of the candidates had ever reported someone for corruption, Chico points out an issue of time-card fraud that was uncovered when he was the mayor's chief of staff.  Emanuel pointed to the past issues of former House majority leader Tom DeLay.

The candidates were asked to state what they though were Mayor Richard Daley's greatest failures.  Del Valle points to the destruction of Meigs Field.  Moseley Braun said that too many parts of the city have been neglected.  Chico pointed to the number of close relationships in City Hall.  Emanuel said it was relying too heavily on the 2016 Olympic Games as the sole engine for economic growth.

Toward the end of the hour, the discussion turned to temperament and whether it's relevant to the campaign. 

"Does the city like this need a boss?" Marin asked.

Chico said the city needs a leader who inspires, not someone who rules with an iron fist.  Emanuel takes on the description that he's "profane and crude."  He said he's passionate about the battles he's fought.

Del Valle, responding to those who say he's "too nice," says he has a history of challenging the status quo.

The most light-hearted moment of the evening came when Marin asked the candidates when the last time was that they used a Chicago public beach or park.

"I haven't been a resident for two years," Emanuel said, joking about the residency challenge that's since been put behind him.

Later, when asked what the candidates had in mind for Valentine's Day, Chico said he was taking his wife out to dinner.  Emanuel said he was joining them.

Candidates Patricia Van Pelt-Watkins and William "Doc" Walls were not invited to the forum, though they both showed up at the studio early in the evening in an attempt to make it on the program.

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