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Chicago politics – The Economist (blog)

LAST week, in the second of three debates before the run-off mayoral election on April 7th, Rahm Emanuel, the incumbent, was stuck playing defence. At times he seemed unable to find a riposte to the feisty verbal attacks lobbed at him by Jesus (Chuy) Garcia, his opponent. But on March 31st, in the third and final debate on live television, Chicago’s mayor was back on form.

“You are walking along all over the place like typical career politicians promising everything like ‘Hanukkah Harry,’” said Mr Emanuel, earning a laugh from the audience. When Mr Garcia suggested that Mr Emanuel’s time on the board of Freddie Mac, a mortgage-insurance giant, contributed to the recession, the mayor earned another chuckle when he quipped, “Single-handedly, I ushered in the recession…only you and my mother think that.”

Mr Emanuel has reason to be more confident. The latest poll by the Chicago Tribune, a local paper, puts him ahead with 58% of the vote, compared with 30% for Mr Garcia. The mayor’s lead has grown since March 13th, when another Tribune poll put him 14 percentage points ahead. Most of the increase seems to have come from white voters, of whom 72% say they would vote for him, according to the poll. The mayor’s energetic courting of African-American voters doesn’t seem to have made much of a dent.

Tuesday night would have been an occasion for Mr Garcia to dispel doubts about his ability to manage the city’s catastrophic finances. But rather than come up with specific proposals, he insisted that he needed to audit the city’s books, which he said were shrouded “in a veil of secrecy”, before he could decide on expenditure cuts or tax increases. He also refused to say who will be on the commission of financial experts that he is planning to appoint, if elected, revealing only that it will probably have 12 members. His only concrete proposal was the introduction of a luxury tax on the sale of expensive jewellery or fancy cars.

Mr Emanuel, on the other hand, was spewing specifics on what to do about Chicago’s $ 20 billion mountain of unfunded pension liabilities. He said he will avoid an increase in property taxes by introducing a progressive sales tax on services, by bringing a casino to Chicago and by using TIFs, which are public-finance tool called tax increment financing that allows the city to finance economic development in a designated area by tapping into the future tax revenues it is expected to generate. He estimates that the casino alone will generate $ 1 billion for Chicago’s coffers over the next ten years. 

Chicago’s finances were the focus of Tuesday night’s debate. Mr Emanuel made much of Mr Garcia running a non-profit in Little Village, his neighbourhood, which was in the red when he left the job. This hardly bodes well for Mr Garcia’s way with finances, the mayor argued. Mr Garcia, in turn, pointed out that Chicago’s credit-worthiness was downgraded five times under Mr Emanuel, and that the mayor kept borrowing for short-term expenditures.

At some point the moderator asked Mr Garcia how he can keep Chicago safe when his own son has been a gang member with several run-ins with the police. Rather than refuse to answer the question, Mr Garcia won everyone over with his gracious response, explaining that his son grew up in a challenging neighbourhood where gangs were active. “We’ve tried to be as loving and as caring and as supportive as my son as possible,” said Mr Garcia about himself and his wife. “He made some mistakes. I’m not proud of it. Perhaps all of the love we gave him wasn’t enough.”

When the moderator continued to probe Mr Garcia about his son, asking whether he was still a member of a gang, Mr Emanuel interjected, saying that he didn’t think this was “a fair line of questioning”. Yet the moderator soldiered on, questioning the free services that Garcia junior had received from a lawyer when he was in trouble and asking whether he was still in a gang. Mr Garcia said he wasn’t and explained that the lawyer had known his son since he was a child and had thus offered pro bono services.

According to the Twittersphere, the loser of the debate was Phil Ponce, the moderator. Many argued that he was tougher on Mr Garcia than Mr Emanuel, and that his insistent questions about Mr Garcia’s son crossed the line of civil behaviour. The mayor came across as self-assured and well-prepared, whereas his opponent was his usual likeable self, albeit seemingly out of his depth. Though he has proven a formidable rival, Mr Garcia offered precious little insight on how he would manage America’s third-biggest city.

Dig deeper:
Can Jesús save Chicago? (March 2015)
The anti-charm of Rahm (February 2015)
Rahmbo prepares for round two (February 2015) 

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