Garcia blasts Emanuel for closing 50 schools

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Mayoral challenger Jesus “Chuy” Garcia blasted  Mayor Rahm Emanuel Friday for closing 50 schools and portrayed the incumbent as a big-money “Washington insider” who lacks the “temperament” to “listen and engage” everyday Chicagoans.

“Coming from Washington and being in positions of influence and constantly being on the hunt for big money for politicians disconnects you from everyday Chicagoans who really care about how you make ends meet to provide for a family,” Garcia said during a taping of the WLS-AM (890) Radio program, “Connected to Chicago,” to be broadcast at 8:30 p.m. Saturday.

“People want someone who will listen to them. Someone who will be accountable. Someone who didn’t just swoop into town overnight with a big warchest and get elected and feel that, perhaps, he’s entitled to that position. Someone who’s been a Washington insider for a long time . . . doesn’t have the temperament or the disposition to engage everyday folks,” Garcia said.

The Cook County commissioner then honed in on Emanuel’s Achilles heel: the closing of a record 50 Chicago public schools in predominantly black South and West Side neighborhoods that has alienated African-American voters who helped put the mayor in office.

Garcia called it an example of Emanuel’s tin ear.

“Instead of closing that many schools, you should have looked at other options. I’m not saying none of those schools should have been closed. But that was too many. It was too drastic. And you obviously didn’t heed the advice of many parents and students who said, `Please don’t do this to us. This will snuff the life out of many neighborhoods,’” he said.

Emanuel promised to improve the educational outcome for students impacted by the 50 closings, but it hasn’t happened that way, Garcia said.

He pointed to a study by Catalyst Chicago that showed 40 percent of displaced students ended up at  “Level 3” schools that are no better than the ones the mayor closed, and only 21 percent landed at “Level 1” schools that are the best performing.

Even more troubling, Garcia said, is the displaced students who fell through the cracks.

“We still can’t account for 5 percent of the children whose schools were closed. We don’t know where they went. They’re unaccounted for. They’re missing in school, and that’s a tragedy. That’s another really serious reality of the school closings,” Garcia said.

Emanuel’s campaign spokesman Steve Mayberry said the decision to close the schools wasn’t an easy one.

“As Mayor Emanuel has stated many times, the decision to close any school is very difficult. But we cannot shy away from difficult decisions to move Chicago forward. Today, after two years of public discussion, it is still not clear what Commissioner Garcia’s position is on this issue,” Mayberry said.

Garcia is a former Chicago alderman and state senator who was a political ally of former Mayor Harold Washington. He currently serves as floor leader for County Board President Toni Preckwinkle.

He jumped into the mayor’s race after brain cancer surgery forced Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis to drop out. Lewis promptly threw her support to Garcia.

On Friday, Garcia followed Lewis’ lead by saying it’s time to take a “hard look” at legalizing and taxing marijuana. That’s a position Emanuel has ridiculed.

“We’re studying the reality in Colorado, the experience they’ve had, how much money is generated. Does it become a problem with crime? It is not a cure-all for the fiscal problems we’re facing. But [it’s] another revenue source that at least merits some looking into,” he said.

“We have to be cognizant of other effects that it can have. But people are smoking pot now. We know the war on drugs has been a total failure. It resulted in the incarceration, mostly of poor people for possession of small amounts of marijuana. It doesn’t make sense.”

Garcia also accused Emanuel of breaking his campaign promise to hire 1,000 more police officers and using $100 million a year in overtime as a substitute.

After taking office, Emanuel revised the promise to 1,000 more cops “on the beat” and delivered half of those officers by disbanding specialized units.

Garcia argued that the Michael Reese Hospital site acquired by the city to house an Olympic village before Chicago’s first-round flame-out in the Olympic sweepstakes would be a better site for the Lucas Museum than 17 acres of free lakefront park land. He also promised to reduce the number of red-light and speed cameras, acknowledging that he’s been nailed by them.

The deadline for filing at least 12,500 signatures to get on the Feb. 24 mayoral ballot is 5 p.m. Monday.

Garcia said he will meet that deadline by filing “tens of thousands” of signatures. During the course of the campaign, he hopes to register 25,000 new voters with a focus on young people and raise at least $3 million and as much as $4 million.

That won’t be enough to compete with the $9 million-and-counting that Emanuel has in the bank. But Garcia said it will be enough to get his message out against an unpopular incumbent whose own polls in a three-way race show him at 40 percent — 10 points short of the support he needs to avoid a run-off.

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