Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s campaign has agreed to participate in five campaign debates jam-packed into a two-week period ending on Feb. 10.
The long-awaited debates are expected to include Emanuel and his three strongest challengers: County Commissioner Jesus “Chuy” Garcia; Ald. Bob Fioretti (2nd) and businessman Willie Wilson.
The schedule includes: Jan 27 before the Chicago Tribune editorial board; Chicago Sun-Times editorial board date to be determined; Feb. 4 on the WTTW-Channel 11 program, “Chicago Tonight”; Feb 5 on WLS-TV Channel 7/Univision hosted by the League of Women Voters, and Feb. 10 on WBBM-TV Channel 2 and WVON Radio hosted by the Chicago Urban League.
Wilson bought himself instant credibility last week — and sorely needed television and radio commercial time to introduce himself to voters — when he agreed to donate $1 million of his own money to his mayoral campaign.
A prolific fundraiser, Emanuel has $11 million and counting in his campaign war chest. He has been blanketing the airwaves with feel-good commercials for weeks that have succeeded in bolstering his popularity, internal campaign polls show.
“The mayor is very excited to continue his dialogue directly with Chicagoans and is looking forward to five debates so that voters can hear directly from candidates about their record and plan for the future,” senior campaign adviser David Spielfogel wrote in an email to the Sun-Times.
Garcia said Monday he is pleasantly surprised that Emanuel has agreed to five debates after participating in only one debate in a “controlled setting” four years ago. The Emanuel campaign fired back that Emanuel participated in four debates in 2011.
“It’s hard to know how he’ll conduct himself. . . . I’m hoping that the guy who shows up is the guy people have come to know: being impatient, not being a good listener, not speaking truth and having become accustomed to relying on his millions to improve his image and hide behind” those commercials, Garcia said.
“Debates are a great opportunity for people to get to know the candidates — especially those of us who don’t have multimillion-dollar war chests. It’s a chance for people to see what we’re made of, what our vision for the future is. I want to show my understanding of people’s everyday realities in Chicago. I have the richest experience in neighborhoods and how they function. My vision comes from my understanding and expertise of those neighborhoods and my urban planning degree from the great University of Illinois at Chicago.”
Fioretti said “pressure was building” on Emanuel to end his Rose Garden strategy of controlled audiences and limited media access.
“I’m glad he heeded my advice and wants to participate in five debates. We need to have the issues out there. I’m anxious to discuss my vision of the city and why it’s a better vision,” the alderman said.
Pressed to describe the Emanuel weaknesses he hopes to exploit, Fioretti said, “Lack of leadership toward where we’re going. Turning his back on communities throughout this city. The failed issues of crime, education and fiscal health — none of which this mayor has addressed in his four years. School closings are part of it. The lack of transparency and the  closings in and of themselves.”
Still, Fioretti said he’s disappointed that none of the five debates includes a town hall format where everyday Chicagoans can question the candidates directly.
Just last week, Fioretti renewed his demand that Emanuel “defend his record” during a series of campaign debates, condemning the former White House chief of staff’s Rose Garden strategy.
“It is absurd and offensive that the candidates for mayor have not publicly agreed to debates yet,” Fioretti was quoted as saying then.
“Voters deserve to question candidates and understand what we will and will not do for Chicago. Rahm has to come and defend his record. Chuy [Garcia] needs to explain why he changed positions on an elected school board after his [Chicago Teachers Union] endorsement and where he has been all these years while progressives have been fighting this mayor.”
In mid-October, Emanuel pledged to debate his opponents — even after brain cancer surgery forced Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis to drop out of the race. But the mayor has yet to schedule debates.
Spielfogel renewed the commitment to debates late last month when he made the move from City Hall to the Emanuel campaign. In fact, Spielfogel said one of his first orders of business was to help prepare the mayor for those debates.
“Of course, there will be debates. The mayor is very much looking forward to speaking directly to voters, just as he has been for the last four years and the debates will be a big part of that. Last time we did four or five. It’ll be about the same this time,” Spielfogel said last month.
Until Monday, Fioretti’s demand for at least five debates had fallen on deaf ears with time running out and just over six weeks left until the Feb. 24 mayoral primary.
That has allowed Emanuel to follow his familiar script of controlling the message.
A Cultural Center event last week to unveil the mayor’s education agenda for a second term was invitation-only.
Emanuel answered questions about his decision to close a record 50 public schools and forge ahead with charter openings, only from a hand-picked and friendly interviewer.
Fioretti’s statement included a list of nine debates and forums in which he has agreed to participate between Jan. 20 and Feb. 10.