Chicago will survive; the mayoral candidates, maybe not

SHARE Chicago will survive; the mayoral candidates, maybe not
SHARE Chicago will survive; the mayoral candidates, maybe not

Walking back to the office Friday from mayoral candidate Jesus “Chuy” Garcia’s press conference on how to fix the city’sfinancial mess, I bumped into a former elected official who once was a pretty big name in Chicago.

He’s 80 now, dropped out of politics entirely after losing a bid for higher office some 25 years ago and is so far removed from the game at this point that most people would probably assume he’s dead.

But there he was — lean, tan, healthy and not showing his age — and he told me without prompting that losing that long-ago election was “the best thing that ever happened to me.”

Garcia and Mayor Rahm Emanuel might want to keep that in mind over the next few weeks as we race toward an April 7 runoff election that will leave one of them responsible for the city’s future and the other responsible mostly for his own.

After watching the two campaigns go back and forth Friday over the bleak state of city finances and then reading over the credit rating agencies’ analyses of our situation, I was struck that “winning” responsibility for the next four years might be the booby prize.

Chicago’s financial future is in a dangerous place, both candidates agreed in a dueling exchange of position papers and sound bites. But there was a wide gulf of disagreement over how we got here and how to proceed.

This was supposed to be the day Garcia put his cards on the table to serve as a counterpoint to those Emanuel commercials that make it look like he’s stalling or holding back on his financial plans.

Instead, Garcia’s 18-page “white paper” was long on criticism of Emanuel’s handling of city finances and short on details about what he would do to right the ship.

Garcia put his emphasis on non-controversial ideas, such as: achieving savings from city government working more cooperatively with its sister agencies; process improvements, including performance audits of city departments; and populist perennials, like phasing out more tax increment financing districts.

On the tough question — how to come up with more money to pay for the city’s massive unfunded pension liability — he punted. Garcia said he would appoint a committee to advise him on the issue — after the election. And he said he won’t cut the benefits of current retirees, an understandable sentiment but one that requires him to take even more from current employees or taxpayers.

Arguably, Emanuel is no better. He won’t say how he plans to pay for his pension plans either, although we do have the benefit of his four-year track record on which to judge — including his since-withdrawn proposal for a record $250 million-a-year property tax increase.

But Garcia’s plan struck me as disappointingly thin and probably not enough to quell doubts from many voters about whether he has the chops to deal with the biggest problem: the city’s massive unfunded pension liability.

I can only assume the thinking from his campaign was to keep the rest of the voters focused on what they don’t like about Emanuel instead of giving them something not to like about Garcia.

Emanuel countered with a four-page “fiscal framework” that warned that without pension relief from Springfield, Chicago “property tax bills will explode next year.” That sure isn’t Garcia’s fault.

Emanuel also resurrected his call for a Chicago casino, a sales tax on professional services and the city receiving a greater share of the state income tax — all of it depending on cooperation from his friend, the new Republican governor, who has given every indication of taking the state in the opposite direction.

My own view is that Chicago can survive four years of either man’s leadership, that the path to the future is narrow and the real options few for whoever wins.

But the guy who loses is the one you’re more likely to meet walking down the street 25 years from now.

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