With little more than a week till the April 7 runoff, Chicago Sun-Times reporters spoke with Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the man he’ll face on the ballot, Cook County Commissioner Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, about their plans for handling the financial problems the city of Chicago faces and other key issues.
He says he’s learned from his mistakes and would govern differently if he gets a second chance.
He scoffs at the notion he would be weakened politically, even if he survives, for having been forced to fight so hard and raise so much to get re-elected.
Rahm Emanuel, 55, is heading into the final round of this fight for his political life. Being forced into Chicago’s first-ever mayoral runoff against Jesus “Chuy” Garcia has made him do something he prefers not to: look in the mirror.
“I used to tell Clinton this: `If we knew in the first year of the first term what we knew by the first year of the second term, we’d all be geniuses,’ ” he said. “You evolve. You learn. You do things different.”
Question. You’ve acknowledged you rub people the wrong way and talk when you should listen. If you get another shot, how would you govern differently?
Answer. Leadership is to make sure that people at least feel they have a seat at the table. It’s making sure more people feel they got heard. . . . You’ve got to make sure nobody falls out of step — not in the sense of a disciplinary way but that you’re taking everybody together. That’s the difference between plowing ahead and leading people.
Q. You’ve been hammering Chuy for punting the question of new revenues to a post-election commission. What is it that you believe voters need to fear from him?
A. I’ve laid out specific revenues. But I’ve also been very clear reforms are part of any deal. He refuses to agree to any reforms. That means all the burden is on taxes and neighborhood service cuts. He’s telling you the day after the election, he’ll appoint a commission. Who is this unelected board gonna be? And since Springfield is out of session, that means property taxes. That means increasing parking fees. . . . He has not taken a single thing off the table. . . . He’s asking people to buy a pig in a poke.
Q. But your plan relies on Springfield to approve a casino, broaden the sales tax to services, ramp up pension payments so the police and fire hammer is lifted. What makes you think that any of that is going to happen?
A. Did I, in fact, get three pension deals through Springfield? I am the one mayor in the last 30 years who passed a Chicago casino. It ended up on the governor’s desk, vetoed. They are now talking about a casino. . . . The governor and legislative leaders are talking about a reform of the sales tax. Viable and feasible.
Q. But the school system has a $1 billion deficit. If you get a few hundred million in pension relief, you’re still in a deep hole.
A. The financial books are in a position to undermine the progress we’re making educationally, and it’s at a real crisis. That’s an opportunity to finally deal with certain things. The governor and legislative leaders agree that the dual taxation of Chicago taxpayers has to end as it relates to pensions. We’re the only taxpayers asked to pay our teachers’ pensions and everybody else’s.
Q. You’ve raised school property taxes to the cap for four straight years. But that only gets you $50 million. Will you ask them to lift the cap?
A. No. Everything I’ve done for four years . . . is to avoid property tax increases.
Q. You think you can avoid a property tax increase for schools – even up-to-the-limit?
A. There’s a cap.. . . As it relates to [lifting] the cap, my strategy is consistent with what the governor and legislative leaders [have said]. You have to end the dual taxation. That gives us the resources.
Q. Can you rule out a property tax increase for the city or the schools after the election?
A. Well, I’m gonna say this: On the fifth year of my [city] budget, there will not be a property-tax increase.
Q. Even if the $550 million hammer [for police and fire pensions] is not lifted?
A. I believe in the plan I presented.
Q. Is bankruptcy an option?
A. It’s not an option for the city. And it’s not an option for the schools. . . . I’m gonna first go to Springfield and work that process. . . . If I follow the bankruptcy rule, you don’t know the unintended consequences of that. Second of all, that allows Springfield to keep in place two taxations of Chicago taxpayers.
Q. You proposed a five-year, $250 million property tax increase for the Municipal and Laborers pension funds. You substituted a telephone tax hike for the first year. How will you cover the $50 million increase in the second year? You think you can do that without raising property taxes?
Q. But aren’t Chicago property taxes low compared to the suburbs?
A. I don’t think taxpayers think they’re too low.
Q. Your hand-picked school board counted on 14 months of property tax revenue in 12 months. Isn’t that the kind of gimmick you accused Mayor Daley of using?
A. It was an attempt to avoid any cuts in the classroom. . . . I have not done it on my budgets.
Q. Are you for a graduated income tax?
A. I’m for what I said I’m gonna be for, which is a progressive, reflective sales tax. A single mother buying school supplies for a child pays more taxes than somebody who joins a club. That’s crazy.
Q. Doesn’t that also mean a sales tax on everyday services like haircuts?
A. You don’t know what we’re gonna do. It depends what they negotiate.
Q. What happens if the pension reforms are thrown out in court?
A. Unlike the state, the city actually negotiated their agreements. Unlike the state, the city preserves and protects because it guarantees that we’ll pay.
Q. The bond rating has dropped precipitously on your watch. Why isn’t that an indictment on your financial stewardship, as Garcia says it is?
A. All of ’em are driven around one thing: the pensions. They’re not driven around the financial stewardship. . . . I’ve laid out a responsible effort on how to deal with the last two pension issues.
Q. You’ve raised $21 million for your campaign. You’ve been accused of being the tool of the 1 percent. Is that a fair characterization?
A. I said as the city grows, everybody is gonna participate — from the minimum wage to universal kindergarten to full-day pre-K, to full-day school, to a community college system and free. Big beneficiaries are people who make up our neighborhoods — even when people who support me disagree. I’ve now created a $90 million fund from the real estate community to pay for 40,000 units of affordable housing. You really think affordable housing units are reflective of the most well-off?
Q. But why so much money from so few?
A. The Carpenters Union, the Electrical Workers, the Teamsters Union, the hotel workers, the bartenders, janitors and people who change the beds at the hotels, the Bricklayers — they have also supported my candidacy.
Q. If you manage to win re-election after being forced into a runoff and spending $21 million, won’t you be weakened politically?
A. No. The opposite. Campaigns reveal character. By fighting hard, you show something of yourself. . . . You ask me if I’m gonna be quote-unquote `weakened.’ No. Because when you’ve won, you’ve won.
Q. Why do you think an under-funded challenger who got a late start and was the third choice of the progressive movement was able to force you into a runoff?
A. There was once a Sun-Times journalist who said if Willie Wilson gets more than 10 percent, there’ll be a runoff. If there [had been] a different makeup in the primary, it would be different.
Q. But what role did you play in this?
A. I own my mistakes. They may have contributed.
Q. The 10,000 shootings: Do you have a plan to address that?
A. You want to do statistics? Homicides are 65 percent fewer than when Chuy was in the City Council. Last year was the lowest in 50 years. Now, I don’t go to [a grieving mother’s] home and sit with her in the living room and say, ‘You haven’t felt this good since 1966.’ I understand what a commercial is about. But I also know what the leadership is to pass gun control.
Q. Chuy’s son was once a self-admitted gang member. Do you think that’s an issue?
A. Not by me.
Q. How will you feel if you lose? Are you prepared for that possibility?
A. This has a been a great race. I can see the barn doors on the horizon, and I’m ready either way because I’ve laid out a detailed plan to address our challenges and move our city forward.
Q. What will you do if you lose?
A. Spend more time driving Amy and the kids crazy, probably. Look, in all seriousness, I haven’t thought about that for one second because this race isn’t about me, and it’s not about Chuy. This race is about the future of our city and who has the plan to address Chicago’s financial challenges, invest in our neighborhoods, provide our children with a strong education and ensure everyone has a shot at the middle class. That’s what residents care about, and that’s what I’m focused on.