Five mayoral candidates clash on taxes, cost-cutting, ethics and Burke

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Before he leaves office, Chicago’s first Jewish mayor is trying to strengthen ties between the city and Israel. | Colin Boyle/Sun-Times

Five candidates vying to replace Mayor Rahm Emanuel clashed on the issues of taxes, cost-cutting, ethics reform and their respective ties to embattled Ald. Edward Burke (14th) during a lively endorsement session before the Chicago Tribune’s editorial board on Tuesday.

The questioning — and the verbal fireworks — began with the federal corruption scandal that threatens to bring down Burke.

Gery Chico is a longtime friend and former employee of Burke’s Finance Committee during Council Wars.

Burke endorsed Chico before a federal complaint accused the now-former chairman of the City Council’s Finance Committee of attempted extortion for allegedly shaking down a Burger King franchise owner for legal business and for a $10,000 contribution to Toni Preckwinkle.

That gave Preckwinkle another opening to reiterate her claim that it was Anne Burke who offered to hold a fundraiser at the Burke’s home for Preckwinkle’s re-election campaign as county board president — even though her husband’s name was on the invitation — and point the finger at Chico.

“There are other people at this table who’ve been endorsed by Ed Burke. I’m not. He’s not an ally of mine,” Preckwinkle said.

Chico replied, “Who’s been endorsed by Ed Burke?”

“I think it’s you, Gery,” Preckwinkle said.

Chico countered, “Ed Burke said that I’m the most qualified candidate in this race to be mayor of Chicago. A lot of people have said that. That’s not an endorsement.”

Why, then, did Burke’s ward organization help circulate Chico’s nominating petitions?

“We used people throughout the entire city of Chicago. 750 people in all wards of Chicago to get on the ballot. We can’t skip one,” he said.

Willie Wilson and Preckwinkle clashed over her decision to hire Burke’s son for what became a six-figure Homeland Security job; he resigned from that job after questions were raised about his time sheets.

“There was an opening in the Department of Homeland Security and he met the qualifications and he was hired for that position,” said Preckwinkle, who refused to say whether “the Burkes” or their associates approached her about the promotion for Edward Jr.

“He’d been a county employee for more than 20 years doing similar work in the sheriff’s office. … This is a Shakman-exempt position and we hired him in that Shakman-exempt position.”

Under questioning, Preckwinkle said she would be “glad to have the Personnel Department look into it.”

Wilson was not appeased.

“To me, that is wrong. … It’s the perception. If you take money from somebody and hire someone’s relative, that’s a conflict of interest — whether there’s any kind of law [violated] or not,” Wilson said.

Wilson also took incoming fire from LaShawn Ford — on the millionaire businessman’s habit of giving away money to help struggling Chicagoans pay their skyrocketing property tax bills and get people out of jail.

“Dr. Wilson, it’s more than throwing money around. You must be a part of a solution,” Ford said.

“Some of those people that you bailed out ended up being in worse position than they were when they went in. And you know that.”

Ford also slammed Wilson on state legislation Wilson supported on bail reform.

“Your bill did what? Expanded the RICO law and that is a shame,” Ford said, referring to the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act that, among other things, allows stiffer penalties in cases involving ongoing criminal enterprises.

“Your bill did nothing but hurt black people in the city with the RICO extension. That’s what you did.”

Yet another dispute — between Chico and Bill Daley — centered around Daley’s decision to open the door to a commuter tax on suburbanites who work in Chicago and a constitutional amendment to satisfy a looming, $1 billion spike in pension payments. Daley called it “this anchor around our neck.”

“We cannot do it on the backs of the retirees alone or just raise revenue,” Daley said.

“Everything has to be on the table: casinos, a commuter tax. Everything has to be on the table — along with reforms.”

Chico, who served as chief of staff under former Mayor Richard M. Daley, branded the commuter tax “nothing more than a veiled head tax.”

“I worked a good part of my career with your brother getting rid of the head tax,” Chico told Daley.

Daley countered that was “probably 20 years ago” and that the “financial situation in our city” has gotten worse since then.

“I don’t have a commuter tax plan. All I’m saying is … everything should be on the table. That is one. If you’re taking that off the table — and I see your ad that says, `Millionaires or whoever have to pay more’ — are you for a city income tax now?” Daley said.

Chico said he was not advocating for a city income tax. But he does support raising the real estate transfer tax on the sale of million-dollar homes.

Chico even got into it with newly-re-elected State Comptroller Susana Mendoza, a mayoral candidate who wasn’t even at the table. She’s been invited to a different mayoral candidate session; the Tribune is holding several, due to the size of the field of contenders. Mendoza appears Tuesday, along with former alderman Bob Fioretti, former Chicago Public Schools CEO Paul Vallas, Circuit Court Clerk Dorothy Brown and attorney and former aldermanic candidate John Kozlar.

Chico accused Mendoza, the only other Hispanic candidate in the race, of being the primary roadblock to the proposal he made during his failed 2011 mayoral campaign: to eliminate the elected offices of city treasurer and city clerk. At the time, Mendoza was Chicago’s city clerk.

“They cost about ten millions bucks-a-year and they don’t do very much. … Susana Mendoza fought me on that and she’s cost us a hundred million bucks,” Chico said.

“And where is she now? She’s in Springfield, I think, in another useless office, to be honest about it. That should be consolidated into the rest of state government, too.”

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