Some of the leading candidates for mayor sharpened up their best barbs Thursday night to stick it to an absent Bill Daley, then mostly forgot about him in a lively televised debate.
The debate on Fox 32 was supposed to include the “top five” candidates from a poll conducted by the Lincoln Forum, which hosted the event in conjunction with the television station.
But Daley, the former White House chief of staff and U.S. Commerce secretary who has surged into runoff contention in recent weeks, pulled out of the event at the last minute to accept an endorsement from the Plumbers Union Local 130 — his first major labor endorsement of the campaign.
Before the debate even started, the campaigns of both Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle and state Comptroller Susana Mendoza pounced — with Preckwinkle pronouncing Daley “afraid” while a Mendoza spokesman accused him of “running and hiding.”
Once underway, Mendoza welcomed the opportunity to goad Daley, accusing him of losing his cool the previous night when she chided him for never speaking out against former Gov. Bruce Rauner, whose transition team he helped chair, during the long budget stalemate.
“And today he gets one bad story about him, and he wilts like a little flower,” said Mendoza, who has made it her personal mission to test the thickness of his skin.
She was referring to a Chicago Tribune story Thursday resurrecting a 1973 scandal about improprieties involving Daley’s exam to obtain a state insurance license.
Former Chicago Board of Education President Gery Chico couldn’t wait for Mendoza to finish to get in his licks, talking over her as he said: “Look, this is the same person who put out a press release calling for a number of televised forums, and he misses the first one.”
“Yeah!” Mendoza agreed.
As the audience rumbled in agreement, Chico said: “There’s more. You cannot hold yourself up in my opinion to be the mayor of the city of Chicago without facing the voters with your ideas, defending them. … And you avoid this to go to an endorsement?”
Debate moderator Mike Flannery then thanked former schools CEO Paul Vallas for replacing Daley in the debate lineup.
“I always had it envisioned to replace Daley,” quipped Vallas, who served as city budget director under Mayor Richard M. Daley — Bill Daley’s brother — before moving over to run the school system.
“At the end of the day, I’m not surprised he ducked out, and I agree with Susana that when he gets the tough questions, he wilts,” Vallas said.
In defense of Daley’s absence, a campaign spokesman said the former U.S. Commerce secretary has already participated in nine candidate forums and said the plumbers’ endorsement “just came up.”
After the debate switched to other topics, however, Daley was quickly forgotten.
Only Mendoza brought him up again, this time during a discussion of how to fix the city’s finances, saying she thought it was important to remember how the city got into its predicament.
“[Daley’s] nephew, of course, made himself rich after losing $54 million in taxpayer dollars by bad investments in pension funds. So this is the kind of stuff that needs to stop,” she said, a reference to Daley nephew Robert Vanecko.
Even before Daley pulled out, other candidates had complained that Fox 32 was unfairly excluding them from the debate.
A Cook County judge rejected a request Thursday by lawyers for activist Amara Enyia for a preliminary injunction to force the debate organizers to allow her to participate.
The station has scheduled two more events for the other candidates. Flannery said Daley was welcome to attend.
The audience laughed.
But Daley’s campaign said late Thursday that the candidate would accept the invitation and participate in a debate Friday morning at the TV station. Daley will join rivals Amara Enyia, Garry McCarthy, Lori Lightfoot and La Shawn Ford.