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Fioretti challenges Emanuel to five mayoral debates

Mayoral challenger Bob Fioretti called Thursday for five debates starting before early voting begins for the Feb. 24 mayoral election.

Under Fioretti’s plan, the five debates would include all candidates with at least 5 percent of the vote in public opinion polls.

At least three of the five debates would be televised. One of the debates would take place on the South Side and one on the West Side. One would concentrate on education issues. Another would be devoted to crime issues. One would feature a town hall format.

“This election is pivotal in deciding the future of our city and I look forward to debating the mayor on the issues facing Chicagoans,” Fioretti was quoted as saying in a news release.

“Chicago is demanding leadership that is tough and fair, and that is the direction I intend to take this city in.”

Mayor Rahm Emanuel is sitting on a $10 million-and-counting campaign warchest and plans to formally declare his candidacy at a huge rally Saturday that’s a command performance for elected officials.

In mid-October, the mayor said he planned on waging a “vigorous campaign” for re-election that includes debates with Fioretti, even though the field no longer includes Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis.

When Lewis dropped out of the mayor’s race after having surgery to remove a malignant brain tumor, there was speculation that Emanuel would ignore Fioretti, forsake debates and use his huge fund-raising advantage to rebuild his plummeting popularity with a blitzkrieg of television commercials that have already started running.

But Emanuel told the Chicago Sun-Times Editorial Board then that the speculation is all wrong. The former White House chief of staff will not use a Rose Garden strategy to insulate himself. He was asked specifically if he would debate Fioretti.

County Commissioner Jesus “Chuy” Garcia has since joined the race.

“I’m sure we’ll have debates. And I’m gonna be out there laying out an agenda that people can make a [judgment] on. Part of my responsibility is also to say, `Here’s what we’ve done. Here are the results. Here’s what we’re gonna do’ and we’re gonna have that,” Emanuel said then.

“Campaigns are healthy. So’s holding people accountable when they govern healthy. I plan on doing that and I’m doing it right now.”

But Emanuel sidestepped a question about whether he would voluntarily limit the contributions his campaign takes in, even though the fund-raising caps in the race apparently no longer apply.

“I know you find this shocking,” the mayor said. “But coming up to the budget the only numbers I’ve looked at are what’s in the budget. And then when we get to that period of time, I’ll look at it.”

Earlier this year, a Sun-Times poll showed Emanuel with only 29 percent support among those surveyed and only 8 percent among African-American voters.

Emanuel responded by saying, “Thank God the election is not today.”

He also acknowledged that he has alienated some Chicago voters with his polarizing personal style and would benefit politically from being “smoother around the edges.”

During the Sun-Times interview, the mayor relied heavily on another one of his favorite explanations for his declining popularity: He ran for mayor on a promise to confront vexing problems “swept under the rug” and he’s not about to compromise his principles.

“I didn’t make the decisions I made because I thought they’d be popular for me. If they were, somebody else would have done it. I did it because I think they’re important for the future of the city of Chicago,” he said, apparently referring to his decision to close a record 50 public schools, most of them on the South and West Sides.

The school closings alienated African-American voters. Emanuel made matters worse by opening new charter schools and unveiling plans to build new schools and school additions, with the educational largesse heavily concentrated on the North Side.

That includes a $17 million addition to Walter Payton College Prep and a new, $60 million selective enrollment high school nearby initially named after President Barack Obama, whose 2011 endorsement of his former White House chief-of-staff sealed the deal with black voters.

Emanuel subsequently dropped the name, acknowledging that he “made a mistake” in his “rush to honor” his former boss.

Unable to change the location of the school, black elected officials had focused on the name. They called it an insult because Obama’s professional roots were on the South Side, where First Lady Michelle Obama was born and raised.

The same kind of negative groundswell forced Emanuel to drop like a hot potato his plan to permanently re-name Stony Island Avenue for the late Bishop Arthur Brazier.