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Emanuel goes on the attack in first of five mayoral debates

Mayor Rahm Emanuel. | AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast, File

Mayor Rahm Emanuel went after his two strongest challengers Tuesday for their past support for a 1980s property tax hike, a tax-increment-financing subsidy for the Chicago Mercantile Exchange and the widely despised deal that privatized Chicago parking meters.

It was the first of five debates crammed into the final month of the mayoral campaign, and Emanuel was determined not to be a political piñata.

Instead, he fended off attacks by playing the role of the aggressor — twice against Ald. Bob Fioretti (2nd) and once against County Commissioner Jesus “Chuy” Garcia.

One of the mayor’s offensives dredged up a vote cast 30 years ago.

That’s when Garcia, winner of a special aldermanic election that gave then-Mayor Harold Washington control over the City Council, supported the largest property tax increase in Chicago history.

Garcia was ready for the property tax broadside, floated for the first time last week by the CEO of the super-PAC created to re-elect Emanuel and his City Council allies.

Emanuel repeated the line after Garcia came after him for putting his hand into the pockets of Chicago taxpayers and keeping it there for the last four years.

“People in Chicago feel that they have been nickel-and-dimed, fee-ed and taxed — the equivalent of a 60 percent property tax increase when you factor in everything that has happened. All the penalties. Constant,” Garcia said.

“People are at a breaking point in the city of Chicago because you have relied on a regressive system of fining people, taxing them. Red-light cameras. Speed cameras. On and on.”

Emanuel shot back, “You increased the property taxes to the largest amount ever with your vote.”

Garcia parried, “Here we go. Taking a vote from 30 years ago when we ended Council Wars, when we beat the Vrdolyak 29. We carried a deficit of $80 million from Jane Byrne. We were gonna lay off 11,000 city employees, including 5,000 policemen. I did the right thing . . . the responsible thing, which was to keep vital services and personnel, first-responders on the payroll by taking a tough vote.”

Garcia argued that the vote he cast in the 1980s “pales in comparison to the $700 million that you’ve increased over the past four years, Mr. Mayor.”

And Garcia noted that U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Chicago), who is now serving as co-chairman of Emanuel’s re-election campaign, also cast a vote in favor of that same record property tax increase.

Emanuel stood his ground, arguing that Garcia was singing the same tune on the day he announced his candidacy for mayor.

“You then said, ‘All taxes are on the table.’ What you’ve done is always go to tax first, reform last. I’ve reversed the order,” the mayor said.

The mayor’s attack on Fioretti was also an instant replay.

Last year, the Sun-Times reported that Fioretti’s plan to rein in TIF subsidies to big business and impose a financial transaction tax on La Salle Street exchanges runs contrary to the stand he took in 2009.

That’s when Fioretti wrote a letter urging the city to grant the $15 million TIF subsidy needed to “retain and expand the employment base” provided by the Chicago Mercantile Exchange.

On Tuesday, Emanuel raised the issue to counter Fioretti’s claim that it’s time to rein in TIF subsidies that Emanuel has doled out too generously, eviscerating the tax base of the Chicago Public Schools.

“Bob, I appreciate your comments. But you know when it came to TIFs and downtown, you wrote a letter on behalf of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange getting a TIF for . . . $15 million,” Emanuel said.

Fioretti said the TIF subsidy he supported for the Merc was justified.

“When I met with the board then, they were going to be leaving. It wasn’t a joke. It wasn’t a joke. And we did what we needed to keep” them, Fioretti said.

Emanuel then came after Fioretti on the vote he cast in favor of then-Mayor Richard M. Daley’s plan to privatize Chicago parking meters for 75 years in exchange for lump-sum, $1.15 billion upfront payment.

“You not only voted for it. You spoke out in favor of it. It was probably one of the worst transactions ever done for the city of Chicago. I want to know what you were thinking at that time to vote in favor of a parking meter deal that I had to change and squeeze a little lemon juice out of a real bad lemon,” Emanuel said.

Fioretti countered, “While you were busy raising money for the Daley administration, we spent 4 1/2 hours the day before Thanksgiving to talk about the deal. I was assured we were gonna be able to raise rates ourselves, lower rates, put in meters and take out meters. No financial consequences to the city. It appears, either they didn’t know what they were talking about or they misrepresented the deal.”

The aldermen noted that was the only Daley budget he ever supported.

“We were at a cliff. . . . We had to vote to [fill] a $150 million hole. And I said on the floor that day that, if were gonna spend the money in more than a year, I wouldn’t be voting for it,” Fioretti said.

Tuesday’s debate comes one day after Fioretti argued that Emanuel “failed us again” by not filing any charges in the assault on the mayor’s 17-year-old son.

The surprise attack was never mentioned — by either Emanuel or Fioretti.

The alderman was the last person to arrive at the debate in the editorial board room of the Chicago Tribune. When he did, Emanuel shook Fioretti’s hand coldly, a sharp contrast to the smiling small talk the mayor exchanged with his other challengers — Garcia, millionaire businessman Willie Wilson and community activist William “Dock” Walls.

The only other awkward moment came when Wilson asked Emanuel if he would like to apologize for challenging Wilson’s nominating petitions.

That’s a move that, Wilson claimed, threatened to disenfranchise 47,000 voters who signed those petitions, most of them African-American.

“Well, Willie, we all meet a standard. You could have challenged me. That said, I dropped it. That’s why you’re a candidate. That’s why you’re also here,” the mayor said.

Here’s a recap:

The Sun-Times Editorial Board endorsement session is on Friday.