Garcia puts Emanuel on his heels in second mayoral debate

Mayoral challenger Jesus “Chuy” Garcia came out smoking Thursday, putting Mayor Rahm Emanuel on his heels in their second debate for presiding over a government by fiat and press release that is “out of touch” with the priorities of everyday Chicagoans.

From the red-light cameras he has vowed to eliminate to the appointed school board “riddled with conflicts of interest” that he has vowed to replace with an elected school board, Garcia portrayed himself as a champion of the neighborhoods with his finger on the pulse of everyday Chicagoans.

RELATED: Emanuel, Garcia address black community’s issues at Chicago State forum

The clear-cut aggressor in their second debate, Garcia even flattened Emanuel when the mayor tried to claim credit — as he did in one of his earliest campaign commercials — for a landmark achievement in Garcia’s backyard.

“Let’s take the neighborhood of Little Village that Chuy’s represented for 30 years. Working with community leaders, I finally closed the coal plant that was there spewing pollution,” Emanuel said during the debate on Fox32 Chicago.

Garcia was so incensed by Emanuel’s attempt to claim credit, he literally laughed out loud.

“You single-handedly closed it? People worked on it for 10 years before you were ever elected. You were still in Washington,” Garcia said.

“Before the mayor ever moved into Chicago right before he ran for mayor, people worked in Little Village in Pilsen and in Canaryville and Bridgeport to close the coal-burning plants. They protested. They testified. They signed petitions. . . . The park that he claims credit for? He’s claiming credit because he got to go and cut a ribbon. That’s not how you build communities in Chicago. He’s grandstanding. He’s trying to claim credit for work that he didn’t do.”

Emanuel countered, “I haven’t interrupted you. Let me just try to finish. . . . The Sierra Club has endorsed my candidacy because I actually working with community leaders finally shut those coal plants down. The 22 acres is a density area. There’s no open space. We created a park that people talked about and got the work done. Part of being mayor is getting the resources to finish the job and help a neighborhood become thriving by investing in parks, schools libraries and the transportation system so you have the foundation for a vibrant community.”

Instead of playing defense on his shifting position on the issue of building Barack Obama’s presidential library on South Side parkland, Garcia played offense on what he called Emanuel’s “monument to Darth Vader” plan to give movie mogul George Lucas 17 acres of free lakefront land to build an interactive museum.

“He’s the mayor of Chicago — not the king of the city. You can’t do it by fiat. The communities have not weighed in. If you want to put it there, ask the voters,” Garcia said.

In the first of three runoff debates, it was Emanuel who was on the offensive. He portrayed himself as a man with a plan to solve the city’s $20 billion pension crisis and ridiculed Garcia for punting the desperate need for new revenues to a commission that would report back 90 days after the election — after the Illinois General Assembly had already adjourned its spring session.

On Thursday, it was a far more confident, more energized Garcia who took it to Emanuel. The challenger pummeled the incumbent on everything from Emanuel’s decision to close mental health clinics and defend red-light cameras to what he called Emanuel’s decision to “insult and try to break” the teachers union, provoking Chicago’s first teachers strike in 25 years.

Emanuel didn’t play offense until he got a chance to question Garcia directly. The mayor talked about the three things he has done to challenge his wealthy contributors: by raising the minimum wage, imposing hefty fees used to build affordable house and closing the skybox loophole. Then he turned to Garcia.

“The Service Employees Union is your largest contributor. Name three things you would say ‘no’ to them about. Being mayor requires you to tell your friends, ‘no,’ ” Emanuel said.

Garcia stood toe-to-toe with Emanuel.

“Rahm. Mr. Rahm. Given the state of affairs you have put the city in — the fiscal free-fall — I’m gonna tell the unions a lot of bad news because the situation is so dire. Who’s going to be upset? Probably the unions who are supporting me now,” Garcia said.

After the debate, a triumphant Garcia bounded into the press room to explain why his demeanor has changed and his confidence has grown.

“The vibe of people across the city of Chicago has been inspirational to me. . . . People are excited that there’s a runoff. . . . They’re celebrating democracy and that’s contagious. Democracy is alive and well in Chicago and I’m being quite celebratory about it,” he said.

Emanuel countered, “Attacking somebody is not an agenda to attack the challenges facing the people of Chicago. What I’ve done is attack the challenges — making sure they have good schools, making sure our kids have pre-K. Making sure that we have an agenda for raising the minimum wage. That is an affirmative agenda that builds a future. Attacks don’t mask — and I think people will see through that. You can attack me. I’m more interested in attacking the challenges people face.”

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