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Mayoral debate: Lightfoot wants to talk history, Preckwinkle to trade blows

Mayoral candidates Lori Lightfoot, left, and Toni Preckwinkle, right. File Photos. (Ashlee Rezin/Chicago Sun-Times)

Mayoral candidates Lori Lightfoot, left, and Toni Preckwinkle, right. File Photos. (Ashlee Rezin/Chicago Sun-Times)

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle may have done a strategic retreat by pulling the plug on her TV commercials, but she wasn’t surrendering the airwaves Wednesday during a live televised debate with mayoral frontrunner Lori Lightfoot.

Both candidates chose to characterize themselves as change agents during the hour-long ABC7 debate, but Preckwinkle portrayed Lightfoot as a former corporate lawyer, more interested in earning big bucks for Mayer Brown than public service.

And when it came time to question one another, Preckwinkle cast Lightfoot as inexperienced, asking the former Police Board president what was the largest budget she ever managed.

Lightfoot, who has enjoyed a parade of endorsements since finishing first in the February election, sought to act more in the role of frontrunner, using the opportunity to toss Preckwinkle a softball about what the historic nature of the election meant to her.

But the former history teacher didn’t come to talk history.

“Let me just say [bringing change], that’s hard work, resolve isn’t good enough, it takes patience and courage to do this work, and let me just say while I was transforming our health care system, increasing access and improving the quality of care, my opponent was working for a law firm that defends tobacco companies and polluters,” Preckwinkle said.

Noting that Preckwinkle didn’t answer the question, Lightfoot responded, “I hope that this campaign and the fact that one of us as African-American women is going to be the next mayor of the city, it really gives hope to young girls that are out there, and young men that are out there, that anything is possible if you actually have the opportunity and … use it as a ladder up.”

As for budgets, Lightfoot argued she’s been responsible for budgets at the police department, at the Office of Emergency Management and Communications, a $2 billion plus budget at the city’s procurement department as well as small businesses, though she said “what I think is most important is not about our resume, it’s about our resolve — it’s about our resolve to form a city that is inclusive, that is responsive … and doing everything it can to move people forward.”

Throughout the debate, Lightfoot characterized the election as a choice between change and the status quo, while Preckwinkle chose to characterize the race as one that pits lip-service about change versus experience.

After the debate, Preckwinkle sought to set the record straight, characterizing her opponent as “the ultimate insider” because of Lightfoot’s appointments from Mayors Richard M. Daley and Rahm Emanuel.

“I think it’s really important that we understand that we had two very different paths to get to this point,” Preckwinkle said. “I think the magnitude of her misunderstanding of change and the difficulty in making change is her comment that ‘change is easy.’ Nobody who’s ever worked in government and tried to make change believes that. Change is difficult … and the idea that you would suggest that change is easy is just a manifestation of how little you understand about how government works.”

In her post-debate discussion with reporters, Lightfoot said “if we’re going to talk about her experience, let’s talk about the fact that we’ve had the largest tax increases under the last eight years of Toni Preckwinkle’s leadership in the county.”

“The sales tax alone makes us an outlier across the nation, the fact that she tried to shove down the throats of voters the sugar tax … so if we’re going to talk about records and her experience, let’s talk about that,” Lightfoot said.

Over the weekend, Lightfoot bagged the endorsement of her former mayoral opponent Jerry Joyce and Preckwinkle’s former floor leader, U.S. Rep. Jesus “Chuy” Garcia. Before that, Lightfoot also got the nod from Ald. Matt O’Shea (19th) and former mayoral challengers Willie Wilson, CPS CEO Paul Vallas and former CPS Board President Gery Chico.

And the Chicago Sun-Times first reported on Monday that Preckwinkle was “going dark,” pulling her TV ads. On Tuesday, Preckwinkle would only say, “We’re making strategic decisions to put us in the best place to win this campaign.”

But despite all that, Preckwinkle said she wasn’t on the attack Wednesday night.

“I think it’s very important that voters understand that there are profound differences between us given the fact that this is a historic election between two African-American women.”