Closer look at Emanuel’s debate talking points

The candidates for mayor had their say during the mayoral debate at DuSable Museum, which featured (from left) William “Dock” Walls, Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Bob Fioretti, Jesus “Chuy” Garcia and Willie Wilson.

Photo by William Camargo

The candidates for mayor had their say during the mayoral debate at DuSable Museum, which featured (from left) William “Dock” Walls, Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Bob Fioretti, Jesus “Chuy” Garcia and Willie Wilson.

The mayoral debates are more about performance than substance, and Mayor Rahm Emanuel is a masterful performer.

He has kept his cool, although with four serious candidates representing Chicago’s diversity hitting again and again at his shortcomings, he looked a little worn by the end of Tuesday night’s debate.

Emanuel is an interesting case: an incredibly divisive political leader who is also a masterful campaigner. It’s not surprising, since he came up through the ranks of campaign mechanics, expert in “messaging,” opposition research and especially fundraising.

Judging him as an administrator and manager depends partly on your stance toward his trickle-down philosophy – though his supporters have to overlook some striking realities.

Hearing his talking points rendered faithfully over and over and over – often as a smokescreen for a question he prefers not to answer – you might start to wonder about the truth behind his broad claims.

Yes, he lengthened the school day at Chicago Public Schools. But that was after the Chicago Teachers Union insisted on hiring hundreds of art, music and gym teachers to make sure the time didn’t just go to extra test prep (that happened before the strike, let’s recall), and hundreds of those teachers and scores of librarians have been laid off since then.

Yes, his school board expanded full-day kindergarten to all schools, but it did so without funding for new positions, forcing principals – already facing budget cuts – to increase class sizes and lay off more art teachers and librarians. It’s an education policy that wouldn’t fly at New Trier.

I tried to keep track of candidates who sidestepped questions, and by my reckoning, Emanuel was the only one to do so – and he did it repeatedly.

The big one was whether his fundraising operation amounts to pay to play. The Chicago Tribune has reported that of the 100 individuals who have provided half of Emanuel’s $30 million war chest, most have gotten mayoral favors. Asked several times, Emanuel never directly responded. You’d be forgiven if you concluded that, yes, this is pay to play, on a massive scale.

He didn’t answer when asked about opening scores of charter schools while using the excuse of underenrollment to close neighborhood schools.

When CBS 2 Chicago’s Jay Levine asked why the Obama Library couldn’t be built on land across the street from Washington Park that the University of Chicago owns (I’ve been wondering that myself), he didn’t answer.

He couldn’t explain to Levine why he’s so unpopular, or to Bob Fioretti why community groups objected when his TV commercials claimed credit for work they had done.

When Jesus “Chuy” Garcia asked why he could only list two communities where he has fostered economic development, he responded by talking about one of those communities.

He didn’t have much to say on red-light cameras, trying to spin them as a way to free up police officers. He didn’t have much to say on the issue of violence either, claiming he’s promoted community policing. But relying on cops on overtime plunked into troubled areas is the opposite of community policing.

Willie Wilson had a couple good questions that Emanuel couldn’t answer: Why did he wait until three months before the election to raise the minimum wage? And is he planning to close 50 more schools?

Emanuel pointed to the moratorium on school closings that CPS chief Barbara Byrd-Bennett announced in 2012. But that’s a five-year moratorium; it expires right in the middle of the next mayoral term.

Wilson also pointed out the contradiction in Emanuel’s argument against an elected school board, which is that Chicago schools have elected local school councils. Emanuel has closed 60 neighborhood schools that have LSCs and is on track to open 60 charters without them.

One more area where the mayor’s talking points bear critical examination is on the city’s finances. This is the argument that’s convinced the city’s Editorial Boards that Emanuel has made the tough decisions to address the city’s fiscal woes.

Emanuel said over and over that he inherited a $600 million deficit and he’s passed four balanced budgets without raising property, sales or gas taxes. But the city always projects a big deficit early on, and it always passes a balanced budget (it’s the law). He’s raised water and sewer rates, cigarette and cable taxes, and phone and parking fees. His school board and park district have raised property taxes, too.

He’s also increased the city’s long-term debt burden by $4 billion, using “scoop and toss” bonds to put off principal payments for another generation. And he’s defended harebrained financial schemes like interest rate swaps and “social impact bonds” that will double the cost of providing early-childhood education.

As shown by the McCormick Place project – where final costs are likely to be far higher than the $140 million originally projected – Emanuel has done nothing to reform the TIF program. He boasts about transparency, but you can’t find out what projects “committed funds” are committed to.

Then there’s the pension crisis. According to Emanuel’s supporters, he’s taken this bull by the horns and tamed it, passing pension legislation in Springfield based on what Crain’s calls “a sound approach.”

But is it really? One pension expert calls it a “nonviable” plan – that is, it’s likely to be declared unconstitutional. On the revenue side, it’s questionable whether the City Council will pass the $250 million property-tax hike that Emanuel proposed last summer (and which he hasn’t mentioned lately).

The reality is that the pension debt has gotten bigger every year of Emanuel’s mayoralty. Garcia’s proposal to use the TIF surplus to start paying down the debt would reverse this trend.

Some observers think the path is being paved – particularly with Bruce Rauner in the governor’s office – to engineer a switch from defined benefits plans to 401k-type defined contribution plans. It’s a notion Emanuel talked up early in his mayoralty. It would be bad for retirees and good for the investment firms that are friends of Emanuel and Rauner. But according to a new study of three states that made the switch, it’s not a solution: it can easily increase pension plan costs, and it makes unfunded liabilities far worse.

In Michigan, a state workers’ pension plan was fully funded when the state switched to defined-contribution in 1997; by 2012 the plan had an unfunded liability of $6.2 billion. Retirees were looking at annual benefits averaging $8,200.

The pension debt is a thorny question. Emanuel’s challengers have suggested some revenue options, but mostly – like any politician facing a huge fiscal challenge – they’re keeping their options open. This upsets the city’s Editorial Boards, although it didn’t bother them when Bruce Rauner was campaigning on a program of vague generalities. All three papers – Tribune, Sun-Times and Crain’s – backing Emanuel also endorsed Rauner.

I’m not running for office, so I can say this: it’s going to take money; the property tax has the most revenue potential; Chicago’s rates are relatively low. We should build in some exemptions to shield seniors and moderate-income homeowners.

But for my money, Garcia is spot-on calling for a progressive income tax for the Illinois. The big issue running through all of this is the state’s regressive tax system and its huge overreliance on property taxes to fund schools.

Politically, it’s not going to happen soon. But economically, it’s the only thing that makes sense. We could use a mayor of Chicago who championed the idea. We haven’t had one since Harold Washington.

Ultimately, it’s the only approach that will actually work. Anything else is pie in the sky – unless you believe in the trickle-down tooth fairy.