Last night's ABC-7's Chicago Mayoral election candidate forum sponsored by the League of Women voters and multiple other organizations followed the pattern of this campaign and the other televised debates. Early last fall, the candidates seemed to agree that the primary issues were education, public safety and Chicago's budget and finance issues, including spending, taxes and most importantly Chicago's underfunded city employee pensions and pension reform. The top two candidates (Rahm Emanuel and Gery Chico) started developing some detailed position papers, especially on education. However, they probably realized that although this perhaps gave them more credibility with the media, position papers were not all that important.
Kingmakers: Obama, Daley and Clinton
What was important was that Rahm Emanuel had the tacit support of President Obama and Mayor Daley and the explicit support of President Clinton. Daley still has the strength among Black, White and Hispanic pols and civic and community leaders to give a powerful boost to anyone he taps (even quietly) as a favored candidate. These leaders like to go with winners, as they know they will be rewarded if they get on the train early.
Rahm Emanuel, in the lead from the start
Further, as a big time national fundraiser for Presidents and others, everybody knew that Rahm would be in a league of his own in that area. That would mean that Rahm would have a commanding TV and organizational dominance, for a long part of the campaign. That has happened, to the tune of 12 million dollars that he has raised. Rahm would have a simple and effective message, which he would re-enforce on TV, radio, print and web and at the train, bus, employer, neighborhood stops throughout the city. Quality education, safe streets, plentiful jobs and stable city finance (fix those employee pensions). That has all happened. He would have a well-oiled organization, building on his base and experience as a 5th CD congressman and White House Chief of Staff. He recruited pros from the Obama White House and others from his congressional experience.
Gery Chico, in the wings as No. 2
It is hard to go up against all that money, organization, message, talent and broad based civic, community and political support. Gery Chico, with his vast City of Chicago experience, including Daley Chief of Staff and President of the Chicago Board of Education, Parks and City Colleges, his own influential union contacts and the support of the long time, powerful Chairman of the City Council Finance Committee, Ed Burke, a number of Hispanic leaders, some Black leaders and many in the white community, would give it a shot as the No. 2. Also, raising 2.5 million dollars made Gery somewhat competitive.
Carol Moseley-Braun, a disappointing No. 3 or No. 4
There are those who thought Carol Moseley-Braun, if she become the consensus Black candidate and if she could pull together her women's movement from her 1992 U. S. Senate election win, would have a shot at No. 2 in the February 22 election and then maybe winning in the run-off. However, Carol had little money, less organization and even less of a message, and had a lot of baggage. Moreover, she kept making the wrong statements at the wrong time. It is almost as if she took a dive.
Chicago Tribune columnist John Kass and PR expert and pundit Thom Serafin tell us there are no coincidences in Chicago politics. Rahm needed the Black candidate to implode in order to win without a run-off and Carol did implode. Well, perhaps Rahm is just lucky. Or, maybe Carol is part of Kass' Daley-Ryan Combine, that powerful combination of government and private sector personalities who combine to benefit from the use of government power for private gain. But, what do we call the Combine now that George Ryan is behind bars and Mayor Daley is just three months away from his last hurrah.
Miguel del Valle, hard to compete without money, could be No. 3
Miguel del Valle is a serious, sincere, apparently honest candidate, having been a State Legislator for two decades. His problem is that he can't (says he doesn't want to) raise serious money. Without that money, it is hard to put together a serious organization and message, no matter how many volunteers he can attract. He also is splitting the Hispanic base with Chico-- and Emanuel is winning, or is almost winning, a plurality of the Hispanic votes. Further, despite being City Clerk, del Valle has insufficient appeal outside the Hispanic community to get in the run-off.
Originally, there were twenty candidates for Mayor of Chicago. Fourteen were removed by challenge or dropped out. That left the current six. Patricia van Pelt-Watkins and Dock Walls have insuffient money, organization or message to be serious candidates and have been permitted to participate in only one of the televised debates with the other four candidates. Polls have them at one or two per cent. Although, it should be noted that Watkins has outraised Braun, at last count, and she did hurt Braun by eliciting one of Carol's inaccurate and inappropriate comments.
An unforced error by the Chico campaign?
Jim Sweeney, a union leader and Chico supporter, called Rahm Emanuel a Wall St. Judas for supporting NAFTA in exchange for bags of silver. The comment led to allegations of anti-Semitism and gave Mayor Daley an opportunity to show his support for Rahm even more explicitly than he has done before. Sweeney has stood by the comment and Chico has supported Sweeney.
Of course, as Chico argued, Sweeney may have only meant to call Rahm a traitor to working people for supporting, along with his boss Bill Clinton, NAFTA. But, it is doubtful that the choice of words makes it easier for Chico to draw votes from Emanuel, without losing any to him, before Tuesday, and that has to be the goal of the Chico campaign now, with polls showing Emanuel either closing in or exceeding 50%, with Chico a distant second at twenty per cent. The word "traitor," probably would have sufficed to draw those who believe NAFTA destroyed jobs, rather than created them, to vote for Chico.
Last Night's ABC-7 Debate, did Chico move the needle?
None of this changed at last night's debate. On the key issue of education, Paula Gomez of Univision asked a question that took Charter schools off the table. So, everybody, including Chico and Emanuel talked about the need to lengthen the school day. On charters and the school choice issue in general, where there are some significant differences between Chico and Rahm, you didn't hear about it last night. Advantage, Rahm, since Chico is the guy who has to score.
On the much discussed Rahm proposed decrease in and expansion of the sales tax to services, the debate perhaps advanced Chico's arguments that Rahm has misrepresented the gains to moderate income voters of the sales tax cut and that Rahm is raising taxes (on services) at the wrong time. But, there wasn't enough here to paint Rahm as a tax increaser and to move the needle much for Chico.
On the issue of public safety, the candidates generally clamored for more gun control. Further, to the extent there were differences, they were not of sufficient magnitude to pry votes away from Emanuel. Again, advantage Rahm, no movement of the needle.
On the important issue of pension reform, at one point in the campaign, it was Rahm who was taking the lead, in suggesting or implying that a decrease in city employee benefits or an increase in city employee pension contributions had to be made to avoid a 90% increases in property taxes. Chico, Braun and del Valle seemed to make it clear that they would not take away anything from current city employees. Last night, Rahm mushed it up some to make his position more ambiguous. That might help Rahm with city employees but might hurt Rahm with taxpayers who think the City needs someone tough enough to stand up to the public sector unions on pensions. That might be disadvantage Rahm, especially if Chico can find the money and message to portray Rahm as an equivocator. But, then again, Chico has his own mushiness on this issue to defend.
There were a range of issues raised last night as to Rahm voting against the Black congressional caucus, blocking comprehensive immigration reform as a Congressman and White House Chief of Staff, whether he legitimatelyearned18 million dollars in three years in the private sector as an investment banker and whether he should have done more to prevent the housing crisis as a Freddie Mac Board member. Obviously, these issues were raised to try to dent Rahm's strong performance with Black, Hispanic and ethics focused voters, respectively. For each, Rahm had a response. Although, the forum was broadcast live at 7:00 pm on ABC-7, each of those issues will require an effective TV or radio ad to take it home to voters. Unless that happens, and Chico is the only one with possible money to do it, there was only a slight disadvantage to Rahm from the hammering he took on these issues.
In short, last night's debate illustrates how hard it is to take on City Hall. City hall is Daley, Clinton, Obama, 12 million dollars, an experienced behind the scenes city and national political player, an experienced, federal office-holder and someone who seems to know everybody who is important to this race and has the ability to get many to help him elected. Something could happen to derail Rahm at this point. But, that is not a bet anybody would make without substantial odds. And, last night's debate surely did little to reverse Rahm's six-month march toward the 5th Floor of City Hall.
What if a free market Republican had entered the Mayor's race?
Finally, given the homogeneous and often mushy positions taken by the top four Chicago candidates for Mayor, you are left wondering if a Republican candidate who took strong, clear, free market, pro growth, true reform positions on education, public safety, taxes, spending and pension reform could have earned 25% of the vote, even in Chicago, and maybe jumped into the run-off and then you never know. Perhaps somebody like Ron Gidwitz. One thing is for sure. The intellectual content of the debate would have been quite different and certainly more diverse.