Mayoral Race Heats Up

City’s Credit Rating, Obama Library Become Focus of Race

A new poll has Mayor Rahm Emanuel and challenger Jesús "Chuy" García locked in a dead heat. This, as the race to land the Obama Presidential Library and news of the city's downgraded credit rating take center stage in the increasingly heated mayoral campaign.

The poll concludes Emanuel and García are likely even as this runoff season begins, despite Emanuel’s hefty money advantage and the power of incumbency.

It has Emanuel with around 43 percent, García with 38.5 percent, with 18 percent undecided. But, the pollster says that Hispanics are historically underrepresented in these polls, and adjusting for that, the race is a dead heat and too close to call.

The pollster, Ogden & Fry, had been tracking the initial mayor’s race every week and predicted correctly that Emanuel would be forced into a runoff.

Today, Emanuel shrugged off questions of the new poll and stayed on his message.

“This is about a choice between two candidates,” Emanuel said. “About who has the leadership and perseverance and plans to meet our challenges head on and seize the opportunities for the city of Chicago.”

Chicago’s Bond Rating

Meanwhile, Moody’s dropped the city’s credit down to Baa2 – two levels above junk status – which means higher borrowing costs. And, the credit rating agency says the future looks even worse, citing the city’s massive pension ticking time bomb.

“The negative outlook reflects our expectation that the city's credit quality could weaken as unfunded pension liabilities grow and exert increased pressure on the city's operating budget. We expect substantial growth in unfunded pension liabilities even if the city's recent pension reforms survive an ongoing legal challenge.”

Candidate García has stayed silent about specifics to solve the pension crisis, and his campaign has been largely funded by public employee unions that would be impacted by any pension changes. Asked if the bleak credit news would mean cuts to employee pensions, García said he was still studying the issue.

“It’s going to take a host of things to look at,” García said. “We’re taking a step back to look at all the financial implications of where we are. I can’t make any specific commitments right now; we’re consulting with municipal experts. We’re doing our homework. It’s not good news for the city of Chicago but it speaks to poor stewardship over the past four years.”

Meanwhile, Republican U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk weighed in on the race and credit rating, saying he felt Chicago could go the way of bankrupt Detroit if it doesn’t re-elect Emanuel.

“None of [the other candidates] could command the respect of the bond market. The collapse of Chicago debt, which already happened with Detroit, could soon follow if someone inexperienced followed Rahm,” said Kirk.

Kirk, García, and Emanuel made their comments at the Polish American Museum today celebrating Casmir Pulaski Day.

Obama Library

The controversy over where to locate a potential Obama Presidential Library has also provided for heated rhetoric between the candidates. García has drawn fire from the Emanuel campaign for saying he wanted the library in Chicago, just not in parkland on the south side as has been proposed by the The University of Chicago.

This weekend, the Chicago Forward PAC, the action committee closely aligned with Emanuel, sent automated phone calls to residents implying that García’s position meant the city would lose the library to New York – and asked them whether they supported the U of C’s library proposal. That committee’s head says 90 percent of respondents said yes.

García today backed off of his previous stance to keep the library out of Chicago’s parks.

“I have been consistent and unwavering in my support for the presidential library to come to Chicago,” he said. “It appears that there are two sites left, the south side and west side site. Whatever the final decision is made by the selection committee and President Obama, I will support.”

When asked to clarify his remarks to mean that he’d now support the library within public parkland, García responded: “You heard what I said.”

It is hard to ignore race as a subtext in the back and forth on this issue. The mayor and García are focused in on winning support from the African-American community and courting the endorsement of former candidate Willie Wilson.