Inside the Mayoral Debate

By Kevin Robinson in News on Jan 28, 2011 2:06PM

Last night I was in the media pool for the Tribune/City Club of Chicago mayoral debate. The first time I covered one of these events, I had raised, possibly delusional expectations: I imagined grabbing my press pass and heading to the edge of the dais as Barack Obama gave his first speech to Chicago as a presidential candidate, camera in hand, rubbing shoulders with reporters from Politico and the New York Times. The rubbing shoulders part was right - I was herded over to a platform with the rest of the press as we were shoehorned in and told that we couldn't leave the area we were in. The mayoral debate was no different.

As I walked to the WGN studios on the North side, I passed an agitated group of Patricia Van Pelt-Watkins supporters, marching the sidewalk in a single-file line as they called for equal time through a bullhorn. Across the street, a group of about 20 high school-aged people held "Rahm for Chicago" signs, both official and hand made, cheering. Heading past the media vans and into the studio, I was stopped by a Tribune security guard who radioed to make sure I was on the list of approved media guests. After a helpful City Club of Chicago showed me to the coat check and escorted me to the press area, I took my seat. Perhaps naively, I was expecting to be seated in a section on the debate floor with a good view of the candidates. Instead, we were ushered into a studio off to the side and seated in front of a large television set, in front of two studio television cameras. It was here that we would watch the live feed of the debate, just like being at home, sans the comfy sofa and six-pack of Old Style.

If the candidates seemed subdued at the WTTW forum hosted by the Mikva challenge, they came out swinging on WGN. Evening News anchor Micah Materre started the questioning with Gery Chico. Chico quickly pivoted away from the opening question, however, hitting Emanuel on his proposal to broaden the city sales tax on services that he claims would impact working Chicagoans more than wealthy residents. That set the tone for the evening, as each candidate alternated between attacking Emanuel and pitching themselves as the best choice for mayor of Chicago.

After the debate, each candidate was brought into the press studio separately and we were given five minutes to ask questions. Del Valle went first, hitting on his campaign theme of reform and grassroots change from the neighborhoods, followed by Chico, who stuck to his talking points of Emanuel's tax increase and the need to fundamentally reform the way the city manages its budget. When Emanuel came to the podium, CBS2's Jay Levine and FOX 32's Mike Flannery peppered the candidate with questions, mostly on Chico's tax allegations and the consequences of the day's ballot access ruling by the state supreme court. I managed to get a question in, asking Rahm why he had avoided so many mayoral forums. True to form for a man trained in professional dancing, Emanuel tap danced around the question, citing all the time he had spent at L stops and supermarkets, shaking hands and talking to regular Chicagoans, while avoiding a direct answer. He also noted that he's held press conferences and talked to the press, and appeared at official mayoral debates such as last night's. He noted that he's been available to the press to answer questions at these events, and will continue to do so. "Which I am enjoying," he said, looking me square in the eye before moving on to another question.

Carol Moseley Braun went last and offered what was possibly the most bizarre moment of the evening. During the debate, she told the audience about being shot at on 87th street, her staff holding her down on the floor of her car as they drove away. Skeptical, the present media asked her to describe the event. She hesitated before being asked what the intersection was and if it took place in broad daylight. She stammered that it was during the day, and her staff piped in to try and describe the scene and the intersection before someone asked her another question and moved the presser on from the odd claim that she had been shot at.

As I walked out of the studio, I found a WGN staffer and asked the question that we were all wondering: what was normally shot in the studio we were seated in? It was the old Bozo Show studio I was told, now used to draw the nightly Lottery numbers. In a way, that seemed to be the most telling part of the evening. Chicago's media was seated in the studio where a classic part of Chicago history was recorded, now used to peddle the dream of financial freedom to those of us in Illinois willing to buy a ticket, hoping that our number may indeed come up this time.