Mayoral challenger Jesus Chuy Garcia tells skeptical reporters that he really does have a financial plan for the city.
  • Christian K. Lee / For Sun-Times Media
  • Mayoral challenger Jesus “Chuy” Garcia tells skeptical reporters that he really does have a financial plan for the city.

Challenger Jesus “Chuy” Garcia faced a roomful of reporters and camera crews Friday morning to prove that he’s ready to be mayor.

Officially it was just another press conference in a seemingly endless stream of them before the April 7 runoff election. But Garcia called this one to present his long-promised plan to deal with the city’s financial mess, which is widely considered the most pressing issue facing the next mayor.

It’s also a subject guaranteed to put most voters to sleep in minutes. Yet there was an air of tension in the room as Garcia began to read from a prepared statement: “Our approach to our fiscal challenges as a city calls for a sweeping restructuring of the city’s budget process . . .”

Garcia has come this far by stressing that he’s not the guy known as Mayor Rahm Emanuel, which was a sound campaign strategy in the first round of balloting.

But he’s been vague about what he’d do about annual budget deficits and $20 billion in unfunded pension obligations. Emanuel and his allies have hammered the point, portraying Garcia’s squishiness as evidence that he’s not mayoral material. In other words, it’s better to have an arrogant prick in power than someone who could let Chicago become Detroit.

Unlike the mayor, Garcia doesn’t have millions of dollars from wealthy donors to put his campaign narrative all over the airwaves. Garcia is a county commissioner who’s trying to get the attention of many voters for the first time, and he needs the media to help him do it.

There’s also the fact that when you’re running for office, voters usually want to know what you plan to do. Usually.

So it was an important moment for Garcia. Before discussing his plans, though, Garcia wanted to make a few points about Emanuel.

“This administration has used gimmicks to cover costs,” he said, referring to red-light cameras and other fines and fees. “That approach is unsustainable.”

In fact, Garcia had quite a few things to say about Rahm, starting with how he’s added to the city’s debt, put off pension payments, and seen bond ratings drop. It’s not a reassuring list, and Garcia returned to it as often as possible.

Fixing the city’s finances “requires significant reform,” Garcia said.

He pledged to perform audits of each city department to look for efficiencies. He’d also look at reforming the tax increment financing program and merge some city administration with those of the Chicago Public Schools, the Park District, and the City Colleges to find more savings. At the same time, he would somehow find more resources to invest in neighborhoods.

Garcia had finance experts and Alderman Scott Waguespack, a good-government advocate, there to back him up.

It all had a familiar ring to it—perhaps because Garcia’s statement was almost exactly what he’d written in an op-ed published in the Tribune earlier that morning.

Or maybe it’s because the plan was similar to what Emanuel promised when he was first campaigning four years ago: a “forensic audit,” TIF reform, and operational efficiencies.

Or maybe Garcia is sticking to the standard political playbook because he doesn’t want to come out and say what everyone knows: whoever is elected mayor is going to raise taxes.

He and Emanuel actually agree on that strategy.

Last year the mayor chose to borrow $900 million more and put off a tax hike until after the election. For the last couple weeks he’s been busy raising questions about Garcia and ripping Governor Bruce Rauner for proposing steep cuts in aid to cities and social services.

Only when reporters pressed him did Emanuel almost admit that he’s going to raise taxes if he stays in office—but even then he kept saying that he’s focused on cutting waste. “Reform and revenue are both part of the equation,” he said last week.

Similarly, Garcia danced as long as he could Friday morning. Eventually, after the press corps began shouting questions at him about potential tax hikes, he acknowledged that “additional and new revenues” would probably be needed.

As for the details, “I will rely on the recommendations made by experts in the field as soon as I’m elected.”

That’s called punting. Garcia then went back to the time-tested strategy of shifting the subject to his opponent. “Look at the financial free fall this administration has brought us,” he said.

Who says he doesn’t have the stuff to be mayor?