In a tight, four-person race, the Democratic candidates for president of the Cook County Board took a cautious approach to Thursday's debate at WLS-TV Channel 7 in downtown Chicago.
In the 30-minute session, which ran online and on a second-tier digital channel opposite the college football national championship game but will air on tape at 10:30 a.m. Sunday on Channel 7, they sought mainly to present themselves as viable candidates, and avoided any charges or countercharges - until an after-hours news conference.
Most stuck to their previously tailored messages. Incumbent Todd Stroger insisted the county government is in solid shape thanks to his "good, fiscally sound public policy" and that the sales-tax increase he pushed through was necessary "to keep our business running."
Metropolitan Water Reclamation District President Terrence O'Brien trumpeted his record running that agency, where employees "are hired for what they know, not who they know." He said voters are "desperate for change" and "fed up with the tax-and-spend attitude."
Clerk of the Circuit Court Dorothy Brown said, "I believe in news ideas, not new taxes," such as improved information technology and a proposed task force to find new sources of revenue. She insisted she is the only "proven leader" among the candidates.
Chicago Alderman Toni Preckwinkle set herself apart by going off on more free-flowing answers that sometimes left the actual questions behind but hit the county's "patronage hiring" and said it has to become instead "a catalyst for economic development."
The format for the debate, sponsored by the League of Women Voters and Better Government Association, and moderated by Channel 7 political reporter Charles Thomas, allowed little back and forth between the candidates, who basically tried to make themselves seem appealing.
Only afterward did the gloves come off a little, with both Stroger and Preckwinkle taking shots at O'Brien, who has recently raised his profile with TV ads, while Brown insisted she won the debate by offering more "specific ideas."
Pointing out the county has held the line on its property tax levy for decades, Stroger said the MWRD had raised its tax levy $300 million since 2007.
"I don't know where you get that figure," O'Brien replied, adding the agency had upped its levy only $9 million in the last year.
Preckwinkle, meanwhile, brandished her endorsement Thursday by the Sierra Club, in direct opposition to O'Brien's clean-water TV ad campaign, while citing his ownership stake in the K-Plus company, which she said "represents some of the biggest polluters in the state."
Still, O'Brien had it right when he called the debate "very important" as the challengers try to up their name recognition, while Stroger tries to defend his record. "It's going to be left up to the voters on Feb. 2 as to see who's actually the winner," he concluded.