When Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Cook County Commissioner Jesus “Chuy” Garcia faced off Tuesday in their final mayoral runoff debate, it was the event's moderator, rather than either candidate, who found himself in the middle of the story.
About midway through the televised debate, moderator Phil Ponce of local PBS affiliate WTTW asked Garcia about his 31-year-old son’s arrest record, which includes charges of felony aggravated assault and aggravated battery to a police officer, along with allegations of gang ties.
“Is he still a gang member?” Ponce asked.
Garcia responded by noting that gang activity is one challenge facing the neighborhood in which his family lives. He acknowledged that his son had “made some mistakes” he's learned from and has “turned his life around” by mentoring youth in the community.
But Ponce pressed again, asking if his son was still in a gang.
At that point, Emanuel, who has previously objected to journalists asking questions about his children, interjected and said he felt the line of questioning was unfair, drawing applause from the audience.
But Ponce continued, asking "If you can’t keep your own son out of a gang, how can you steer the city away from gangs and violence?” The question was met with a loud chorus of jeers.
After Garcia said his son’s struggles “deepen my resolve and my wife’s resolve” to remain in their neighborhood and to continue to work to improve it, Ponce repeated his question again.
Again Garcia spoke of his son's youth mentoring work, adding, "It’s a great story, Phil. I’d like to introduce him to you.”
In an interview with The Huffington Post, Ponce defended the line of questioning given that the topic had already been addressed in multiple stories by the Chicago Sun-Times and other media outlets, but had not come up during the previous debates in the race.
“I do think it’s relevant to know if the future mayor of Chicago has a son that is a member of a gang,” Ponce said. “I think it is an intuitive question in the minds of a lot of voters. I felt there was a void of coverage of that topic, and so we saw that as an opportunity to address it.”
Critics of Ponce’s questioning have responded vocally. Through Wednesday afternoon, a MoveOn.org petition calling for Ponce to be fired from WTTW over his handling of the debate had been signed over 1,100 times. (MoveOn.org members in Chicago endorsed Garcia in the mayoral race.)
Chicago Tribune editorial board member Kristen McQueary wrote that while she recognized that politicians’ children with legal troubles were fair game for coverage, she believed Ponce “crossed a line” during the exchange. And on ChicagoNow's "Chicanisima Chicago" column, blogger Teresa Puente was also critical of Ponce, calling him the “loser” of the debate.
Ponce said he believed in viewers’ freedom of speech to express their displeasure with the debate.
“I see why people are upset,” he said. “On the other hand, my job is to ask tough questions, even questions that result in awkwardness. Our job is also to listen to feedback. I’m thankful and it’s always interesting to hear what people have to say.”
A WTTW spokeswoman further noted that Ponce will further address the controversy during Wednesday evening’s “Chicago Tonight” program.
For his part, Garcia said after the debate that he did not object to Ponce’s first question on the issue but felt the followup was unfair, according to the Sun-Times.
With the April 7 mayoral runoff election less than a week away, multiple recent polls have shown Emanuel holding a substantial lead. However, some have questioned whether polling in the race is under-representing Latino and youth voters, who are expected to favor Garcia.
UPDATE: 6 p.m. CT -- In an statement sent early Wednesday night to HuffPost, Ponce expressed a change of heart on the matter, writing that “on further reflection we feel that we missed the mark in the series of gang questions I asked Commissioner Garcia.” Ponce added that he will be “acknowledging that tonight on the air—something I have been stating on radio interviews since [I spoke with HuffPost].”