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Emanuel shrugs off defeat in political hardball game with Quinn

Kelly Kraft Executive Director Illinois Sports Facilities Authority James R. ThompsCenter Chicago Ill. Thursday November 1 2012. | Andrew A.

Kelly Kraft, Executive Director of the Illinois Sports Facilities Authority, at the James R. Thompson Center in Chicago, Ill., on Thursday, November 1, 2012. | Andrew A. Nelles~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: December 7, 2012 6:15AM

Mayor Rahm Emanuel on Monday took in stride the defeat he suffered at his own game of political hardball — when Gov. Pat Quinn installed his choice to lead the state agency that built U.S. Cellular Field and helped rebuild Soldier Field.

Instead of taking the embarrassment personally and vowing revenge, Emanuel portrayed Chicago taxpayers as the losers now that Quinn’s choice — former television reporter-turned deputy state budget director Kelly Kraft — has been chosen as executive director of the Illinois Sports Facilities Authority.

Emanuel was bitterly opposed to Kraft, arguing that she lacked the financial acumen to protect Chicago taxpayers who are the financial backstop for Soldier Field bonds whenever the hotel tax falls short of the rosy growth assumed a decade ago.

The mayor favored Diana Ferguson, former chief financial officer for the Chicago Public Schools and an Emanuel appointee to the board overseeing the mayor’s Infrastructure Trust.

Quinn sealed the job for Kraft by replacing attorney Manny Sanchez whose term on the board had expired, with 89-year-old physician and activist Quentin Young, who voted for Kraft.

“I have a disagreement there because the taxpayers of Chicago are on the line if, God forbid, something bad happens at the sports authority. . .for either Soldier Field or the Cell,” Emanuel said.

“I believe we need the best team there, which is why I replaced the entire board with high professionals. And since there’s only five employees there, you don’t have an employee to waste.”

Emanuel argued that Ferguson “has exactly the right type of credentials” to right the ship at the stadium authority.

“Taxpayers of Chicago are on the hook if it’s mismanaged. [And] we know, in the past, there have been some questions,” the mayor said.

“I put forward a name of a person worthy of that position. . .The governor made a different decision.”

Emanuel was asked what impact Quinn’s power play would have on their long-term relationship. That’s critical to solving the state and city pension crises and realizing the mayor’s push for a Chicago casino.

“Look, Chicago is the economic engine of the state. I know that, the governor knows that,” Emanuel said.

As executive director, Kraft has promised to “hit the ground running” by refinancing Soldier Field bonds and turning U.S. Cellular Field into more of a money-maker for the state.

“When you look at Wrigley Field and all the concerts they have, we can do the same with U.S. Cellular Field. We can have more concerts there,” she told the Chicago Sun-Times last week.

“I realize we have some challenges. I have to look at the contract and work with the White Sox. But I think we can do a lot more to maximize potential revenue for the state.”

The rare public defeat has fueled speculation that Emanuel will seek legislation changing the stadium authority — either by shifting the balance of power from the governor to the mayor or by letting Chicago taxpayers off the hook entirely.

Last year, Chicago’s share of the state income tax was nearly docked by $1.1 million because the 2 percent hotel tax increase that helped finance the Soldier Field renovation nearly fell short of the 5.5 percent annual growth needed to retire the $400 million debt.

That’s on top of the $5 million-a-year contribution Chicago taxpayers had already made.

Although the city dodged that bullet, Emanuel’s Chief Financial Officer Lois Scott has warned that an “accelerating curve” of bond payments creates “an increased risk that, at some point, we’ll be on the hook. . .I know the [Wall Street] rating agencies have looked at that and expressed concern.”

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