Chicago Mayoral Election 2023

Johnson Accuses Vallas of Being ‘Dismissive of a Black Man' in Debate That Features Both Vowing to Unify Chicago

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Brandon Johnson accused Paul Vallas of being “dismissive of a Black man” on Tuesday in their last televised debate before a mayoral runoff headed for a photo finish in which the African American and Hispanic vote could be decisive.

A debate that plowed a lot of old ground about the dramatic differences between Johnson and Vallas on public safety, public education and city finances turned personal when Johnson reiterated his claim that skipped pension payments during Vallas’ tenure as Chicago Public Schools CEO during the 1990’s set the stage for an avalanche of property tax increases in recent years.

“They called it a holiday to make people feel good about it. But, it’s not a holiday. It’s a disaster. We’re talking about a $2.5 billion property tax bill that we are stuck with because he’s bad at it. He has failed everywhere he’s gone. But unfortunately, Paul Vallas continued to fail up. We can’t allow that to happen. The stakes are just too high,” Johnson said.

Vallas countered that the pension fund holiday “actually happened in 2008 when I was in New Orleans.”

 “I’m dealing with a candidate who was a teacher for four years and has never managed anything. And just voting for a budget as a county commissioner is not managing a budget,” Vallas said.

“I capped school district property taxes. And when I left, the pensions were 100% funded. And the municipal pensions were also the healthiest that they had ever been. And we got 13 bond rating upgrades.”

That gave Johnson, a Cook County commissioner and paid organizer for the Chicago Teachers Union, the opening to accuse Vallas of talking down to him.

“I actually have been elected to make government work. Not Paul. He hasn’t. And the fact he’s being dismissive of a Black man who taught for four years in the Chicago Public Schools is — you gotta stop doing that, Paul. You just do. I got elected. I’ve been an organizer. I know how to put together a plan,” Johnson said.

When Vallas said he was criticizing Johnson’s “leadership ability and his lack of management competency” — not the time he spent as a teacher, Johnson said, “Then don’t bring it up.”

“He’s actually gonna retire with a teacher pension despite the fact that he’s only been a teacher for four years,” Vallas replied.

Johnson countered, “We’re gonna retire you in three days.”

During the hour-long debate, both candidates were confronted with their political liabilities.

Johnson had no choice but to acknowledge that he did, in fact, make a series of statements supporting the concept of defunding the police and championed a County Board resolution that called for redirecting funding away from the Cook County sheriff’s office.

“What I’ve acknowledged is that people are incredibly, incredibly frustrated,” Johnson said, adding, “I’m not gonna defund the police.”

Johnson maintained that the $150 million that he recently vowed to cut from the Chicago Police Department’s $1.94 billion budget would be spent doing what he called “smart policing.” That includes promoting 200 detectives, fully implementing a federal consent decree and improving the mental health of overworked and demoralized Chicago Police officers.

Vallas was asked why he attended a fundraiser last summer for Awake Illinois, which CBS 2 Chicago anchor and moderator Irika Sargent identified as a “far right wing group” that has made “widely-documented homophobic and trans-phobic statements and opposed COVID safety measures” in schools.

Vallas called his attendance at the event a “mistake.”

“I should have done a better job vetting. I did apologize for that. And I won’t make the same mistake twice,” he said.

Both candidates agreed on the need for reparations and for an “amnesty” for unpaid parking tickets, water bills and red light and speed camera tickets. They both vowed to build upon Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s Invest South/West initiative, with Johnson promising to earmark $500 million more for it each year.

Johnson also promised to set aside 50% of all city contracts for companies owned by minorities and women, with 30% of those contracts reserved for Black contractors.

Asked how they plan to bring Chicago together after an election that is likely to highlight the city’s entrenched racial divisions, Vallas pointed to the support he has from 26 labor unions and the fact that he is “polling well in every single” one of the city’s 50 wards.

“I’ve built a comprehensive, very strong, very cohesive and united coalition. That will provide the vehicle for me to bring people together after the election,” Vallas said.

Johnson said he wouldn’t have gotten this far without a “multi-cultural, multi-generational movement” that is “Black, Brown, white, Asian, young, old, middle-class and working class.”

“I was polling at 2.3% in October. No one thought I had a chance. Yet, here I be,” Johnson said.

Earlier Tuesday, Vallas received, what could be a key endorsement from former mayoral challenger Sophia King.

King finished eighth in the nine-candidate field on Feb. 28, with just 1.27% of the vote.

But, her value to Vallas stems from the south lakefront ward she represents, the role she plays as chair of the City Council’s Progressive Caucus and the signal her endorsement might send to progressive voters whose support Vallas needs to win what is likely to be a very close election.

“The city cannot take four more years of fighting while moving backwards, dissension for someone learning the office while leading the office. We need someone with proven leadership skills and the ability to bring us together. That is why I’m supporting Paul Vallas for mayor,” King told a news conference at Vallas’ campaign headquarters.

King noted that Black and brown communities are some of Chicago’s’ “unsafest communities” and “some of the most under-policed.”

“Paul is not only committed to more equitably distributing police. He’s also willing to adopt our plan of a four-day-on, three-day-off  workweek so that we can have more police in all of our communities and give police the predictability and the much-needed rest they need and deserve,” King said.

“Paul also shares my commitment to uplifting our police and holding them accountable and, thus, is equally committed to funding, implementing and enforcing the consent decree. ”

Also on Tuesday, the president of the Fraternal Order of Police, which has endorsed Vallas, created a firestorm of controversy for Vallas when the union leader told the New York Times that as many as 1,000 of police officers would leave the Chicago Police Department if Johnson is elected mayor.

“If this guy gets in, we’re going to see an exodus like we’ve never seen before,” FOP president John Catanzara was quoted as saying, predicting “blood in the streets.”

In March, 2019, now-retired U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush warned during a campaign rally for then-mayoral challenger Toni Preckwinkle that the “blood of the next young Black man or Black woman” killed by police would be on the hands of Lori Lightfoot’s supporters if the former police board president was elected mayor.

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