Mayoral debate

(Left to right) WBEZ's Sasha-Ann Simons moderates a mayoral forum with candidates Brandon Johnson Paul Vallas at the Logan Center for the Arts, 915 E. 60th St., on Thursday, March 30, 2023.

With polls showing a dead-even heat between Brandon Johnson and Paul Vallas going into the final days of the mayoral race, the two faced off on issues surrounding public safety, education and public transit, which have dominated this campaign cycle, leaving little room for discussion of the economy or of housing policies.

Held at the University of Chicago’s Logan Center for the Arts on Thursday, March 30, the hour-long forum was organized by the Sun-Times, WBEZ and the university’s Institute of Politics. Moderating the forum was WBEZ’s Sasha-Ann Simons, host of Reset.

Coming into the forum, the major issues for voters remained public safety, the economy, and education, about which both candidates have starkly different visions. Johnson, currently in his second-term as a Cook County Commissioner (D-1st), is a former teacher and Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) organizer. Vallas was Chicago Public Schools’ CEO from 1995 to 2001, as well as the former head of school districts in Philadelphia, New Orleans and Bridgeport, Connecticut. 

Simons said that the questions asked were sourced from over 2,600 responses to WBEZ’s People’s Agenda survey, though some dealt with news that broke in recent days.

 The first question, in fact, had little to do with Chicago, but was nevertheless top of mind Thursday evening — what were the candidates’ initial reactions to the indictment of former President Donald Trump? Johnson answered first, wasting almost no time before turning the Trump indictment into an indictment of his opponent.

“Donald Trump's administration and all of his cabinet, probably for one of the first times in the history of America where every single person as a cabinet member did not believe in the work that they were assigned to oversee, one of which was Betsy DeVos,” Johnson said. “She has spent millions of dollars privatizing school districts across the country … And it's playing out in the city of Chicago. Betsy DeVos has inserted herself and her resources into my opponent’s coffers.”

This jab, part of a larger line of attack that Vallas is a closeted Republican, came just hours after the Sun-Times reported that the Illinois Federation for Children PAC, an offshoot of the American Federation for Children which was founded by DeVos and bills itself as the “the nation’s leading school choice organization,” spent nearly $60,000 for digital media work supporting Vallas’ campaign.

Vallas denied speaking with DeVos and said that his campaign has not received any money directly from her. “I've always been a Democrat, and I've always supported and advocated for Democratic values. I'm also supported by 26 labor unions. And my campaign’s contributions have run the gamut,” Vallas countered. “Let me point out that, Brandon, you're still a paid lobbyist for the Chicago Teachers Union.” 

In the money race, Vallas leads Johnson with five days left until Election Day, raising $16.4 million to Johnson’s $9.2 million. His largest donations have come from private equity manager Craig Duchossois, billionaire investor Paul J. Finnegan and luxury golf course developer Michael Keiser. Johnson’s funding is primarily from unions like CTU, the American Federation of Teachers and Service Employees International Union, in addition to small donations from Chicagoans, some of which were collected at house parties thrown in support of him.

And while Rep. Bobby Rush (D-1st), one of Hyde Park’s former congressmen, endorsed Vallas; his successor, Jonathan Jackson, is backing Johnson. Notable local unions like CTU and SEIU are behind Johnson, putting plenty of volunteers and cash at his campaign’s disposal, the Fraternal Order of the Police is all in on Vallas. For this Johnson was especially critical, saying Vallas was playing a divisive, “Trumpian style (of) politics.”

Simons asked them about addressing school shootings in light of Monday’s shooting at an elementary school in Nashville, which killed six.

Vallas contended that he’d never had an in-school shooting on his watch as CEO of CPS, other than a young boy bringing a gun into school for a show-and-tell and firing it accidentally. Nevertheless, he advocated for the school resource officers that were removed by Local School Councils to be brought back. Whereas there were 180 officers assigned to schools across the district in June 2020, there are today 59 officers in 40 schools.

“Police officers are there to deter active shooters, not to police the schools,” Vallas said. “When officers have been improperly utilized by the principals, that's when you have problems and tension." 

Johnson pivoted to his experience as a teacher and father whose kids attend CPS schools.

“Unfortunately … what we think about as teachers, as parents, it's not just about teaching kids to draw conclusions and comma splices,” Johnson said. “It's about what do we do in the case of a mass shooting and the fact that we have to plan and prepare for that, it speaks to why we have to make sure that we are keeping guns off the streets.” 

Enforcing “red flag laws,” which allow courts to remove guns from the possession of potentially dangerous people, and working with law enforcement agencies across the state and federal levels were the keys for Johnson. Out of 19 states with red flag laws, Illinois currently ranks near or at the bottom in terms of using its law since the Firearms Restraining Order Act was passed in 2019.

At root though, Johnson felt it was a problem that Vallas is supported by Citadel Capital executives, who have donated a total of $200,000, because their hedge fund has millions invested in the gun manufacturers that produce almost one in four out of every gun recovered from city homicides.

The questions that followed provoked less animosity between the candidates. When Simons asked about replacing former police superintendent David Brown, both responded that they’d look within CPD’s ranks before opening the search to candidates nationwide.

On police reform, Johnson touted Treatment Not Trauma, a movement which demands reinvestment in public mental health, saying that police officers shouldn’t be responding to mental health crisis calls that they’re not trained for. 

Vallas said that while restoring community-based social services was top of mind, filling the ranks of CPD was essential because 3,200 assaults in progress went unaddressed because there were not enough officers available to respond due to the large number of vacancies.

After responding to questions dealing with halting the steady exodus of students from CPS, bargaining with CTU, getting produce to food deserts, and dealing with staffing shortages at CTA, Simons went to a lightning round of snappy questions with one-sentence responses, some of which drew laughs from the candidates and crowd, softening an otherwise tense evening. 

“What's your favorite book about Chicago?”

“Oh, God, that's a good question. It would be easier to say, what's my favorite movie,” Vallas said. “You really stumped me on that.”

“Boss,” Johnson said, Mike Royco’s 1971 book about six-term Chicago mayor Richard J. Daley.

After their closing remarks, the candidates shook Simons’ hand and walked off the stage to a warm applause from the audience in what was their final debate before Election Day on April 4.

But the night was not yet over for Johnson. He sped off to the University of Illinois Chicago’s Credit Union 1 Arena for a “Get Out the Vote” rally headlined by Vermont Senator and progressive-darling Bernie Sanders.

With almost 139,000 early votes already cast and Vallas’ campaign predicting that the race will be too close to call on election night because of mail in ballots, it may be some time yet before we know which candidate’s message resonated most with Chicagoans.

(1) comment


Johnson will raise taxes, defund police, and increase property taxes. Those are his policies. The rest of his campaign are couched in empty platitudes and personal attacks on Vallas, which means Johnson does not have the experience and sound policies to bring Chicago back from its ashes. Lightfoot destroyed the city; Johnson will be Lightfoot 2.0. Vallas has sound policies, years of successful experience, and has been endorsed by Rush and Durbin, among others. Johnson has been endorsed by the same folks that endorsed Lightfoot -- which does not bode well. Vote Vallas.

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