CHICAGO — In a particularly heated forum, Chicago mayoral candidates Paul Vallas and Brandon Johnson repeatedly clashed over economic policy, school closings and street violence.
Vallas, a former Chicago Public Schools CEO, repeatedly raised his voice and told Johnson, a Cook County commissioner and Chicago Teachers Union organizer, not to lecture him in a Saturday debate hosted at Kenwood Academy High School by the Coalition of African American Leaders.
One flare-up occurred when Johnson attacked Vallas for past remarks in which Vallas insinuated that critical race theory in schools was harming families and taking emphasis off more important subjects.
“Look, I don’t know what’s in Paul’s heart, I don’t,” Johnson said. “It’s not up to me to judge him. What I’m saying though, is when you talk about critical race theory as if there’s a problem, that’s a problem.”
In one of his most forceful retorts to Johnson since the runoff period began, Vallas responded by saying that he expanded Black history teaching in schools as the head of CPS, then pivoted to criticizing the CTU for labor actions that kept schools shut, which he said harmed Black and brown students. He listed the loss of student enrollment and truancy rates.
“Don’t tell me that you’re concerned about the community,” Vallas said, his voice ringing. “The devastation that has been brought on the school district the last 10 years (is) in large part because of the leadership of the Chicago Teachers Union that has been destructive, and there’s been generations of damage.”
Vallas then defended his tenure in leading troubled school districts like in New Orleans post-Hurricane Katrina and in Haiti.
“Don’t lecture me about going into the toughest situations like a city like New Orleans, where public schools have been destroyed, and lecture me about going into the community to try to make a difference,” Vallas said. “You spend four-and-a-half years working in Haiti on a disaster and lecture me.”
Before moving on, the moderator remarked at how far the two candidates had strayed from the initial topic: “The question was about Black history and Chicago Public Schools.”
In a separate exchange spurred by a question about prioritizing city contracts for minority-owned businesses, Johnson launched a blistering attack on Vallas’ record leading school districts across four cities and cast doubt on the sincerity of Vallas’ pledge to create an office dedicated to Black people.
“Now, I appreciate Paul’s desire and commitment for an office for Black people. I wish he had that same perspective when he was privatizing public schools,” Johnson said before lamenting an “exodus” of Black female teachers under Vallas.
Johnson continued: “You build economies off of sand, and then as soon as they crumble, you run away. … I am sickened by this idea that somehow you believe in economic justice for Black people, but you actually don’t want to see Black people learn Black history.”
Vallas grew animated as he took the microphone and launched into his opponent for the extension of COVID-19-related school closures during CTU’s opposition to returning to in-person learning.
CTU has “the richest contract in history,” but it didn’t add “a minute to the school day,” Vallas said. He added the union is “still striking” and that it celebrates teacher walkouts “with some of your other brethren in other cities who are striking and putting literally hundreds of thousands of kids out of the schools.”
Vallas then emphasized his argument that many young people who have been killed were “not enrolled in school,” pausing between each word for effect.
“The murder rate — committed by students, school-aged students — has skyrocketed,” Vallas said, repeating that nearly all of those youth were not in school. “You’ve got to answer for yourself.”
Johnson widened his eyes and turned toward the moderators, and then the debate moved on.
Both candidates were asked to name a specific disagreement they have with their big labor supporters in the Chicago Teachers Union or Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 7, which have respectively endorsed Johnson and Vallas.
Vallas said he disagrees with “rhetoric” from the police union, which is led by conservative firebrand John Catanzara, and that he supports the consent decree governing the Chicago police despite resistance from the FOP.
“Are we talking about rank-and-file or FOP?” Vallas began. “I think rhetoric, just the rhetoric coming out that has been communicated by the FOP. I think there’s obviously a lot of opposition for certain enhanced accountability provisions, which need to be implemented.”
Johnson said he would be mayor of the city for everyone and if the school district can’t afford all the union’s demands, he’ll be best positioned to deliver the news.
“There might be a point, which within negotiations, that the Chicago Teachers Union’s quest and fight for more resources — we may not be able to do it,” Johnson said. “So who better to deliver bad news to a friend than a friend?”
Vallas also shot back at Johnson for saying it takes two years to hire a cop and put them on the streets, when it takes up to six months to graduate from the police academy after passing a series of tests, the timing of which varies on department leadership and budgetary constraints.
“Please, don’t speak about something you have no knowledge about,” Vallas said. “I have four police officers in my family. … I know how long it takes to get a police officer deployed.”
Johnson sought his own fact-check of Vallas following an accusation that Johnson wants to implement a city income tax, which Johnson denied. However, he said in the same debate that the state of Illinois should try again to enact a progressive income tax.
The commissioner said the news outlet that reported he would attempt to pass a 3.5% levy on people earning $100,000 or up has since retracted its headline. He then faced Vallas and demanded: “When Black men tell you the truth, believe us.”
“Don’t shake your head, Paul, I want you to say yes,” Johnson added.
Johnson deflected a question about aldermanic prerogative — the tradition that members of City Council hold near total sway over their wards — by talking about the need to collaborate.
Vallas, meanwhile, said he believes in “aldermanic input” but would reserve the right to overrule council members. He also spoke of the need to give City Council more independence before making a tongue-in-cheek comparison between past mayors and Roman emperors with varying leadership styles.
“Sometimes you have Caesar Augustus, sometimes you have Tiberius or Caligula,” Vallas said.
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This story was originally published March 18, 2023, 8:23 PM.