CHICAGO — Paul Vallas and Brandon Johnson spent the last televised debate before next Tuesday’s mayoral election on the defensive as they faced tough questions about their political records and associations.
Johnson and Vallas spoke about issues ranging from how to keep students safe from sexual abuse at school to filling enduring police officer vacancies in the city.
The debate, hosted by CBS Chicago and moderated by Irika Sargent and Rufus Williams, opened up with the two candidates discussing the role that the city’s most influential unions are playing in the race — including the Chicago Fraternal Order of Police, whose president told the New York Times this week that 800 to 1,000 Chicago police officers would quit were Johnson to be victorious in the mayor’s race. John Catanzara, the often-incendiary police union head, added that there would be “blood in the streets.”
Johnson said that Catanzara is a frequent source of “disturbing, ridiculous” comments, including downplaying the Jan. 6, 2021, attack at the U.S. Capitol, before indicating that the FOP’s endorsement of Vallas was a red flag.
“The fact of the matter is it actually speaks to the type of candidacy that my opponent is running as someone who is supported by the extreme right wing and has caused tremendous turmoil and divisiveness,” Johnson said. “The truth of the matter is my campaign is surrounded by a multicultural, multigenerational movement.”
Vallas did not directly address Catanzara’s remarks during the debate, though earlier Tuesday he said he “condemns” the statements as “absolutely irresponsible.” Vallas instead vowed that the FOP would not have influence on him, while Johnson’s campaign is heavily bankrolled by the Chicago Teachers Union and closely affiliated labor organizations.
Sargent then asked Johnson to acknowledge statements he’d made about defunding the police in recent years: “Do you acknowledge making those recorded and documented statements, yes or no?”
Johnson did not answer.
“I’m not going to defund the police,” he said instead.
Sargent repeated the question, to no avail.
“What I’ve acknowledged is the fact that there are people who are incredibly, incredibly frustrated,” Johnson said before Sargent cut him off.
After the moderator’s third attempt to press Johnson, he said, “You’ve already, you’ve already quoted — what I’m saying is, though —”
Sargent tried a fourth time, and Johnson at last relented and said, “Of course I’m acknowledging it.”
But Johnson refused to say that his past comments — including describing the “defund the police” movement as “not just admirable, but is necessary” — clashed with his promise this week to not reduce Chicago police’s budget “one penny.”
“They’re not differing positions,” Johnson said. “I never said we’re going to take money away from the police. … I’ve never said I was going to cut the police budget.”
Johnson then called such questioning “the agenda of the Republican Party,” saying Democratic Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker and President Joe Biden were also subjected to the GOP “lie” that they would defund police.
Johnson has campaigned on promoting 200 detectives to help solve more crimes. Asked whether he planned to do any hiring to make up the difference, Johnson — who spent the first stretch of the campaign declining to answer whether he would fill police vacancies — said, “Of course we want to hire.”
Vallas was again confronted about his connection to Awake Illinois, a right-wing organization that has espoused anti-LGBTQ rhetoric. The candidate said he only appeared at a fundraiser with Awake last summer because he was invited by a pro-school choice friend, Chicago pastor Corey Brooks, and was unaware of the group’s history.
“I immediately denounced them, and I criticized them and obviously I condemned them,” Vallas said. “I’ve had a lifelong history. I’ve supported marriage equality when it was called gay marriage in 2000.”
However, Vallas and his campaign took multiple days and inquiries from the Tribune in August to denounce the “hateful” rhetoric from Awake, which held the fundraiser of concern in June.
Vallas was also asked about his history “at the nexus of the pro charter, reform movement.”
“Your record shows that you have not improved outcomes for the lowest performing students,” the moderator said. “What are your plans to improve the educational outcomes for all children in Chicago Public Schools?”
Vallas pushed back the contention was “absolutely false,” saying test scores in language arts and math improved in Chicago for “six consecutive years,” and he had tripled math scores and doubled reading scores in Philadelphia “across all demographics.”
He repeated a campaign pledge to keep schools open through evenings, on weekends, holidays and over the summer to keep youth “fully engaged,” and he committed to investing in the trades.
Vallas was confronted a third time about associations with conservatives when moderators cited a 2021 interview he did with a radio show in which he said unspecific school curriculum inspired by critical race theory was harming families and taking emphasis off more important subjects.
The former CEO of Chicago Public Schools denied that and said that “I made no statements of the sort. What I said was when you’re going to reform the curriculum or transform the curriculum, you need to focus on three things.”
He listed the core subjects, accountability and the approach of the new curriculum not being “divisive.”
“A bit wonky, but nevertheless, that was the context,” Vallas said. “Let me point out that I not only integrated Black history into the curriculum so that it was just not taught in a single month, but it was taught year-round.”
Noting that CPS had recently settled two cases involving sexual abuse of students by adults in the system and that CPS’ inspector general investigated hundreds of other cases, Johnson was also asked specifically how he would “stop the abuse of our children in schools?”
Johnson pledged to follow through on investments for students, including hiring social workers, counselors and therapists. Pressed further, he said: “Listen, they break the law and they sexually assault someone, they get to have their day in court. And if they’re found guilty, they should have full punishment. … We have broken systems all over the city of Chicago. ... We have to make sure that we’re holding people accountable.”
Applauding changes the district made to monitor potential abuse, Vallas said he would “be really aggressive about doing background checks” to “identify who have been suspects in the past.”
The two heated up the most toward the end, when Johnson slammed Vallas for pointing out that he only taught at CPS for four years and insinuating that he’s overplaying his former career on the campaign trail.
“The fact that he’s being dismissive of a Black man who taught for four years in Chicago Public Schools is, is — you got to stop doing that, Paul, you just do,” Johnson said.
Vallas denied that characterization.
“I’m criticizing his leadership ability and his lack of management competency,” Vallas said. “That’s what I’m questioning. Not his four years as a teacher.”
Johnson cut in: “Then don’t bring it up then.” Meanwhile, Vallas began to address Johnson’s pension, saying, “He’ll actually retire with a teacher pension despite the fact that he’s only been a teacher for four years.”
“We’re going to retire you out in three days,” Johnson quickly retorted.
The debate concluded with a lightning round in which the candidates surprisingly had little dissent in their support of these issues: qualified immunity, reparations, the proposed Anjanette Young ordinance cracking down on police raids, the construction of a south suburban airport and the phasing out of speed cams. On the last point, Vallas said he would keep them near schools, while Johnson said if he fails to get the cameras out, he would keep revenue from tickets funneled to the ZIP codes of their origin.
In fact, the mood lightened up so much around then that Johnson joked he was setting a trend by answering the speed cameras question with a longer-than-allowed response, sparking Vallas to do the same.
“You’re leading the way,” Vallas granted him. “We’re really friends, believe it or not.”