From handshakes to hand grenades: Vallas lobs his own verbal bombs in lively debate with Johnson

During their first televised debate last week, Brandon Johnson was the undisputed aggressor. That night, Paul Vallas played it safe by trying to remain above the fray. On Thursday, it was a dramatically different Vallas who showed up to debate his runoff opponent at ABC7 Chicago.

SHARE From handshakes to hand grenades: Vallas lobs his own verbal bombs in lively debate with Johnson
Chicago mayoral candidates Brandon Johnson (left) and Paul Vallas (right) shake hands before a mayoral debate at WLS-TV ABC Channel 7’s studio on Thursday.

Chicago mayoral candidates Brandon Johnson (left) and Paul Vallas (right) shake hands before a mayoral debate at WLS-TV ABC Channel 7’s studio on Thursday.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times

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Paul Vallas came out of his technocratic shell and fired back at Brandon Johnson Thursday in a spirited debate that put Johnson on the spot for his past support for the idea of defunding police and his current plan to raise $800 million in taxes to “invest in people.”

During their first televised debate last week, Johnson was the undisputed aggressor.

He accused Vallas of fronting for “right-wing extremists” and of setting the stage for an avalanche of property tax increases with the “accounting gimmicks” and pension fund raids Johnson accused Vallas of engineering as CEO of the Chicago Public Schools.

That night, Vallas played it safe by trying to remain above the fray. His primary response to Johnson’s broadside was to call those criticisms “nonsense.”

On Thursday, it was a dramatically different Vallas who showed up to debate his runoff opponent at ABC7 Chicago.

With the race tightening, even in his campaign’s own internal polls, Vallas brought the verbal equivalent of his boxing gloves to battle.

Answering the first question of the night, Vallas threw a verbal punch about Johnson’s history of talking favorably about the political goal of defunding the police.

Johnson is not saying it anymore. But, he still won’t commit to fully funding the Chicago Police Department’s $1.94 billion budget. In fact, he’s vowed to cut the CPD budget by at least $150 million, in part, by reducing the number of supervisors.

“My opponent wants to defund the police. He doesn’t want to fill the 1,100 vacancies. He does not want to bring back retired officers or invite other officers who have left to return without any loss of seniority,” Vallas said.

‘Smart policing’ or defunding the police?

Johnson countered, “I’m not gonna defund the police. Never said it.”

Instead, the Cook County commissioner highlighted his plan for “smart policing,” which includes promoting 200 detectives to solve violent crime and freeing police officers from the burden of responding to the 40% of 911 calls for mental health and other non-police emergencies.

“We’re asking police officers to not only do their job, but someone else’s. They’re not social workers. They’re not counselors [or] marriage therapists. I’ve served on the front-lines as a public school teacher in the city of Chicago. I’ve seen first-hand what that trauma entails,” Johnson said.

Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson (left) and former CPS CEO Paul Vallas (right) prepare for a mayoral debate at WLS-TV ABC Channel 7’s studio on Thursday. 

Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson (left) and former CPS CEO Paul Vallas (right) prepare for a mayoral debate at WLS-TV ABC Channel 7’s studio on Thursday.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times

“We have to free up law enforcement to focus on the more violent offenses. But, we also have to have someone as a police superintendent that recognizes that you can’t have supervisors who supervise the supervisors. Most police officers do not know who they’re reporting to day in and day out.”

Vallas stood his ground.

“Smart policing is not defunding the police. Smart policing is not [not] filling the 1,100 vacancies. Smart policing is not promoting 200 detectives thinking that’s gonna solve the problem. ... Smart policing is filling the vacancies and pushing the police officers down to local beats, so they can respond in minutes to a 911 call,” Vallas said.

Businesses, budgets and billionaires

Vallas also took aim at the cornerstone of Johnson’s anti-violence strategy: $800 million in tax increases to help bankroll $1 billion worth of “investments in people.”

“You’re not gonna promote businesses by re-imposing the head tax, which taxes small businesses. That is not a tax-the-rich tax. You’re not gonna help businesses in general by increasing the hotel-motel tax by 66% which, of course, is part of my opponent’s $800 million tax plan. Hotels and motels are already paying the highest taxes in the country and they have barely survived, if they’ve come close to recovering from COVID,” Vallas said.

Johnson said $1 billion in social service investments is “what it takes for a better, stronger city.” He argued that his tax plan is based on a “fundamental Democratic principle.”

“Democrats all over the country believe that the wealthy in this city and this country have to put more skin in the game and pay their fair share of taxes. President Biden said that a teacher and a firefighter should not pay the same tax rate as a billionaire,” Johnson said.

Chicago mayoral candidates Brandon Johnson (left) and Paul Vallas (right) moments before their debate Thursday evening.

Chicago mayoral candidates Brandon Johnson (left) and Paul Vallas (right) moments before their debate Thursday evening.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times

“The reason why Paul Vallas is avoiding this dynamic is because he is supported by billionaires. The way we get out of this structural deficit is by doing what works: Eliminating the deficit that he caused. Create up to $1 billion in new investments. And do it without raising property taxes.”

Vallas didn’t take that attack lying down, either.

“Oh, my God. I haven’t been budget director in 20 years. I’m surprised he’s not criticizing me for being behind the grassy knoll in Dallas,” Vallas said, referring to the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

After Johnson criticized Vallas’s handling of school budgets in jobs around the country, Vallas responded, “I’m debating with someone who has never managed a budget. ... So please don’t lecture me on managing budgets.”

Johnson fired back: “Here’s what I know about budgets: Paul’s not good at it.”

Chicago mayoral rivals Brandon Johnson (left) and Paul Vallas (right) shake hands before participating in Thursday’s forum.

Chicago mayoral rivals Brandon Johnson (left) and Paul Vallas (right) shake hands before participating in Thursday’s forum.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times

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