Mayoral debate: Vallas and Johnson ‘lecture’ one another on the CTU, Donald Trump and ‘working class’ roots

During their first televised debate, Brandon Johnson was the undisputed aggressor. In Round Two, Paul Vallas took the gloves off. Round Three was pretty much a draw.

SHARE Mayoral debate: Vallas and Johnson ‘lecture’ one another on the CTU, Donald Trump and ‘working class’ roots
Chicago mayoral candidates Brandon Johnson (left) and Paul Vallas (right) listen to moderators during a mayoral runoff debate at WGN Studios on Tuesday.

Chicago mayoral candidates Brandon Johnson (left) and Paul Vallas (right) listen to moderators during a mayoral runoff debate at WGN Studios on Tuesday.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

Complete coverage of the local and national primary and general election, including results, analysis and voter resources to keep Chicago voters informed.

Paul Vallas on Tuesday branded his runoff opponent Brandon Johnson a “wholly-owned subsidiary of the Chicago Teachers Union” that “wreaked havoc” on the city and students by keeping schools closed for 15 months during the pandemic.

Johnson countered that Vallas was linked to members of the “extreme Republican Party who did not believe the pandemic was real” and was backed by donors “who also financially supported Donald Trump.”

A former teacher and paid CTU organizer, Johnson created the opening for Vallas to attack during their third televised debate on WGN-TV Channel 9.

It happened when Johnson was asked whether teachers deserve any of the blame for steep declines in math test scores with racial and income disparities in how students performed.

The Cook County commissioner used the opportunity to justify the $1 billion he wants to invest in social programs bankrolled in part by $800 million in increased taxes.

“You’re asking me whether or not we should hold teachers responsible for poverty. … We’re not measuring it right. … We have 20,000 students who are homeless. The vast majority of our students are living in poverty. If we’re not addressing the living conditions and the working conditions of our communities, then we’re not serious about improving the lives of our children,” Johnson said.

Chicago mayoral candidate Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson answers a question during a mayoral runoff debate at WGN Studios on Tuesday, March 22, 2023.

Chicago mayoral candidate Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson answers a question during a mayoral runoff debate at WGN Studios on Tuesday.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

“A standardized test that has roots in eugenics to prove the inferiority of Black people should not be the measurement. ... Thirty-five percent of families on the North Side of Chicago make $100,000-a-year or more. Half of the West Siders and South Siders make less than $25,000 a year. That is the way we improve public education. By improving the lives of people who are raising children.”

Vallas, who served as Chicago Public Schools CEO from 1995 to 2001, was ready to pounce. He argued that CPS test scores have “plummeted” with only 6% of Black students meeting state standards in math and 11% measuring up in reading.

“It’s abysmal. They’ve lost ten years of gain, in large part because the schools were shut down for 15 consecutive months despite the fierce opposition by Janice Jackson, the CEO who ultimately left in frustration.

“And not only did test scores plummet. The district lost 11% of its population, and violent crime committed against school-aged youth and by school-aged youth skyrocketed — 200 school-aged youth 17 years and younger murdered on the streets of Chicago, 95% of them were not in school. And right now, the truancy rate average daily is 42%,” Vallas said.

“So, please don’t lecture me on education issues, because the Chicago Teachers Union leadership has wreaked havoc on Chicago Public Schools.”

Chicago mayoral candidate Paul Vallas answers a question from moderators during a runoff debate at WGN Studios on Tuesday.

Chicago mayoral candidate Paul Vallas answers a question from moderators during a runoff debate at WGN Studios on Tuesday.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

Johnson scoffed at the notion that it was CTU leadership that kept the schools closed.

He argued that Gov. J.B. Pritzker “did the right thing by shutting down everything to save Black and Brown lives” only to be condemned “as a dictator” by those whom Vallas is “hanging out with” in the “extreme Republican Party who did not believe the pandemic was real.”

Johnson pressed the attack on Vallas as a closet Republican who “fundamentally opposes abortion” and is “supported financially by people who also financially supported Donald Trump.” He argued that Chicago “deserves someone who comes from the working class” and “understands the value of working class people.”

Vallas countered, “Don’t lecture me on middle-class values. I come from a Greek-American immigrant family born and raised on the South Side. Six veterans in my households, including myself. Four police officers, ... two firefighters, three teachers and small businesses. And we’re a family of public servants.”

Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson (left) and former Chicago Public Schools CEO Paul Vallas (right) stand at their podiums prior to a mayoral runoff debate on Tuesday.

Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson (left) and former Chicago Public Schools CEO Paul Vallas (right) stand at their podiums prior to a mayoral runoff debate on Tuesday.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

He added, “A lot of this nonsense is just another attempt to divert attention from the fact that he wants to defund the police. He wants to raise taxes by $800 million. And he is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Chicago Teachers Union.”

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

In Round Two, Vallas took the gloves off.

Round Three was pretty much a draw.

Johnson was also forced to explain past statements that appeared to defend those responsible for two devastating rounds of looting in downtown Chicago after the murder of George Floyd.

Vallas was confronted by his own description of himself as more of a Republican than a Democrat.

Earlier Tuesday, the candidates showcased another round of endorsements they hope will help them bolster their support among African-American voters.

The normally stoic Vallas was overcome with emotion as he accepted the endorsement of retired U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush, who endorsed Mayor Lori Lightfoot in Round One.

“It’s been a long campaign. But, this has to be the highlight,” Vallas said, before stepping away from the microphone to regain his composure and get his emotions in check.

Rush called Vallas a “man of principle” with the experience and leadership to lead a city “at a political and social and spiritual crossroads.”

Without mentioning Johnson by name, Rush accused the Cook County commissioner of fanning the flames of racial division.

“There are some who seek to polarize and divide us with rhetoric that is intended to pit the North Side against the South Side or the West Side or the East Side. Or those who attempt to pit Black vs. white, white vs. Latino or Black vs. Latino. But as for me, this election is much more than that,” Rush said.

“Which of the two candidates has the most significant, the most relevant experience and which of the candidates is able to make the independent, sound judgments that are necessary to move our city forward? That candidate is Paul Vallas,”

As vice-chair of the Illinois State Democratic Party and one of the longest serving members of the State Central Committee, Rush tried to inoculate Vallas from the charge that he is a closet Republican masquerading as a Democrat.

“I know Democrats, and Paul ain’t nothin’ but a Democrat,” Rush said after an anti-violence march through Bronzeville with Vallas.

“Let me be perfectly clear: Paul Vallas is a life-long Democrat committed to the principles and ideals that we all hold dear. Paul Vallas is a committed South Side Democrat. … Paul Vallas has run for previous elected office as a registered Democrat. Paul Vallas is a life-long Democrat.”

Not to be outdone, Johnson countered with the endorsement of a coalition of prominent Black ministers, including Pastors Chris Harris, Marshall Hatch Sr., Ira Acree and Jonny Miller and Bishops Larry Trotter and Eric Thomas.

Calling Johnson a “man of faith, family and integrity,” Hatch was quoted as saying “I believe he will bring the change and healing that our communities need — from the West Side and beyond.”

Harris said he’s convinced Johnson will be a “trusted, visionary leader” who will “make the investment our people deserve” because he “understand the challenges” facing Chicago neighborhoods.

After being introduced as Chicago’s “next mayor,” a clearly energized Johnson said, “There’s so much excitement in this city because they believe that our promises have to be as big as the city of Chicago and that we don’t have to live in fear or doubt or trepidation. We need to live out our hopes. And now is the time to turn our hopes into votes.”

Four years ago, it was Rush who was accused of fanning the flames of racial politics.

In March 2019, 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 Lightfoot’s supporters if the former police board president was elected mayor.

Lightfoot was livid. She and the South Side congressman didn’t speak for months. In fact, the mayor held a grudge against those elected officials who were on the podium with Rush at the rally for Preckwinkle and did not immediately denounce his vitriolic and racially incendiary attack.

Chicago mayoral candidates Brandon Johnson (left) and Paul Vallas (right) stand at their podiums prior to a runoff debate at WGN Studios on Tuesday.

Chicago mayoral candidates Brandon Johnson (left) and Paul Vallas (right) stand at their podiums prior to a runoff debate at WGN Studios on Tuesday.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

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