What Vallas, Johnson need to do to win the first mayoral runoff debate

On the eve of the first debate of the mayoral runoff election, the Chicago Sun-Times asked several prominent political strategists and seasoned debate coaches to offer their advice to the two candidates.

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Chicago mayoral candidates Brandon Johnson and Paul Vallas participate in a candidates forum at WTTW studios Feb. 7.

Chicago mayoral candidates Brandon Johnson (left) and Paul Vallas participate in a candidates forum at the WTTW studios on Feb. 7. Their next meeting will be one-on-one.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times file

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Brandon Johnson is the more talented communicator with a more human touch. He needs to talk with “depth and fluidity” about crime and finances and look like a “commanding figure who is up for this job” — not “another mayor with a learning curve.”

Paul Vallas needs to “connect his technocratic policy orientations to the lives of real people” and portray himself as a “leader who has empathy” as well as “technical solutions.”

That’s some of the advice debate experts are offering to the combatants in Chicago’s April 4 mayoral runoff ahead of their first debate Wednesday evening. The showdown, sponsored and televised live by Channel 5 and Telemundo, is the first since the Feb. 28 election narrowed the field of nine and eliminated incumbent Mayor Lori Lightfoot.

Analysis bug


Johnson and Vallas have dramatically different tasks Wednesday. The one thing they have in common is the voters they’re targeting in their race to the middle: the 45% of Chicagoans who voted for someone else, primarily Lightfoot, U.S. Rep. Jesus “Chuy” Garcia and millionaire businessman Willie Wilson — the three who did the best among the losing candidates.

On the eve of the first debate, the Chicago Sun-Times asked several prominent political strategists and seasoned debate coaches what each candidate must do.

David Axelrod said Johnson has the easier task. He’s a “better performer” and can only benefit from being on a “big stage alone” with Vallas, just as Harold Washington gained when the 1983 debates put him on equal footing with then-Mayor Jane Byrne and Richard M. Daley, according to Axelrod.

“Harold Washington became Harold Washington in those debates. That was the first time that the whole city got to see him as this sort of powerful, charming, erudite figure who looked big enough for the job. That is the opportunity of these debates. Harold was up to it. We’ll see whether Johnson is up to it,” said Axelrod, a CNN analyst and founder of the University of Chicago’s Institute of Politics.

“He does that by talking with some depth and fluidity about the public safety issues, by talking about how the things he’s proposing will strengthen the city and not drive businesses from the city. If he handles these issues the right way, and he sounds like a plausible mayor, he could gain a lot from these debates,” Axelrod said.

Former city of Chicago Inspector General Joe Ferguson made the opposite argument. He believes Vallas has the “easier job.”

“Paul Vallas needs to connect up his technocratic policy orientations to the lives of real people so it’s tangible and he comes forward as a leader who has real empathy,” Ferguson said.

Johnson “has not made a case for why it is he is prepared to govern, given that he has no executive experience. He needs to explain how it is he’s gonna pay for what ... he’s putting on the table. He’s also going to need to affirmatively, one way or the other, answer the defund [the police] question, which he has largely avoided.”

Jason DeSanto, a senior lecturer at Northwestern University’s Pritzker School of Law, has been a debate coach for U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Illinois; U.S. Rep. Lauren Underwood, D-Illinois; and Sen. Mark Kelly, D-Arizona.

DeSanto said Johnson has three tasks: make a case that Vallas is “not to be trusted” because he “doesn’t share our values”; portray the former Chicago Public Schools CEO as a “vagabond who leaves things worse than the way he found them”; and find a way to get under Vallas’ notoriously thin skin.

“Vallas has kind of a reputation he likes to put out there as being almost a nonideological problem solver. … A neutral Mr. Fix-It. But he also has kind of a reputation of feeling that he knows best a lot of times. ... To the extent that you can demonstrate that in an hourlong debate, that would be helpful,” DeSanto said.

DeSanto said he believes Johnson has a great opportunity to stitch together the one-off, “he-doesn’t-share-our-values” arguments that have been made about Vallas.

“A shot here. A shot there about people Vallas has been associated with. ... [John] Catanzara and the FOP. Those were stray, one-off hits. … When you’re standing on a debate stage and you have a chance to practice ahead of time, you can put all of that together into one narrative. And nobody has done that yet,” DeSanto said.

Vallas got 33% of the vote Feb. 28 to Johnson’s 21.6%. As the presumed front-runner, Vallas has more to lose.

He needs to remain above the fray without becoming a punching bag, taking the bait or losing his cool. That does not come naturally to a governmental nerd more prone to talk down to people than relate to them.

Political strategist Peter Giangreco, who advised mayoral challenger Sophia King, said Vallas should hammer away at Johnson’s inexperience.

“He’s never run anything bigger than a classroom. Paul ought to run against Lori Lightfoot, put Brandon in there and say, ‘We just did four years of a mayor who had never run anything. Do we really want to do that again — especially with someone who wants to take police off the street?’” Giangreco said.

Vallas has been uncharacteristically disciplined, sticking to his law-and-order message.

Giangreco said Vallas can continue to own the crime issue by following the lead of President Joe Biden.

“If I’m Paul Vallas, I’m a Joe Biden Democrat,” Giangreco said. “Yes, we attack root causes — but we don’t take police off the street.”

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