Johnson, Vallas defend records on crime, education in Chicago mayoral debate

·4 min read

Chicago mayoral candidates Brandon Johnson (D) and Paul Vallas (D) both found themselves defending their records on key issues like crime and education during a televised debate on Tuesday ahead of next month’s mayoral runoff race.

Johnson and Vallas were the top two vote-getters in last month’s Chicago mayoral election and are now vying to become the city’s top executive in the April 4 runoff. Vallas is the former CEO of Chicago Public Schools (CPS) while Johnson is a Cook County commissioner.

Both candidates took the lectern for an hourlong debate hosted by WGN-TV, which is owned by Nexstar Media Group. Nexstar is the parent company of The Hill. In the first question of the debate, Johnson was asked about his work on a resolution passed by the Cook County Board of Commissioners that advocated for redirecting funding from policing to public services, as the candidate has fielded questions over his views on funding law enforcement.

Vallas and Mayor Lori Lightfoot (D), who lost her reelection bid in February, have both hammered Johnson on the issue, accusing the Cook County commissioner of wanting to defund the police. Both circulated a 2020 interview in which Johnson said defunding the police was not a slogan but a “political goal.” Since then, Johnson has sought to distance himself from that rhetoric.

Johnson reiterated during Tuesday’s debate that he was against defunding the police and added that he would “implement a smart plan.” He called for the promotion and training of 200 additional detectives and said he would make sure that existing laws, like red flag laws, were being enforced.

The Cook County commissioner was also asked about an interview he did in August 2020 with WGN in which he spoke about protests in the summer following the death of George Floyd, a Black man who died under the knee of a white Minneapolis cop.

Johnson was asked during the interview about those at the protests who were targeting businesses, answering in part that “the question is – how do we make sure that people can eat? Look, no one is going to condone behavior that quite frankly, speaks to a level of desperation.” He reiterated that “people are acting out of desperation” when asked if he wasn’t condoning people targeting businesses.

Pressed about his comments during the debate, Johnson said that he did not condone rioting and argued he “wasn’t hesitant” to condemn those that were targeting businesses while noting that, “what I’m saying is that we actually have to understand the pain of people. I said it – no one is going to be OK with a society that is out of control.”

Meanwhile, Vallas defended previous comments he made last year in which he said that Chicago’s “been dominated by Democrats” for decades and adding “what do we have to show for it?” During the debate, he reiterated that he’s previously run as a Democrat, including as former Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn’s (D) running mate in the 2014 Illinois gubernatorial election.

Vallas was also on defense over his tenure as CEO of CPS, with the moderator noting that CPS banned a coming-of-age story titled “Coffee Will Make You Black” under his leadership. The moderator also asked Vallas about allegedly blocking a video on gay sensitivity training for principals in the Chicago public school system.

“I don’t recall the specific book. We actually had committees of teachers as well as principals who would make recommendations. So at the end of the day, we have curriculum review committees, and they would make the decisions on what books to offer and what books not to offer,” Vallas said of the blocked book.

Vallas said that he didn’t recall the video that the moderator mentioned but said “there was actually a lot of opposition within the CTU ranks themselves” regarding requirements.

“At the end of the day, we had a very close relationship with the Chicago Teachers Union and Principals Association, so I don’t recall the video that you’re referring to but absolutely not – I mean, I would support incorporating those things into the curriculum,” Vallas said when asked about whether he would block that training as mayor.

“We’re going back … almost 27 years, so conditions were different there,” he added.

The mayoral runoff election is in two weeks.

Vallas has defended himself against attacks that he’s a Republican in the blue city over previous comments he’s made in which he suggested he aligned more with Republicans than Democrats and over the backing of some, including the Fraternal Order of Police. The CPS CEO has argued he’s a “lifelong Democrat” and has run as a Democrat in previous elections.

Meanwhile, Johnson has continued to defend himself against accusations of wanting to defund the police, underscoring in part how issues around crime and public safety are at the forefront of the race.

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