Mayoral candidate Paul Vallas insists he’s a lifelong Democrat. But he’s backed by conservative donors and the FOP. – Chicago Tribune newstrendslive

Danny’s Pizza on the Southwest Side is often packed on a weekend, but nothing like the turnout for a recent Paul Vallas campaign stop.

A waiter got stuck by the kitchen’s pass-through window trying to deliver a fresh pizza to the right table. A woman exclaimed, “Jesus Christ!” when someone squeezing past almost knocked the plate out of her hands. And a man surveying the room bemusedly observed, “This is a COVID risk.”

When Vallas finally took the microphone at the Garfield Ridge restaurant, he cut straight to the point.

“This whole campaign is about taking back our city, pure and simple,” Vallas said.

He repeatedly invoked that refrain throughout his remarks as the crowd soaked it in and cheered. He blamed Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx for high crime, said he’d get criminals off the street and added, for the benefit of government workers in the crowd, that he wouldn’t cut pensions. When it came time to take questions, a woman stood up and asked about her educational concerns.

“I’m hoping that you’re going to be very active in the schools and get rid of the CRT, get rid of this sex education,” the woman said, referring to the term “critical race theory” that has become a national touchstone for conservatives opposed to teaching concepts such as institutional racism in American history. Critical race theory isn’t a formalized curriculum in Illinois and attempts to curtail such teachings in the state have been unsuccessful.

In his response, Vallas did not address the woman’s comments on critical race theory or sex ed. He simply recited his stump speech on education — including a promise to funnel more money to the local schools and open campuses during evenings, weekends and holidays — and then continued his path through the crowd.

The encounter highlights a thorny campaign issue for Vallas: As he makes his second bid for Chicago mayor and proclaims himself a “lifelong Democrat,” he’s pivoted to run on law-and-order and other themes that have drawn support from conservatives in the city and state. While Vallas doesn’t want to lose conservative supporters — many on the Northwest and Southwest sides who could propel him past the Feb. 28 election into a runoff — he also can’t alienate the rest of the city if he wants to win on April 4.

As Vallas tries to strike that balance, he has faced attacks from rivals that he’s truly a Republican, a charge they hope will sink his campaign.

Even though municipal elections in Illinois have been technically nonpartisan since 1999, Chicago hasn’t had a Republican mayor since 1931. President Joe Biden won the city with more than 80% of the vote in the 2020 presidential election and former President Donald Trump lost all 50 wards, though he came close to winning the 41st Ward on the Far Northwest Side.

Christopher Mooney, a political science professor emeritus at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said he isn’t surprised by the “Republican” attacks against Vallas. He noted Vallas is likely to face criticism as a perceived front-runner and as someone who is unapologetically pro-charter schools and the endorsed candidate of the Chicago Fraternal Order of Police.

“Calling him a Republican? The fact that they are not well liked here, I’d say it’s like calling somebody a socialist downstate,” Mooney said. “It’s like a slur.”

But, Mooney noted, the accusation that Vallas is lying about being a lifelong Democrat might not stick.

“In this country, anybody belongs to whatever party they say they belong to, right?” Mooney said. “There’s not like a secret test. … Those are just labels, and you can look at what people have done.”

Lightfoot and U.S. Rep. Jesús “Chuy” García argue Vallas has done plenty to earn the “Republican” label. The two candidates have repeatedly questioned Vallas’ commitment to abortion rights, criticized his support from controversial FOP President and right-wing firebrand John Catanzara, and blasted Vallas for an interview in 2009 when he described himself as “more of a Republican than a Democrat.”

Vallas has countered that he has a long record of being pro-abortion rights, ran for governor in the 2002 Democratic Party primary against later-disgraced Gov. Rod Blagojevich and served as then-Gov. Pat Quinn’s running mate in his losing race against Republican Bruce Rauner in 2014. Quinn has since endorsed García. Vallas also first came to prominence working for Democratic Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley and accused his rivals of taking the “Republican” comment out of context and using the attacks to distract from real issues.

“I’m running against Lori Lightfoot, who doesn’t want to talk about her record, and Chuy García, who has no record to talk about,” Vallas said.

Lightfoot started the abortion attack during the Chicago Women Take Action forum, where she took a question about the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade and move the issue of abortion rights to the states as an opportunity to criticize Vallas for not releasing a statement in the immediate aftermath of the Dobbs decision leaking.

“All of us took to social media except Paul Vallas, who’s been silent on this for seven months until today,” Lightfoot said. “Shame on you!”

Vallas responded by saying he has “always been pro-choice” and pledged to “ensure that Chicago is a reproductive safe haven.”

“Lori likes to invent new facts to suit her narrative,” Vallas said.

Ald. Tom Tunney, 44th, center left, and mayoral candidate Paul Vallas shake hands after Tunney's endorsement in the 1000 block of West Addison Street on Feb. 1, 2023, in Chicago.

Vallas has a nuanced record of supporting abortion rights. In 2001, when Vallas ran for the Democratic nomination for governor against Blagojevich, he told The Associated Press he and his wife oppose abortion on religious grounds but would also oppose any efforts to restrict a woman’s abortion rights.

That hasn’t kept the question from recurring.

García recently launched a digital commercial that included excerpts of Vallas saying, “Fundamentally, I oppose abortion.” Lightfoot then followed with a video of her own where he says he would take a Republican primary ballot and declares, “I am more of a Republican than a Democrat now.”

Both clips are from a late 2009 interview where Vallas, who was working to rebuild New Orleans schools, expressed conflicting views on abortion and said he would “probably register as a Republican in the next primary.”

The interviewer asked if Vallas is “a pro-choice kind of guy” and notes the stance could cause problems for him if he ran in a Republican primary.

“I’m personally pro-choice,” Vallas said.

Asked about Roe v. Wade, Vallas said, “I don’t think we should legislate against a woman’s right to choose. But on issues like partial birth abortion,” Vallas said he’s “opposed.”

The exchange ended, however, with Vallas noting he supports exceptions for the health of the mother but also made a contradictory statement.

“The bottom line is, fundamentally, I oppose abortion and I oppose partial birth abortion,” Vallas said.

During a recent interview, Vallas elaborated further on the issue and compared his position to Joe Biden’s stance on abortion, which is generally supportive of abortion rights but personally opposed to the procedure.

“All the women and men in my house are uncompromisingly pro-choice,” Vallas said. “My mother basically said that, when the men grow a vagina in the Vallas household, they can tell women what to do with their bodies.”

But that answer might still give pause to people who view it as waffling. Aside from his words, Vallas doesn’t have much of a record on the issue. Planned Parenthood Illinois Action isn’t endorsing in the race but its vice president of public policy, Brigid Leahy, said the organization encourages residents to look into not just what candidates say but what they’ve done.

“Mr. Vallas has … filled out questionnaires for us and he has said he’s pro-choice. He’s said he will protect reproductive rights, but unfortunately we have not seen a lot in the way of actions,” Leahy said. “That may be because he has never held elective office before. … It isn’t like he’s taken a vote to defend or protect reproductive rights that we can point to.”

Abortion isn’t the only issue causing Vallas opponents to slap him with the “Republican” label. He is also receiving large sums of money from conservative contributors and prominent Republicans.

Vallas’ largest donor is golf course developer Michael Keiser, who has given him $700,000. Keiser also previously contributed $11,200 to Trump. Vallas has taken money from John Canning, a Chicago private equity executive who has given to many politicians locally but also national Republicans, and Noel Moore, who has given to Trump and Texas Republican U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz.

Vallas also took $25,000 from Ron Gidwitz, Trump’s 2016 Illinois finance chairman, who served as finance co-chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee and ran as a Republican for governor in 2006.

Asked why Republicans are donating to his campaign, Vallas said, “Because the city’s in trouble (and) crime is out of control.”

“I think I’m getting the support from the business community because the business community feels that I’m the one best equipped to deal with those issues,” Vallas said.

He also pointed out some of his donors, like Canning, have also given to Democrats, including Lightfoot. Major donor to Republican causes Craig Duchossois, for instance, has given $10,000 to Vallas and was a major supporter of Richard Irvin for governor. Lightfoot took $100,000 from Duchossois in 2019 and she recently called him for support, he told Bloomberg News.

“From my perspective, she really doesn’t appreciate that the city’s in a crisis,” Duchossois allegedly told the mayor, according to his account. “My answer is, ‘I’m not going to support you. I know you’re well intended, but you’re not effective.’”

Vallas has also faced questions about small donations. WBEZ recently reported Vallas accepted $5,000 from ex-Chicago police employee Richard Hagen, who was named in two settlements stemming from the 2014 murder of 17-year old Laquan McDonald by police Officer Jason Van Dyke. The contribution drew criticism from McDonald’s family and questions about Vallas’ commitment to police reform.

After WBEZ reported on the settlement, Vallas’ campaign donated $10,000 to Parents for Peace & Justice, an organization supporting mothers of gun violence victims.

Vallas’ own words have caused problems for him as well. The 2009 interview with Jeff Berkowitz has been excerpted by Lightfoot and García to highlight his declaration, “I am more of a Republican than a Democrat now.”

In a recent Tribune interview, Vallas acknowledged he considered running for Cook County Board as a Republican in 2009. But, Vallas said, it wasn’t about the political party. Instead, Vallas said, it was about finding a foothold to take on then-Board President Todd Stroger, who came from a powerful Democratic family and whose father, John Stroger, headed the Cook County Board for 11 years.

“I didn’t,” Vallas said. “That’s the point.”

Vallas sidestepped questions about his support from the FOP and its president, Catanzara, by saying the endorsement “comes from the rank-and-file” and argued it will help him implement reforms.

“Because I have the support of the rank-and-file, I’m going to be able to do things when it comes to police accountability and implementing the consent decree,” Vallas said. “I’m talking about the rank-and-file police. You’ll have to deal with the FOP if you’re going to have real progress.”

Mayoral candidate Paul Vallas marches Jan. 29, 2023, during the Lunar New Year Parade through Chinatown.

At times discussing the issue of his Republican ties, Vallas has seemed incredulous and lost for words.

“I mean, yeah, I mean, really? Really? I mean, seriously,” Vallas said at an unrelated news conference, referring to the Berkowitz interview. “The bottom line is people need to look at my body of work, and my body of work is out there.”

Vallas has had other missteps. He spoke at an event hosted by far-right Naperville group Awake Illinois last summer, which generated outrage due to the organization’s extreme statements. The group called Gov. J.B. Pritzker a “groomer” in a social media post two days before Vallas spoke on one of the group’s panels.

After receiving criticism for attending the event, Vallas blamed it on poor vetting and said he wouldn’t have attended if he had “been aware of the hateful rhetoric espoused by a prominent member of the group.” Though Vallas downplayed his ties to Awake, the organization recently published a clip from a March 2021 rally of him saying its president, Shannon Adcock, should maybe run for governor.

Vallas’ principal purpose in attending the Awake event, Vallas said, was speaking about school choice — another idea closely associated with the Republican Party.

School choice often refers to the movement supported by charter schools to offer more alternatives to public schools and has been criticized by teachers unions that say it will privatize education. In recent years, backers of reopening in-person school amid the pandemic have also described themselves as “school choice” advocates.

“Why shouldn’t poor kids be afforded an opportunity to find an alternative to their often failing dangerous school?” Vallas said. “Insofar as charter schools, no stronger champion of the charter school movement than Barack Obama.”

Vallas, however, is not only a supporter of charter schools, but also vouchers. In a guest blog post on former Tribune columnist John Kass’ website, Vallas supported providing direct funding via vouchers “for parents to use at the school of their choice. It also means empowering the community to choose local school models that best suits their needs.”

Lightfoot’s campaign also has taken issue with Vallas doing a podcast with conservative Republican and former state Rep. Jeanne Ives and being photographed with Darren Bailey, the Republican challenger who lost to Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker last year.

During a podcast interview with Ives in February 2022, Vallas listened as she ranted against mask mandates in schools after Pritzker lifted rules statewide in all other locations.

“Children are the least impacted by COVID and they are the most adversely impacted by masks,” Vallas said.

Supperters of mayoral candidate Paul Vallas at a Women for Vallas luncheon on Feb. 7, 2023, at Gibsons Italia restaurant.

As questions about Vallas’ support for abortion swirled and candidates tried to paint him as an extremist, his campaign hosted a “Women for Vallas” event last week at Gibsons Italia downtown.

The top floor of the restaurant buzzed with chatter as a sea of women in tidy blazers waited for the candidate to arrive.

When Vallas strode in, he went straight for his seat as two female speakers took turns to speak and blamed the recent attacks on Vallas’ reproductive rights record on political tribalism.

“We need to tell everybody we know that the right person for the job is not decided by the identity politics,” Pam Galassini, an executive at a cannabis investment firm, said. “It is not decided by the tribe. It is decided by the qualifications of the individual human being who is best equipped to lead this city at this critical time in our history.”

Attorney Jennifer Bekkerman concurred, criticizing the attacks on Vallas as “smears and tribal politics.”

Taking the mic, Vallas said the most influential women in his life were former state Sen. Dawn Clark Netsch, a prominent Illinois Democrat who ran for governor and while she was a state senator hired Vallas in Springfield, as well as his 94-year-old mother and his wife, who is a former police officer. Still, he tried again to tamp down the tempest over his abortion stance.

“Let me say this, so there’s no confusion: I have always been an unequivocal, uncompromising supporter of women’s reproductive rights,” Vallas said. “More importantly, as long as I am mayor, this city will be a safe haven for women to exercise those rights.”

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