Mayoral candidates Brandon Johnson and Paul Vallas had a roiling dispute over the subject of race Thursday, with Johnson tossing out a series of accusations against Vallas, who dismissed them as “rhetoric.”
The contentious exchanges happened during a 90-minute forum hosted by the My Community Plan Foundation at the DuSable Black History Museum. For the first hour, the session was largely cordial until the two contenders, who just last week made the April 4 runoff election, were asked if they support a third airport in the Chicago area. Both said yes.
Then Johnson, a Cook County commissioner, raised the issue of Vallas’ support from “dangerous” Citadel employees, referring to the hedge fund headed by Republican billionaire Ken Griffin, who recently told Bloomberg News he supports Vallas for mayor.
“Look, Citadel is gone, but they’re back in this race,” Johnson said of the firm moving its headquarters to Miami. “Ken Griffin is going to spend (money) against a Black man because I believe in Black people. This is the same person who said that Rahm Emanuel should have closed 125 schools.”
That was a reference to comments Griffin made at the Economic Club of Chicago in 2013 that the former mayor should be closing more than 100 schools rather than the more than 50 proposed at the time. Griffin has not made donations in the mayoral election.
[ Paul Vallas Facebook account liked posts that called Chicago ‘hell hole’ and panned Democratic governor ]
Vallas, a former Chicago Public Schools CEO, shrugged off the attack.
“Let me try to answer the question without scaring you,” Vallas said. “First of all, I support the third airport.”
Johnson went on the offensive again in response to a question about uplifting minority and women-owned businesses, setting off a testy exchange.
“I’m the only person on this stage who has ever been elected, the only person on the stage who’s ever won,” Johnson said. “And as a result of that, I had the ability to actually pass multibillion dollar budgets.”
Johnson then nodded to a fall 2020 activist-backed “Budget for Black Lives” proposal to cut $157 million from the sheriff’s office and invest in social services.
“I’m the only person on this stage who built an entire budget around Black people,” Johnson said. “As a result of that, (Cook County) President (Toni) Preckwinkle used it as a guideline for her equity plan: eliminating medical debt, violence prevention, working with those who are formerly incarcerated, making sure that we’re investing in economic development.”
The sheriff’s office never saw that $157 million reduction in its 2021 budget. Instead, the office took a modest 4% cut amid the COVID-19 fiscal deficit that has since been more than restored. The county has, however, steadily ramped up its funding for community investments and programs in recent years thanks to federal stimulus dollars.
Although Vallas lost a 2019 bid for mayor and two runs for statewide office, he has served as the city’s budget director and managed school districts in Philadelphia, New Orleans and Bridgeport, Connecticut, as well as Chicago.
Johnson also lambasted Vallas for the makeup of his campaign donors, a significant number of whom are conservative businesspeople and hedge fund employees, arguing “the fact of the matter is if we’re talking about the global economy and making sure we have full participation, you can’t have people financing your campaign who do not believe in the existence of Black and brown people.”
“Clearly the rhetoric is flowing,” Vallas responded. “The bottom line is I’ve focused on focusing on the issues, and he focuses on everything else besides the issues.”
A woman from the audience shouted: “Race is an issue!”
“First of all, voting for a budget is not managing a budget,” Vallas continued, referring to the Cook County budget process in which the board president prepares the spending plan, which then goes to a county board vote. “Rhetoric is no substitution for management. I’ve managed multibillion dollars in four different cities. I rebuilt an entire school system in New Orleans where every child was in either a new school or a 100% renovated school. So the bottom line is, I’ve been dealing with these crises for years.”
In response, Johnson dismissed Vallas’ mixed record across the four cities where he’s worked.
“This dude can’t count,” Johnson said. “Everywhere he has gone, he has mismanaged budgets. The fact of the matter is, voting on a budget is managing a budget. I find it unconscionable for you to say that because I vote on the budget that a Black man can’t come and manage one.”
Vallas did not respond to the remark.
Chicago is a deeply segregated city with fractious racial politics. Vallas largely won conservative white wards on the Northwest and Southwest Side while Johnson won progressive white voters. Both earned some Black support, though Mayor Lori Lightfoot won nearly all the city’s Black wards.
Since emerging as the two runoff candidates, Vallas and Johnson have been working to expand their support, with a particular focus on Black voters. Vallas has launched a commercial featuring popular former Secretary of State Jesse White and touted support from businessman Willie Wilson, while Johnson has rolled out endorsements from Preckwinkle and U.S. Rep. Danny Davis.