Sparks fly in first Chicago mayoral runoff debate as candidates trade barbs
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to more accurately reflect the stock trading of Citadel’s hedge fund arm and Citadel Securities.
Chicago mayoral candidate Brandon Johnson (D) lobbed attacks at fellow contender Paul Vallas (D) in the first televised debate of the Chicago mayoral runoff Wednesday night, setting the stage for a contentious race ahead of the April election.
Both Johnson, a Cook County commissioner, and Vallas, a former Chicago Public Schools (CPS) CEO, prevailed in last week’s Chicago mayoral election out of a total of nine candidates running, which included Mayor Lori Lightfoot (D). Given the unlikeliness that any one candidate would notch at least half of the vote, Johnson and Vallas needed to be the top two vote-getters to proceed to the April 4 runoff.
Wednesday night’s one-on-one forum, which was hosted by NBC 5 and Telemundo Chicago, was the first time both candidates faced each other in a televised debate. While Vallas was careful not to begin the debate attacking his challenger, Johnson took at least two shots at the former CPS CEO less than 10 minutes into the debate.
In one of his first attacks, Johnson targeted Vallas over some of his donors, including Citadel founder and key Republican donor Ken Griffin.
“We have to make sure that we are strengthening the red flag laws so that individuals who are holding guns and receiving guns — that they don’t have guns,” Johnson said, before targeting Vallas over an endorsement he received from Griffin.
In targeting Vallas over the endorsement, Johnson may have been alluding to the fact that both the hedge fund arm of Citadel and Citadel Securities have traded stocks in firearm and ammunition companies, as WBEZ has noted.
Johnson also attacked the former CPS CEO by alleging that Vallas wasn’t in favor of teaching Black history in public education, appearing to nod to comments that Vallas made during a podcast appearance in 2021 on the issue of critical race theory — a collegiate-level academic framework examining American History through the lens of racism that has become a political catch-all buzzword for any race-related teaching. On the podcast, while Vallas acknowledged that Black history was taught in Chicago public schools, he suggested there were drawbacks to teaching critical race theory, according to The Chicago Tribune.
“Paul Vallas, on the other hand, doesn’t believe that children of the city of Chicago should learn Black history. So if we eliminate the type of history that Paul Vallas is trying to promote, they wouldn’t know that the first Black mayor of the city of Chicago was Harold Washington,” Johnson said.
As the debate wore on, however, Vallas hit back at Johnson as well while also simultaneously trying to defend his record — including on teaching Black history in Chicago.
“Just nonsense again,” Vallas responded at one point. “I actually integrated Black history and all the curriculum in it, and then moved beyond just Black history month in February. I also incorporated African studies into the world history curriculum.”
Vallas alleged that Johnson wanted to tax the hotel/motel industry — a signal to the Chicago business community not to support the Cook County commissioner — and argued that Johnson was “in part responsible for the shutting down of one of the poorest school systems in the country” during the COVID-19 pandemic and the union’s moves to strike during that time.
“A 100-year pandemic was responsible for everything being shut down,” Johnson hit back at Vallas.
The mayoral debate focused heavily on the issue of crime and public safety, which is seen as the top issue driving the race among voters. Vallas emphasized his position that the city needed to address the issue of public safety in order to address more looming issues, like attracting business back to the city and securing better and more reliable transportation.
Meanwhile, Johnson emphasized his plan to hire 200 more police detectives in addition to strengthening red flag laws. He noted that the city had to be “smart” about the issue of policing, saying officers should not be asked to handle calls over non-violent criminal complaints, such as marital disputes and mental health crises.
The debate comes less than a month before Chicago voters will head back to the polls to weigh in whether they’d like to see Vallas or Johnson as their next mayor. Vallas has run for mayor before, failing to make the runoff in 2019. Johnson is a first-time mayoral candidate.
Both men have attracted high-profile endorsements shortly after last month’s election. Former Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White (D) and Alderman Roderick Sawyer, a former Chicago mayoral contender, backed Vallas. Meanwhile, Johnson has notched support from Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, who lost to Lightfoot in the 2019 mayoral runoff, and Rep. Danny K. Davis (D-Ill.).
–Updated on March 9 at 9:08 a.m.
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