Brandon Johnson came out swinging Wednesday, accusing Paul Vallas of being a front man for “right-wing extremists” who was preparing for an avalanche of property tax increases with the “accounting gimmicks” and pension fund raids from Vallas’ days running Chicago Public Schools.
With less than four weeks to go until the April 4 election, Johnson, who finished second with 21.6% of the vote last week to Vallas’ 33%, was clearly the aggressor in their first televised debate of the mayoral runoff campaign.
The Cook County commissioner consistently put Vallas on the defensive, particularly on financial issues that Vallas views as his forte.
“We’re in this predicament because of the bad accounting measures of Mr. Vallas … $2.5 billion in property tax increases because of the budgetary schemes of Paul Vallas. That’s why we are in this structural deficit right now,” Johnson said of CPS’s financial picture.
“Paul Vallas worked with the Republican Party in 1995 to take the dollars that were dedicated to pensions, people’s retirement, and moved it out, did not pay pensions and, as a result in 2017, several years later, we were on the hook for $2.5 billion in property tax” increases.
Vallas dismissed the financial broadside as “nonsense” and a fictionalized account of his six-year tenure as CEO at CPS.
“When I took over the Chicago Public Schools, the pensions were 80% funded. When I left, they were over 100% funded. That’s a fact,” Vallas said.
“It was not until the pension holiday that was enacted in 2009 or 2010 when they basically stopped making contributions … that the pensions went south. … Actuarially based funding mandates was a very good idea because it allowed us to use money for like teacher pay raises, after-school and extended day programs.
“President Clinton called our programs a model for the nation. It allowed us to use extra money when we had it to invest in the classroom.”
Both candidates accused each other of trying to, as Vallas put it, “make race the issue” in the campaign between Black and white candidates where the African-American vote is likely to be decisive.
Johnson appeared to fan those flames when he accused Vallas of “hanging out with right-wing extremists who have attacked women” on the issue of abortion and of opposing the teaching of Black history in Chicago Public Schools.
“I’m proud to have a multi-cultural, multi-generational campaign. Black, Brown, Asian, young, old. We’ve built a coalition across this city … But, Paul Vallas has made it about race. He has. The young people in the city of Chicago deserve Black history. He’s the one who said that should not happen,” Johnson said.
Vallas dismissed the attack as “just nonsense again.” He said he “integrated Black history into all of the curriculum” at CPS and Afro Studies into the World History curriculum.
“Brandon obviously wants to make race the issue. I’m running to be mayor for all of Chicago,” he said.
Although Vallas spent much of the night playing defense, he tried to put Johnson on his heels for the $800 million in tax increases the Cook County commissioner has proposed to bankroll social programs and for the role Johnson played as a paid organizer for the Chicago Teachers Union during the pandemic.
“Brandon was, in part, responsible for the shutting down of one of the poorest school systems in the country with devastating consequences for 15 consecutive months and three times threatening to strike to force the mayor to keep schools closed.
“If you look at the crime statistics, the violence, the dislocation and the decline in test scores, you can see the results,” Vallas said.
Johnson countered, “A 100-year pandemic was responsible for everything being shut down. But, when you’re supported by someone like [hedge-fund billionaire] Ken Griffin, who loves [Florida Gov. Ron] DeSantis, right-wing extremists who deny the fact that we actually had a pandemic, that’s the problem that we have when you are part of the Republican Party. That’s why the city of Chicago cannot afford Republicans like Paul Vallas.”
Moderator Mary Ann Ahern of NBC5 pressed both candidates to explain how they can objectively represent the interests of Chicago taxpayers when Johnson is a paid organizer for the Chicago Teachers Union, and Vallas helped negotiate the eight-year police contract that broke the longest labor stalemate in Chicago history.
Vallas said he doesn’t owe the Fraternal Order of Police anything and has received no campaign contributions from the police union. In fact, the money the FOP would have paid him for helping negotiate the police contract was donated to charity, Vallas said.
Johnson said he would resign from the CTU if he’s elected mayor and represent the city’s interests — not the union’s — when the teachers contract expires next year.
“I have a fiduciary responsibility to the people of the city of Chicago. And once I’m mayor, I will no longer be a member of the Chicago Teachers Union,” Johnson said.