Johnson, Vallas exchange jabs over schooling, budget plans at heated mayoral forum

Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson (left) and former Chicago Public Schools CEO Paul Vallas.

Sun-Times file

In a heated debate Saturday on the city’s South Side, mayoral candidates Brandon Johnson and Paul Vallas could at least agree on one thing.

Asked if they saw the runoff as representing a battle between the Chicago Teachers Union and the Fraternal Order of the Police, neither said they did, but each candidate took the opportunity to throw a few punches.

The forum, hosted by the Coalition of African American Leaders at Kenwood High School, focused on issues facing Black voters.

Asked to name an issue on which he disagreed with the FOP, Vallas decried the “rhetoric” coming from its leaders and said he supports the consent decree. Asked the same about the CTU, Johnson dodged the question and said he would be a mayor for all Chicagoans.

Johnson acknowledged that if elected he would face “tough decisions” in negotiations with the CTU and that the city wouldn’t be able to meet all of their demands, but added: “So who better to deliver bad news to friends than a friend?”

Johnson, a Cook County commissioner and CTU organizer, and Vallas, the former CEO of Chicago Public Schools, engaged in their most heated exchanges over questions relating to schooling in the city.

Responding to a question about teaching Black history in Chicago schools, Johnson attacked Vallas over past comments on critical race theory.

“When you talk about critical race theory as if there’s a problem, that’s a problem,” Johnson said.

Vallas responded forcefully, saying as that as head of CPS, “we made Black history more than a history taught in February, but in every month. We also taught African history in world history, which hadn’t been done before.”

Johnson also criticized Vallas’ record leading CPS, saying “the greatest exodus of Black teachers happened under your watch.”

“How are you creating businesses by firing Black women and preventing them from patronizing those businesses?” Johnson said. “And then as soon as you got ran out of this city, the entire infrastructure crumbled … You build economies off of sand, and then as soon as they crumble, you run away.”

Vallas fired back at Johnson over the 2019 teachers union strike and school closures during the pandemic, which he said resulted in “disastrous consequences.”

The teachers union, Vallas said, was able to negotiate “the richest contract in history” yet he complained it had not added “a minute to the school day.”

The two also squared off on economic issues, with Johnson calling for a system that would provide “micro grants” to help small business get off the ground and stimulate economic growth in disadvantaged areas.

“Most small businesses, especially Black small businesses, often don’t have the initial seed money to jumpstart their businesses,” he said.

Vallas said he’d cut red tape that he said makes it more difficult for Black business owners to get city contracts.

Johnson also reiterated his pledge not to raise property taxes as mayor and that he would instead collect the funds needed for his programs by raising taxes on wealthy Chicagoans and large businesses.

“We have placed burden on property taxes on our people, that’s why I’m committed to not raising them,” Johnson said. “I am committed to making sure the ultra rich pay their fair share in taxes. It’s a Democratic value, which is why my opponent won’t put one forward.”

Vallas countered that Johnson “hasn’t managed anything” previously.

“His tax plan is not a tax on the rich but a tax on small businesses,” Vallas said.

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