Chicago elections have been nonpartisan since 1999, but that has not stopped Mayor Lori Lightfoot from attempting to paint one of her biggest rivals — Paul Vallas — as a Republican, hoping to gain an edge in her bid for reelection.
For weeks, Lightfoot has described Vallas as a Republican at heart, if not in name. In an email to supporters she wrote that he “has so strongly aligned himself with Republican views that he can’t even be considered a moderate Democrat.”
“What I feel like I am listening to a version of Extreme Makeover: Paul Vallas edition,” Lightfoot said Thursday at a debate hosted by progressive radio station WCPT, a response prompted by Vallas picking Lightfoot as his last choice for mayor.
But Vallas is a Democrat, one who served the last Chicago mayor who officially ran as a Democrat — Mayor Richard M. Daley — in a number of roles, including as Chicago Public Schools CEO and budget director. He also ran for the Democratic nomination for governor in 2002 and for lieutenant governor in 2014. Vallas, who is registered as a Democrat with elections officials, lost both races.
But that has not stopped Lightfoot, who blasted Vallas as insufficiently supportive of abortion rights in a digital spot released Thursday because he did not tweet about his opposition to the U.S. Supreme Court's decision to overturn the federal right to an abortion in June.
Vallas said he has supported abortion rights throughout his career, and said Lightfoot is clearly working to change the focus of the election from her record.
“It is obvious that she doesn’t want to debate the issues,” Vallas said.
But Vallas acknowledged that his support for efforts to expand charter schools and for programs that use public funds to pay tuition at private schools is anathema to most Democrats.
“The Democratic Party has moved away from me,” said Vallas, noting that Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, both Democrats, enthusiastically supported the charter school movement.
Lightfoot has largely ignored the other conservative candidate in the race, businessman and philanthropist Willie Wilson, during the debates.
Wilson says he is neither a member of the Democratic Party nor the Republican Party, even though he ran as a Democrat for president in 2016. In that year’s general election, Wilson voted for Republican nominee Donald Trump.
But in 2020, Wilson ran for the U.S. Senate as a member of his own party, the Willie Wilson Party, winning 4% of the statewide vote and losing to Sen. Dick Durbin, a Democrat. Wilson has declined to say who he voted for in 2020, or to acknowledge President Joe Biden’s victory as fair and free of fraud.
Lightfoot acknowledged this week that Vallas is “rising” in the polls, and appears to be consolidating much of the conservative vote in Chicago. Vallas is the only White candidate in the race.
“I would love to have Paul Vallas as my runoff challenger,” Lightfoot told reporters.,
During the campaign, Lightfoot has said she offered Chicago progressive political solutions while mayor, despite repeatedly clashing with progressive politicians and groups.
If none of the nine candidates for mayor get more than 50% of the vote on Feb. 28, the top two finishers will head to a runoff on April 4.
Vallas said he is confident that he can beat Lightfoot in a head-to-head contest.
“The runoff creates an avenue for a reformer,” Vallas said. “That’s how I win.”
Lightfoot has also blasted Vallas for seeking — and winning — the endorsement of the Fraternal Order of Police, Lodge 7, the union representing more than 8,000 rank-and-file officers in the Chicago Police Department.
Vallas has said he would implement the federal court order requiring the Police Department to change the way it polices Chicago to uphold the constitutional rights of Black and Latino Chicagoans. However, Vallas' rhetoric has echoed that of police union President John Catanzara, who has repeatedly blasted the federal court order as an impediment to public safety.
Vallas served as an unpaid adviser to the police union during contract negotiations in 2021, and said he successfully pushed union leaders to accept new provisions designed to make it easier for city officials to hold police officers accountable for misconduct.
“I killed myself on that contract,” Vallas said, adding that he was concerned that without a deal 2,500 officers would have left the department.
Catanzara resigned from the Police Department while the Chicago Police Board was weighing whether to fire him for violating nearly a dozen rules stemming from his inflammatory social media activity and false police reports he filed against a supervisor and former Supt. Eddie Johnson. Catanzara used his resignation papers to direct an obscenity at Biden using the coded phrase “Let’s Go Brandon.”
In addition, Catanzara initially defended the insurrectionists who stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 and compared Chicago’s vaccine mandate for all city employees to Nazi Germany.
Vallas has said he would lift the vaccine mandate for members of the Police Department.
“I didn’t seek Catanzara’s endorsement,” Vallas said. “I sought the endorsement of the rank-and-file officers.”
During Vallas’ first bid for mayor of Chicago, in 2019, he won a high-profile endorsement from someone reviled by most Chicago Democrats: then Gov. Bruce Rauner, a Republican. With 14 candidates in the race, Vallas finished in ninth place, with approximately 5% of the vote.
In March 2017, Rauner tapped Vallas to take control of Chicago State University, a college on the South Side of Chicago with a primarily Black student body, that had been plagued by financial mismanagement and scandal.
Rauner originally appointed Vallas to the board alongside now-state Rep. Kam Buckner, who is also running for mayor of Chicago. But Rauner soon demanded the school give Vallas significant authority over Chicago State University.
When the university’s board balked at Rauner’s demand that Vallas replace the Rev. Marshall Hatch as chair, Vallas instead became the school’s chief administrative officer. Vallas was ousted from that post in January 2018, and he soon launched a bid for mayor, prompting criticism that he used the appointment by Rauner to relaunch his political career in Chicago after working outside Illinois.
Vallas said he was proud of his work at Chicago State University, which included putting together a strategic plan for the struggling college.