Public Safety Remains in Spotlight as Vallas, Johnson Spar at Debate

The race for Chicago mayor continues to focus nearly entirely on the crime and violence that both candidates agree threaten the city’s economic vitality. In a debate Tuesday, the candidates offered wildly different solutions to the seemingly intractable problem.

Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson once again vowed to prevent crime by investing in youth employment programs and reopening Chicago’s public mental health clinics, while former Chicago Public Schools CEO Paul Vallas again promised to immediately step up enforcement by filling hundreds of vacant positions in the Chicago Police Department.

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Tuesday’s hourlong debate, moderated by WGN-TV anchors Lourdes Duarte and Tahman Bradley, was the latest forum designed to give Chicago voters a close look at the two candidates and their styles. Election Day is less than two weeks away, and early voting is already underway.

The forum turned testy, with Johnson labeling both Vallas’ 1995 to 2001 tenure at the Chicago Public Schools and his time as the head of the Philadelphia and New Orleans school districts a “failure.” In turn, Vallas told Johnson several times to stop lecturing him.

That prompted a retort from Johnson.

“Someone like Paul Vallas that wants to continue to give someone like me a lecture on what I know versus what he knows is ridiculous,” Johnson said, “but I’m familiar with that.”

Vallas doubled down on his promise that hundreds of officers who retired or resigned from the Chicago Police Department would return to the force once he was elected.

“I know for a fact that there are hundreds of officers that will come in,” Vallas said, saying that new leadership and a more predictable schedule would attract those who left the Chicago Police Department.

Johnson said he had not shifted his approach since he authored a nonbinding resolution in the summer of 2020 that called for county officials to “redirect funds from policing and incarceration to public services not administered by law enforcement that promote community health and safety equitably” after the police murder of George Floyd touched off a wave of social justice protests and unrest.

“I’m not going to defund the police,” said Johnson, who several times touted his plan to expand the number of detectives by immediately promoting 200 officers.

Vallas said Johnson’s plan would “do nothing,” since it would create more vacancies among the ranks. Johnson said those positions would be filled by academy graduates.

Vallas did not answer a question about how he would ensure that his call to arrest more people for misdemeanor offenses does not disproportionately sweep up Black and Latino Chicagoans, who are more likely than White Chicagoans to be arrested for a host of crimes.

After Vallas once again said Johnson would defund the police, Johnson said that was evidence Vallas was at heart a Republican, even though Vallas’ campaign has stressed his long record as a member of the Democratic Party, because it echoes false criticism lobbed at President Joe Biden, former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker by Republicans.

Pritzker weighed in on the race for mayor Tuesday, after vowing to remain neutral in the contest, to respond to a report that Vallas called him a “dictator” while guest hosting a conservative talk radio show in December 2021, the height of the first omicron wave of the pandemic.

Pritzker said Chicago voters should elect a mayor who will listen to public health experts, not right-wing radio hosts, as first reported by HuffPost. While Johnson said he was grateful to the governor for taking steps designed to save the lives of Black and Latino Chicagoans, Vallas brushed off his criticism of Pritzker as meant for the teachers’ union, which resisted efforts to resume in-person classes without safety measures in place and clear metrics for returning to remote learning amid a surge of COVID-19.

Contact Heather Cherone: @HeatherCherone | (773) 569-1863 | [email protected]

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