In a final effort for voters and mayoral candidates to engage each other directly, two public forums were held on the South Side last week that focused on environmental racism and addressed police and campaign finances.
Paul Vallas and Brandon Johnson, who are facing off in the April 4 runoff election, spoke at a Pilsen event titled “The People’s Dialogue on the Environment” on March 27 and then debated at the University of Chicago’s Institute of Politics on March 30.
The South Side has long been home to a disproportionate number of industrial polluters, but recently, The Guardian published an article that lists Chicago’s South and West sides as the third worst places to live in the U.S. for air pollution.
The church balcony helped accommodate the hundreds that were in attendance at the first event. People of all ages showed up, but younger generations showed up en masse. According to co-founder and CEO of Healthy Hood, Tanya Lozano, more than thirty young people helped to coordinate the forum.
“The stats came back from the last election and there wasn’t a lot of young voices heard,” said Lozano, who also moderated the event. According to the Chicago Board of Elections, of the ballots cast in the February 28 election, only 3.23 percent were from voters aged 18–24. “There wasn’t a lot of young people who came to the polls. We’re trying to change that.”
Healthy Hood operates out of Lincoln Methodist Church, located at 2242 S Damen Ave., and their sense of community was felt upon entering. They had tacos and beverages, and local artists performed music that spoke of progress, growth, culture and community before the program began.
Instead of a traditional debate, the moderator asked each candidate to individually address the room. This allowed a candidate to propose a policy without being drowned out or interrupted while also offering the opportunity for audience engagement. They were encouraged to wave a green card in agreement of a candidate’s statements or a red card in opposition.
At the end, members of the public were able to ask questions pertaining to environmental efforts or just to voice their concerns about the issues to Southwest Environmental Alliance (SEA) members Theresa McNamara and Mary Gonzales and UIC Associate Professor Dr. Michael Cailas.
McNamara told the crowd, “We are the ones with the asthma…the heart attacks…the strokes…it is happening here in our communities and we have to say something.”
McNamara referred to data compiled by Anthony Moser, a resident of McKinley Park and member of Neighbors for Environmental Justice, that suggested the City’s lackluster approach to polluters. His research found that between 2018 and 2022, the City of Chicago issued only sixty-nine air pollution violations. Of those, thirty-nine were dropped and twenty-nine were deemed liable—meaning in twenty-nine of the cases, the businesses admitted fault. MAT Asphalt was one of the businesses that was found in violation and currently has a case that is open.
Vallas was the first candidate to speak. In his opening statement, he talked about his experience in the public sector, such as serving as the superintendent of the New Orleans Recovery School District where he “[rebuilt] the entire school system from the ground up after Hurricane Katrina devastated 110 of the 120 schools” and aiding Sean Penn’s CORE organization in response to the 2010 earthquake that devastated Haiti.
He touted his experience as City Budget Director from 1993 to 1995 where then-Mayor Richard M. Daley chose—in 1992—Henry Henderson as the first commissioner of the “thriving, dynamic” Department of the Environment. Vallas said at that time the department “really advocated for the city on a broad scale of marginal issues.”
Former Mayor Rahm Emanuel cut the funding for the Department of the Environment in 2011, citing austerity measures. In the remainder of his tenure, “hazardous material inspections fell by more than ninety percent between 2010 and 2018; air quality inspections plunged almost seventy percent; and solid waste inspections dropped by more than sixty percent,” according to the Better Government Association and Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism.
Johnson’s opening statement spoke directly to and about the neighborhoods that have been most impacted by the climate injustices that the evening’s dialogue centered on.
“Obviously when it comes to the environment and climate justice, this is something that is dear to all of us,” said Johnson. “Especially in a time where we know that our communities have been isolated; where abject poverty has left our communities in very severe, severe conditions.”
Johnson said Black and brown children are suffering from asthma, which he, too, suffers from. He said he knew this personally as he grew up in Austin and continues to live there today. “The lead, along with the lack of clean air and water, has only exacerbated the conditions in which many of our families are growing up in,” he said.
A “Green Deal”—a term coined in reference to FDR’s post-Depression New Deal—would be “top of mind” for his administration.
Citing a U.S. News Report from April 2022, Lozano said that Chicago is among the top five hotspots for fine particle air pollution in America. “We have more deaths, illness, family hardship and loss due to pollution than to violent crime,” she said.
Both candidates said they would reopen the department with a significant budget. Vallas said he would ensure that it would receive continued appropriations—money specifically set aside from the City’s budget—and there would need to be an oversight board made up of representatives from different communities put in place to ensure that the department operates adequately.
“I believe that individuals who have been advocating for clean water, for clean air, for clean soil… for ending the food deserts need to be able to decide who’s going to run the department,” Vallas said.
Additionally, he said there needed to be an autonomous City Council committee that focused entirely on the department and that would have investigative powers akin to those of the Inspector General.
Johnson, on the other hand, said he would be committed to funding a Department of Environmental Justice, whose purpose would be to prioritize and remediate the effects of years of pollution and disinvestment felt by marginalized communities, primarily in Chicago’s South and West sides.
Similar to Vallas, Johnson said his department would be composed of regulators and policy wonks, but he added there would also be community organizers. He said the first step would be a cumulative impact study, which he committed to doing in his first 100 days in office.
“The challenge that we have, which is governance in the City of Chicago in general…” said Johnson. “We don’t get the real lived experiences of those who are most impacted and then we simply administrate it. I am committed to making sure we actually have guidance.”
In reference to the sixty-nine air pollution violations issued over the last five years, the candidates were asked if they would ensure that city departments would enforce the municipal code to bring polluters into compliance and commit to not providing city contracts to those with histories of non-compliance.
Vallas said he would enforce a zero-tolerance environmental policy and referenced enacting a list similar to that of the City’s Capital Improvement Program, where companies that failed to meet minority and women-owned business quotas and those that failed to pay its subcontractors in a timely fashion were put on a “do not hire” list.
Additionally, he said there needed to be an environmental report card to assess the amount of pollution businesses contribute to the environment. “We don’t want to move polluters to the poor communities,” he said. “We don’t want polluters anywhere in the city at all.”
Johnson referred to the cumulative impact study that his administration would perform upon taking office. He said not only should there be regulators in the communities being most affected by pollution, but that the City would need to start working with the federal government to adjust the air regulations that are allowing polluting businesses to contribute pollutants.
“Look, I think there is a lot to be learned from General Iron,” Johnson said. “I definitely know that when our communities are not listened to, and to the point that you are raising about making sure that we have real regulatory practices and real investigation, it has to be a real concerted effort to actually put forth a plan.”
With the recent construction of Amazon and Target distribution facilities in the already high-traffic South and West sides, the candidates were asked if they would place a moratorium on the construction of new warehouses, trucking facilities and railyards until an environmental impact study that is part of the Chicago Recovery Plan is performed and understood.
Vallas’s response was simple and direct: “Absolutely.”
Johnson went into further detail. “For too long our communities have been seen as dumping grounds for waste and materials that no one seems to know what else to do with,” he said.
A sea of green cards were waved after Johnson said that the people that have been most impacted by wasteful practices are the ones that should have agency in identifying the leadership and policies necessary to move forward.
On the issue of finding alternative methods to raising property taxes to fund the City’s budget shortfalls, Vallas said he wouldn’t raise taxes at all, but would analyze the existing $28 billion purse and reallocate funds. He referred back to his time as budget director where he balanced the City’s budget while holding the line on raising property taxes.
“There is $1 billion diverted to the tax-increment financing (TIF) program. That’s property taxes off the top,” he said.
Johnson, on the other hand, would look to other forms of taxation that would not burden working class residents, such as a jet fuel tax, a corporate head tax on companies that do over $20 million of business with the City, a financial transaction tax and a hotel tax that would tack $1 onto the rental of one room per night.
Additionally, he would seek the passage of the Bring Chicago Home ordinance that failed to even make it to debate earlier this summer. The ordinance would raise the real estate transfer tax by 1.9 percent on homes sold for over $1 million.
In his closing remarks, Vallas said the Department of the Environment would be one where residents are in charge and one that combats lead contaminated water by providing filtration systems to each household, rather than addressing the need for the City to replace the 400,000 lead pipes that were installed before 1986 when Congress banned their use.
Two barbs that have been repeatedly cast this election were once again heard at the last debate: Brandon Johnson accused Paul Vallas of being a Republican and Vallas accused Johnson of wanting to defund the police.
Vallas has received endorsements and donations from a slough of Republicans and Republican-associated organizations, such as former Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’ American Federation for Children Action Fund that just donated $59,385 to Vallas’ campaign.
When asked about President Donald Trump’s indictment, Johnson didn’t hesitate to make a connection to his opponent: “Donald Trump’s administration and all of his cabinet, [it was] probably for one of the first times in the history of America where every single person as a cabinet member did not believe in the work that they were assigned to oversee—one of which was Betsy DeVos,” Johnson said.
“We are talking about an individual who does not believe in public education. She has spent millions of dollars privatizing school districts across the country… And it’s playing out in the City of Chicago. Betsy DeVos has inserted herself and her resources into my opponent’s coffers.”
As secretary, DeVos pushed for massive spending cuts in public education while raising funding for private and religious schools in the form of Education Freedom Scholarships—a voucher program, often described as giving parents the option of where to send their children, but which takes money from public schools and allocates it toward private schools.
“I have never had any conversations or contacts with Betsy Devos,” responded Vallas. “Our campaign has not received any money from her.”
His campaign may not have received a direct contribution, but Illinois Federation for Children PAC received the donation from DeVos’ PAC and paid Go Big Media (based out of Alexandria, VA) to create ads supporting Vallas.
Additionally, Vallas has received an endorsement from Ken Griffin, the billionaire founder of Citadel, an investment firm that has $86 million invested in guns and ammunition manufacturers. Chicago police data shows that one in four guns recovered in homicides over the last five years were made by companies invested in by Citadel. Although Griffin himself has not donated to Vallas’ campaign, Citadel’s CEO and COO have together donated $400,000.
Vallas has repeatedly claimed to be a lifelong Democrat and has only run for political office as one, but in 2009 he mulled running for Cook County Board President as a Republican.
“Let me point out that, Brandon, you’re still a paid lobbyist for the Chicago Teachers Union,” Vallas countered.
Johnson—a former teacher and organizer for the CTU—is heavily backed by the union, but said despite a fiduciary obligation to fulfill his campaign promises, he would be a mayor for all of Chicago. The CTU has donated around $2.3 million to his campaign since he announced his candidacy in October 2022. He has also received considerable support from American Federation of Teachers and Illinois Federations of Teachers.
Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Healthcare Illinois, SEIU Local 1, and SEIU Local 73 have contributed around $4.4 million to his campaign.
He has received 479 campaign donations since October and 235 of them were $1,000 or less. Conversely, Vallas has received $9.75 million from just sixty-one donations.
In order to address the 1,500 Chicago police officer vacancies that were part of a nationwide exodus following the pandemic, Vallas said 300 retired CPD officers have committed to returning to duty and the department would screen them before they returned.
Vallas said thousands of assaults took place because there were not enough officers available to respond.
Johnson didn’t commit to filling the 1,500 vacancies. He planned to promote around 200 rank-and-file officers to the role of detective and “[use] more civilians in place of sworn officers where possible.” He claimed that doing this and reorganizing other non-sergeant supervisory positions would save over $100 million—money that he said would be reallocated toward officers on the streets, not behind desks.
Ryland Pietras grew up in Wisconsin and moved to Chicago just as former governor Scott Walker started dismantling the unions. He majored in Communications, Media & Theater at Northeastern Illinois University, where he still hosts a weekly radio show. This is his first contribution to the Weekly.