Chicago mayoral candidates Paul Vallas and Brandon Johnson face off in a forum at the DuSable Black History Museum and Education Center, 740 E. 56th Pl., on Thursday, March 9, 2023. Photo by Marc C. Monaghan for the Hyde Park Herald.

This story was republished with permission from the Hyde Park Herald.

At a packed Thursday night mayoral forum at the DuSable Black History Museum and Education Center, candidates Brandon Johnson and Paul Vallas went toe to toe over property taxes, home ownership and public safety. 

The March 9 forum was the candidates’ second since the February election.

In his opening statement, Johnson, a Cook County Commissioner (D-1st), former Chicago Public Schools (CPS) teacher and Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) member, remarked on the growing wealth inequality and poverty on Chicago’s South and West sides, calling it a “tale of two cities.” 

“It doesn’t have to be that way. We can build a better, stronger, safer Chicago together. It’s going to take all of us,” Johnson said. “We’ve got to do what American cities do around this country, and that’s invest in people.”

Vallas, a former CEO of CPS, focused his opening remarks on his leadership competency and balancing city budgets. 

“I’m running to bring the type of leadership to the fifth floor that can change the dynamic,” said Vallas.  

Noting the low rates of home ownership in Black and brown communities compared to Chicago’s predominantly white neighborhoods, moderators asked candidates to provide their solutions for increasing ownership. 

In Washington Park, where the forum was held, only thirteen percent of residents are homeowners, according to a 2020 report by the Washington Park Residents’ Advocacy Council. Among the neighborhood’s homeowners, about forty percent are burdened by housing costs.

Both candidates agreed that homeownership is an important tool for building generational wealth, but laid out two very different fiscal approaches.

Vallas suggested the city use Tax Increment Financing (TIF) funds to subsidize first time homebuyers. 

“You could generate billions of dollars that you could invest in affordable housing all over the city,” said Vallas. He touted his tenure as Mayor Richard M. Daley’s municipal budget director and as the head of  CPS from 1995 to 2001, saying, “I’ve spent my career balancing multi-billion dollar budgets.”

Johnson said he supports city programs to help with downpayment assistance, like those he and his wife used to purchase their Austin home, and reiterated his commitment to not raise city property taxes.

“I’m going to make sure that we protect homeownership by not only creating a path to home ownership, but let’s make sure that people don’t lose their homes because they can’t afford them because property taxes continue to be the only way the city can balance its budget,” said Johnson. “My administration will not balance the budget on the backs of Black people and working people.”

Vallas, for his part, has said he would cap the city’s property tax levy, but has also been vague as to whether this means he wouldn’t raise property taxes at all.

Regarding public safety solutions, both candidates voiced support for investing in young people, such as jobs programs for high schoolers and more recreational programming.

“There is a direct correlation between youth employment and violence prevention,” said Johnson. “I’ve taught in Cabrini-Green, I’ve looked into the eyes of young people who are discouraged and don’t see their value.” He added that he would push to double youth employment in the city year-round.

Vallas said he would demand every city agency and affiliated labor union create paid work-study positions for high school students. He also suggested utilizing state and federal funds to reopen closed public schools as “alternative schools” for occupational training  programs.

Beyond this, the two differ widely on policing.  

Referencing his public safety platform, Johnson talked of community investment and making the Chicago Police Department more efficient. This involves promoting more than two hundred new detectives from CPD’s existing rank and file, redirecting some of the police budget to other services and cracking down on illegal firearms.

He also took a jab at Vallas and his billionaire backer Ken Griffin, who founded the hedge fund Citadel, which has investments in gun and ammunition manufactures. While Griffin has publicly endorsed Vallas, his spokesperson says he has not donated money to his campaign, though Citadel executives have donated at least $400,000. (A major Republican donor, Griffin previously bankrolled Illinois gubernatorial challenger Richard Irvin in the 2022 primary election to the tune of $50 million.)

“Citadel has entered into this race against me,” said Johnson. “We can’t use the politics of old—continuing to put guns in the street, ignoring young people, not solving crimes and asking police officers to do more than their jobs—if we’re going to have a safe city.”

Vallas talked of restoring community-based policing and beefing up police ranks. “You’ve got to create a supervisory infrastructure, so we have one officer supervising ten cops, instead of one officer sergeant supervising three hundred.” He also suggested doing away with “redundant training.”

As part of his public safety proposals, Vallas has previously said he wants to hire at least 1,000 more officers and bring back retired and former officers to increase the police force. He has also been a vocal critique of restrictions on police activity, especially police chases.

Asked what they would do to improve public transportation on the South and West sides, both candidates talked of more development near existing transit.

Vallas suggested creating a ten year property tax abatement for property near the red line to spur economic development, “whether its restoration of community-based social services, retail, whether its food or bars.” He argued that this kind of development, as well as increasing policing on public transit, would spur ridership. 

Johnson noted his work on the county board to bring Metra and Pace together on routes, saying he would similarly push the Chicago Transit Authority to create things like bus-only lanes and extend existing bus and train routes to reach more communities. He also advocated for a free ridership program for public school students and seniors. 

In two recent polls paid for by Johnson and Vallas’ campaigns, more than fourteen percent of voters are still undecided. 

Election Day for the municipal runoffs is Tuesday, April 4. 

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Herald staff writer Zoe Pharo contributed reporting.

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Correction: 3/17/23, this story was updated to reflect that Citadel itself does not manufacture weapons, but invests in weapon manufacturers, and that Griffin has not donated to Vallas’ campaign.

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