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On March 8, mayoral candidates Brandon Johnson and Paul Vallas faced off in their first one-on-one forum ahead of the April 4 runoff. The hour-long forum was hosted by NBC 5 political reporter Mary Ann Ahern. 

Throughout it, Johnson attacked Vallas on increased property taxes and his ties to right-wing actors such as Awake Illinois and Fraternal Order of Police president John Catanzara, and repeated his goal to redirect funding to address the “root causes” of the city’s problems. Vallas reiterated his record as city budget manager and CEO of the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) under former Mayor Richard M. Daley.

Both candidates downplayed their connections to powerful city-worker unions during the debate. 

Johnson, a former CPS teacher and Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) organizer, is backed by several unions, including CTU and Service Employees International Union (SEIU). He pledged that he would no longer be a CTU member if elected, adding “I’m going to be the Mayor of the City of Chicago for everyone.” Vallas is endorsed by the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP). In 2020, he was a consultant for the FOP during its contract negotiations. During the debate he noted that the union did not pay him for his work.

The TRiiBE fact-checked some of the main takeaways from the event.

JOHNSON CLAIM: Paul Vallas underfunded teacher pensions, resulting in higher property taxes.

Johnson repeatedly blamed Paul Vallas for property tax increases tied to underfunded pension obligations to city workers. Families, Johnson said, are “burdened by the property tax burden that was created in the 1990s by Paul Vallas—a $2.5 billion tax bill that the city of Chicago has had to inherit because of the failures of the ’90s.”

Host Mary Ann Ahern also noted that Vallas stopped funding the city’s teacher pensions when he was the CEO of the Chicago Public Schools. Asked by Ahern whether he takes responsibility for the current CPS pension crisis, Vallas said he didn’t, and blamed a pension holiday “in 2009 [or] 2010” for the shortfalls. 

PARTLY TRUE: In 1995, the Republican-controlled state legislature passed a law that allowed the school district to redirect tax revenues that had previously been exclusively dedicated to the teachers pension fund, and use them for its general education fund instead. With the new law, Vallas balanced CPS budgets in part by skipping pension-fund payments. 

The Tribune noted that the pension fund “was still sound” when Vallas left the district in 2001. But the CPS pension holiday lasted until 2006, during which time more than $1.5 billion was diverted from the fund. When the holiday expired, the teachers pension fund was underfunded by more than $3 billion.

In 2016, then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel instituted the largest property tax hike in Chicago history. Emanuel phased in property tax increases of $543 million over four years, and said at the time it was specifically to cover underfunded city-worker pensions (including massive shortfalls in police and firefighter pension funds). In Emanuel’s 2016 budget address, he said: 

“The bottom line is that past leaders negotiated a benefit package for city workers without providing the necessary government funding and employee contributions. For decades, the state permitted – and the city funded — the bare minimum required. And then the State changed the law in 2010 and established a new responsibility for the City. Now the bill has come due.”

When Vallas announced his intention to run for mayor in the 2019 election, Emanuel said Vallas had “planted the seeds” of the pension crisis. 

VALLAS CLAIM: Police aren’t clearing cases because there are too few officers.

In response to a question about low clearance rates for carjackings, Vallas said, “One of the reasons the police are not clearing cases is because there simply aren’t enough of them. They are 1,700 officers down.”

PARTLY TRUE: According to a 2022 analysis by the non-partisan Civic Federation, the police department has 12,261 active employees as of July of that year, while it was budgeted for 14,058—a shortfall of nearly 1,800 officers. But whether that is impacting the department’s clearance rates is another matter. CPD clearance rates for violent crimes have been low for decades. And a Sun-Times investigative report published in March 2022 found that while CPD claimed its murder clearances were at a two-decade high, nearly half of the cases it said were cleared never led to anyone being charged. 

JOHNSON CLAIM: 40 percent of 911 calls are for mental health crises.

While discussing public safety, Johnson said that police are being asked “to do their job and someone else’s job,” adding, “The fact of the matter is, almost 40 percent of the 911 calls that are coming through are for mental health crises.”

INACCURATE: According to the Office of Emergency Management Services, Chicago averages about 15,000 calls to 911 daily. A WBEZ report found that 175 of those were for behavioral health crises. A study by the Collaborative for Community Wellness, a nonprofit organization that supports Treatment Not Trauma, an ordinance that would send mental-health clinicians to such calls (which Johnson also supports), found that behavioral health 911 calls were highest in wards where public mental health clinics had been closed down. Overall, the majority of 911 calls—62 percent—are for “noncriminal” situations that do not require police officers, according to an analysis by the Vera Institute for Justice.

VALLAS CLAIM: Johnson was partly responsible for shutting down CPS for 15 months.

Vallas said, “Brandon was in part responsible for the shutting down of one of the poorest school systems in the country with devastating consequences for 15 consecutive months. And three times threatening to strike to force the mayor to keep schools closed.”

MISLEADING: The claim ignores the fact that during the initial phase of the COVID-19 pandemic, CPS schools adopted remote learning, as did school districts across the country, to prevent potential outbreaks. High schools, which had been remote longer than any others in the district, reopened after 13 months. However, in winter 2021-2022, the CTU and Mayor Lightfoot were at odds over COVID mitigation procedures in schools, and the union held a labor action until a compromise was reached. 


VALLAS CLAIM: The Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) has thousands of empty units.

During a portion of the forum addressing homelessness and affordable housing, Vallas said “the CHA seems to be out there on its own” because so many of its units are vacant. 

TRUE: There are about 2,000 vacant CHA-owned units across the city, and residents who do live in CHA-owned apartments have complained about “slum-like” conditions in them. The CHA also provides Section 8 vouchers that tens of thousands of Chicagoans rely on, but a 2021 South Side Weekly report found the agency was seriously deficient in approving them, leaving some people houseless. 

JOHNSON CLAIM: Vallas has previously said he would raise property taxes as mayor.

Johnson accused Vallas of planning to raise property taxes, citing a revenue plan Vallas put forth when he last ran for mayor in 2019. “Paul Vallas is going to raise property taxes. He promised to do that five years ago, [by] $250 million,” Johnson said.

TRUE: When Vallas ran for mayor in 2019, a Tribune article detailed the tax plan he proposed then: “His five-year proposal includes $250 million in property tax increases, $330 million in spending cuts, $100 million in contract savings and a staggering $771 million in new revenue from the state that counts on a long-wished-for Chicago casino and the legalization of recreational marijuana.” 

VALLAS CLAIM: Vallas denied ever saying he “fundamentally opposes” abortion.

During the forum, Johnson accused Vallas of having said he “fundamentally opposes abortion,” which Vallas denied. “Let me respond to that, by basically saying that that’s nonsense,” Vallas said. “I’ve never said that.”

FALSE: In a 2009 interview, Vallas said that while he does not think the government should “legislate a woman’s right to choose,” he also “fundamentally opposes abortion.”

JOHNSON CLAIM: Billionaire Republican donor Ken Griffin, whose company “[puts] more guns on the street,” supports Vallas.

Johnson said that Vallas is supported by Ken Griffin, whose company Citadel “is trying to manufacture and put more guns on the street.”

TRUE: On March 8, Griffin endorsed Vallas. Griffin is a billionaire investor who recently pumped $50 million into Richard Irvin’s failed Republican primary bid for Illinois governor. According to a 2022 WBEZ report, Griffin’s hedge fund, Citadel, had $86 million invested in companies making guns and ammunition.  

The next televised debate will be hosted by ABC7 Chicago, the League of Women Voters and Univision on March 16 at 7:00 p.m.

Early voting begins on March 20, and the runoff election will be on April 4.

is the digital news editor for The TRiiBE.