Mayoral candidates Paul Vallas and Brandon Johnson square off Wednesday in a debate hosted by NBC 5 and moderated by Mary Ann Ahern. Credit: Quinn Myers/Block Club Chicago

STREETERVILLE — Brandon Johnson repeatedly rebuked Paul Vallas over Chicago’s history of rising property taxes and the candidate’s ties to conservative causes in the first debate of the mayoral runoff election Wednesday.

The two candidates displayed their starkly different approaches in the hour-long forum hosted by NBC 5 over how they would combat crime, fix Chicago’s finances and improve outcomes for public school students if elected Chicago mayor next month.

Vallas, former Chicago Public Schools CEO, came in first in the Feb. 28 general election, receiving 33 percent of the vote. Johnson, a Cook County Commissioner, followed with 21 percent, according to the latest results. Mail-in ballots are still being processed by the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners.

Early in the debate, NBC 5 reporter and moderator Mary Ann Ahern posed two questions which have dogged each candidate over the past few months: whether Vallas is actually a Republican and if Johnson supports reducing funding for the police department.

Ahern played a clip from a 2009 interview where Vallas said he was “more of a Republican than Democrat,” which has surfaced in attacks ads in recent months.

Vallas has since tried to distance himself from the interview. He said Wednesday he was a “lifelong Democrat” and cited his many political runs over the past decade as a member of the Democratic Party.

“I’ve always declared and I’ve always registered in the Democratic primary. So my history has always been that of a Democrat,” he said.

Ahern then played a clip of Johnson on a radio show in 2020 describing defunding the police as an “actual, real political goal.”

Johnson has said hiring more officers isn’t the answer to Chicago’s public safety challenges, and he plans to direct city dollars to address the “root causes of crime.”

In Wednesday’s debate, Johnson repeatedly stressed he would “hire and promote” 200 detectives from within the department if elected mayor — and deploy non-police responders to address mental health calls and domestic disputes.

“The fact of the matter is, almost 40 percent of the 911 calls that are coming through are mental health crises,” he said. “We have to make sure that we’re providing the support on the front line so that we can alleviate the pressure from police officers so that they can deal with the more violent, serious crimes.”

Paul Vallas and Brandon Johnson are competing in the April 4 mayoral runoff election Credit: Quinn Myers/Block Club Chicago

Johnson was on the offensive throughout the debate, repeatedly going after Vallas for what he said was the former city budget director’s role in “$2.5 billion in property tax” increases since the 1990s.

Vallas was former Mayor Richard M. Daley’s budget chief from 1990 to 1993.

“The reason why folks are being forced out of the city of Chicago is because one, it’s unsafe, and they’re 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.”

Vallas did not directly criticize Johnson, but said he acted as a responsible fiduciary for the city both in Daley’s administration and as Chicago Public Schools CEO from 1995-2001.

“When [Chicago Board of Education President] Gery Chico and I ran the Chicago Public Schools … We actually found six consecutive budgets with average property taxes of one-and-a-half percent. In fact, a couple of years we didn’t increase them at all,” he said.

Johnson also brought up Vallas’ ties to Republicans and conservative causes, which Vallas mostly dodged.

But Vallas did go after Johnson for supporting extended school shutdowns during the COVID-19 pandemic. Johnson is a former CPS teacher and longtime organizer with the Chicago Teachers Union, now one of his campaign’s main financial backers.

“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. And if you look at the crime statistics, and you look at the violence… you can see the results,” Vallas said.

Johnson responded that a “100-year pandemic was responsible for everything being shut down,” and used it as an opportunity to tie Vallas to “right-wing extremists who deny the fact that we actually had a pandemic.”

“That’s the kind of problems we have when you’re part of the Republican Party, and that’s why the city of Chicago cannot afford Republicans like Paul Vallas,” he said.

Asked if he focused enough on the issues during the debate, Johnson said at a post-forum press conference that “telling people the truth is a central part of how we transform politics in the city of Chicago.”

“Look, there’s a lot at stake here. We cannot afford to go back to the politics of old that have left families behind. I’m always going to tell people the truth,” Johnson said.

In his own post-debate press conference, Vallas said he was attacked because Johnson “hasn’t been a candidate of substance.”

“This is what Johnson is going to do. He doesn’t want to run on his record or lack of record,” Vallas said. “I’m going to just stick to my plan to make it about the issues rather than personalities, and you know, I’ll return fire when I need to, but I really think I would have disrupted the process.”

Brandon Johnson and Paul Vallas take questions after Wednesday’s mayoral runoff debate Credit: Quinn Myers/Block Club Chicago

Johnson and Vallas have spent the past week shoring up endorsements ahead of the April 4 runoff.

RELATED: Who Are Chicago’s Alderpeople Endorsing For Mayor?

Vallas has gotten backing from former Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White, White’s protégé Ald. Walter Burnett (27th), and businessman and former mayoral candidate Willie Wilson.

Johnson has garnered support from Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, U.S. Rep. Danny Davis and various progressive alderpeople.

Both candidates pledged Wednesday to continue Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s INVEST South/West initiative, which focuses investment on the city’s historically underserved South and West sides. Both vowed to expand the program’s parameters and goals.

The candidates also were asked about the Chicago Bears, which recently bought an Arlington Heights property to potentially move the team out of the city. Vallas and Johnson both said they would not support public dollars to keep the Bears in Chicago.

“I don’t support billion-dollar subsidies for sports teams, and I certainly don’t support putting billions of dollars into Soldier Field,” Vallas said.

Johnson said he wants the Bears to stay in the city and for the team’s owners to “hold tight.”

“I’m prepared and wanted to sit down and work with the ownership. And let’s see what we can figure out,” Johnson said. “Not subsidizing, but finding creative ways in which we can make sure that the Super Bowl shuffle lives on, so my son gets to see a Super Bowl in Chicago.”

Johnson and Vallas will meet again Thursday evening at a forum at the DuSable Black History Museum and Education Center in Washington Park.