CHICAGO — An element drifting into Chicago is stirring up an already volatile nine-way mayor’s race here — and its name is Ron DeSantis.
The mere mention of the Florida governor’s trip to the state next week set off a fierce flurry of condemnations and criticisms among the contenders. And it created a new opening for the candidates to tee off on one of the polling front-runners — Paul Vallas, who is backed by the same powerful Chicago Fraternal Order of Police group that DeSantis is speaking before on Monday.
One mayoral candidate, U.S. Rep. Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, called on Vallas to publicly reject DeSantis’ visit, and said the Republican Florida governor presented a "danger" to Illinois. Gov. J.B. Pritzker called on “every candidate hoping to hold public office in the land of Lincoln” to denounce Monday's event.
Amid the outcry, Vallas issued a statement Friday fully repudiating "right-wing extremist" DeSantis and his views, including on the LGTBQ community.
That still wasn’t enough.
On Friday, incumbent Democratic Mayor Lori Lightfoot, who is competing against Vallas in the Feb. 28 election, went further in an interview with NBC News.
"Ron DeSantis has perfected being a bigoted, racist demagogue. But Paul Vallas is fast on his heels," Lightfoot charged.
Lightfoot blasted Vallas for embracing the Chicago FOP, whose conservative leader, John Catanzara, has danced in and out of controversies for years. She also criticized Vallas for appearing before the conservative group Awake Illinois last year, something for which Vallas later apologized.
"So he can say whatever he wants, Lightfoot added. "His actions speak volumes, and his actions are that he is playing footsie with the far right-wing fringe of the Republican Party."
DeSantis lands in the suburbs here Monday to speak before the Chicago FOP. For Vallas, the DeSantis visit isn’t great timing. Vallas has attempted to fend off any perception that he’s really a Republican — a four-letter word in a city where political leanings are typically measured in shades of blue.
The election on Feb. 28 is officially nonpartisan, although all the candidates are Democrats.
That such a hubbub would erupt over a DeSantis visit is a testament to the Florida governor’s national rise as a leader within the Republican Party and the polarizing nature of his politics. DeSantis, best known for the kind of culture wars rejected in left-leaning Illinois, is widely expected to launch a campaign for president. The Chicago visit is one in a busy schedule in upcoming weeks as DeSantis moves his message outside of Florida.
In an interview Friday, Garcia doubted Vallas' sincerity in repudiating DeSantis.
“He probably feels a level of discomfort doing so," Garcia charged. "It also questions what kind of leader Paul Vallas would be if he’s elected. Can you trust him that he’s not really a Republican?”
A spokesman for DeSantis had no comment.
Vallas' campaign brushed off the pile-on Friday, saying it was indicative of a competitive campaign.
“Chicago is in crisis with crime skyrocketing and taxes soaring and a desperate Lori Lightfoot is once again trying to change the subject by resorting to false personal attacks," Vallas' campaign said in a statement to NBC News.
Vallas also released a lengthy statement on Friday rejecting DeSantis' politics and characterized the FOP's hosting of DeSantis as problematic. With gun violence and overall crime dominating the issue in the mayor's race, Vallas has embraced his relationship with Chicago's police force, saying gaining the backing of rank-and-file officers could go a long way in helping bridge a lack of trust between the Chicago police and the community.
"This decision by the FOP leadership makes that job harder," Vallas said.
“I wholeheartedly agree with Governor Pritzker that there is simply no place in Chicago for a right-wing extremist like Ron DeSantis, and I am disappointed in FOP leadership for inviting him to speak to officers,” Vallas said in a statement on Friday.
“DeSantis’ record of trying to erase the LGBTQ community, banning books on Black history and much more is not in line with my values, the values of our community, or the values of the rank and file police officers who I believe have no interest in getting swept up in culture wars and national Republican Party politics," Vallas also said.