Last month, Paul Vallas, former CEO of Chicago Public Schools and third-time mayoral candidate, spoke at a fundraiser for Awake Illinois, a group that has been criticized for its transphobic and homophobic rhetoric.
The group staged a fundraiser in Naperville on school choice in June, and Vallas was a featured panelist. In addition to promoting school choice, the nonprofit has opposed COVID safety protocols in schools and the teaching of what it calls “critical race theory.” Last month, the group called Governor JB Pritzker a “groomer,” a term increasingly used by the far right as an anti-LGBTQ+ slur after he signed a sex-ed bill.
In July, Awake Illinois and other right-wing groups publicly defamed Uprising Bakery and Cafe in a Lake of the Hills suburb for planning a family-friendly drag show. The bakery was subsequently vandalized and the bakery’s owners canceled the show as a result. Joseph Collins, a 24-year-old from Alsip, was later charged with a felony hate crime and criminal property damage.
During the June fundraiser in Awake Illinois, Vallas sat on a panel alongside Tony Kinnett, former Indiana school administrator and Waukegan teacher Frank McCormick, vocal critics of the curriculum that includes critical race theory. Other panelists included Nicole Neily, the former president of an on-campus free speech organization, and Pastor Randy Blan, who challenged the state’s mask mandate as principal of a private Christian school in northern Illinois. Corey Deangelis, a national school choice leader, delivered the keynote speech.
Shannon Adcock, the founder and president of Awake Illinois, introduced the panel as “the continental congress of school choice.” School choice is a collective term for alternatives to public education, such as charter schools, school checks and private education.
In his remarks, Vallas discussed his experience and talked about school choice, which he said he has supported since 1995, and which he called “the civil rights issue for this generation.”
“You have to define it that way,” he continued. “Because I tell you, the unions are ruthless.”
He also accused the Chicago Teachers Union leadership of using intimidation to control teachers. “They intimidate these teachers, they threaten these teachers,” he said. “They summon them, they follow them, and they beat them up on social media.”
Vallas added that he thinks the school choice movement must “find natural allies” such as police unions and conservatives and build coalitions with them to “promote a pure school choice agenda”.
The July attack on UpRising Bakery and Cafe came after weeks of transphobic harassment of its owners by conservative and far-right groups. On July 13, Awake Illinois tweeted, “They’re coming for your kids, McHenry County,” along with screenshots of event details. Adcock told the Daily Herald on July 19 that the group had no intention of protesting the drag show. That same week, the group tweeted that they “blasted this perverted event on social media and left it to McHenry citizens to be informed and empowered to respectfully share their views/disgust.”
Last week, VICE reported that the Proud Boys, a far-right neo-fascist organization, had also targeted the bakery. The group rose to prominence after its leaders were accused of seditious conspiracy for their role in the January 6, 202.1 U.S. Capitol uprising. Its members have been attacking and disrupting Drag Queen Story Hour events across the country in recent months.
Hours after the owners canceled the event, Awake Illinois tweeted that the attacker “should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law”. The organization has not responded to the Readers questions per press time.
In 2019, during his second mayoral nomination, Vallas described himself as a “strong advocate for LGBTQ+ issues” in an American Civil Liberties Union questionnaire. That same year, he pledged to advocate for an LGBTQ-inclusive education curriculum in CPS in an interview with the Windy City Times.
Vallas’ campaign did not respond to the Readers requests for comment.
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