Mayoral candidate Paul Vallas (center, holding microphone) attended a fundraiser for the far-right nonprofit Awake Illinois in June. Credit: Screenshot of Awake IL website

Last month, former Chicago Public Schools CEO and second-time mayoral candidate Paul Vallas spoke at a fundraiser for Awake Illinois, a group that has been criticized for its transphobic and homophobic rhetoric. 

The group hosted a fundraiser in Naperville about 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 J.B. Pritzker a “groomer,” a term increasingly used as an anti-LGBTQ+ slur by the far right, after he signed a sex-ed bill

In July, Awake Illinois and other right-wing groups publicly maligned UpRising Bakery and Cafe in suburban Lake of the Hills 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 damage to property.

At Awake Illinois’s June fundraiser, Vallas sat on a panel alongside former Indiana school administrator Tony Kinnett and Waukegan teacher Frank McCormick, vocal critics of curriculum that includes critical race theory. Other panelists included Nicole Neily, the president of a campus free speech organization, and Pastor Randy Blan, who challenged the state’s mask mandate as headmaster of a private Christian school in northern Illinois. Corey DeAngelis, a national leader for school choice, gave the keynote speech. 

Shannon Adcock, Awake Illinois’s founder and president, introduced the panel as “the Continental Congress of school choice.” School choice is a catchall term for alternatives to public education, such as charter schools, school vouchers, and private education.

In his remarks, Vallas discussed his experience and spoke 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 as that,” he continued. “Because I’ll tell you, the unions are relentless.” 

He also accused Chicago Teachers Union leadership of using intimidation to control teachers. “They intimidate these teachers, they threaten these teachers,” he said. “They call them out, they follow them, and they beat them up on social media.”  

Vallas added that he thinks the school-choice movement “has got to find natural allies” such as police unions and conservatives and build coalitions with them to “advance 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 the event details. Adcock told the Daily Herald  on July 19 that the group was not planning a protest of the drag show. That same week, the group tweeted that they “blasted this perverted event on social media and leave it to McHenry citizens to be informed and empowered to respectfully share their opinions/disgust.” 

Last week, VICE reported that the Proud Boys, a far-right neofascist organization, also targeted the bakery. The group gained widespread notoriety after its leaders were charged with seditious conspiracy for their roles in the January 6, 2021, insurrection in the U.S. Capitol. Its members have attacked and disrupted Drag Queen Story Hour events around the country in recent months. 

Update 8/1/22: On Sunday, the Sun-Times reported that Collins, the man charged with attacking UpRising Bakery, was at the Capitol on January 6, and has been photographed wearing Proud Boys attire and posing with a prominent member of the group.

Hours after the bakerys owners canceled the event, Awake Illinois tweeted that the attacker “needs to be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.” The organization did not respond to the Reader’s questions by press time.

In 2019, during his first run for mayor, Vallas described himself as a “strong advocate for LGBTQ+ issues” in a questionnaire provided by the American Civil Liberties Union. That same year, he committed to advocating for an LGBTQ-inclusive education curriculum in CPS in an interview with the Windy City Times

In a statement emailed to the Reader on August 1, Vallas said that he would not have accepted Awake Illinois’s invitation had he known about its “hateful rhetoric,” adding that he will be “more vigilant” about vetting future invitations. “Hateful speech, especially that can lead to violence, is unacceptable and I have always condemned it in the strongest possible terms,” he said.

Correction 7/30/22: An earlier version of this article referred to Vallas as a “third-time mayoral candidate.” This is Vallass second campaign for mayor.