Brandon Johnson — a first-term Cook County board member, former teacher and union official — will be Chicago’s next mayor after a stunning victory in Tuesday’s runoff election against former Chicago Public Schools CEO Paul Vallas.
Despite raising far less campaign cash than Vallas — who was the favorite of the city’s business community — Johnson had 51.45% of the vote to 48.55% for Vallas with almost 99% of the city’s precincts reporting. The Associated Press called the race for Johnson about 9:30 p.m.
Starting with little citywide name recognition, Johnson finished second in the first-round election in February to qualify for the runoff and rallied from behind in polls in the weeks before Tuesday’s vote.
“You know, they said this would never happen,” Johnson said in his victory speech before a raucous crowd. “If they didn’t know — now they know.”
Johnson said his win represented a victory for a “bold progressive movement” and would bring “the revival and resurrection of the city of Chicago.”
But he also immediately reached out to the many voters who did not pick him Tuesday: “I care about you. I value you. And I want to hear from you. I want to work with you. I will be the mayor for you too. This campaign has always been about building a better, stronger, safer Chicago for all the people of Chicago.”
Johnson thanked his family and all the labor groups that supported his campaign, saying his campaign was the culmination of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s hope that the union and civil rights movements would converge.
“Make no mistake about it, Chicago is a union town,” he said.
He also noted he had enjoyed the support of some elected officials, including Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul and U.S. Reps. Jan Schakowsky, Delia Ramirez, Jonathon Jackson and Danny Davis.
The mayor-elect promised to promote policies that would work for everyone “regardless of who you love or how much money you have in your bank account” and would provide adequate resources for public schools.
“Tonight is the beginning of a Chicago that truly invests in all of its people,” Johnson said. “The heart of this movement has always been about investing in people … Because I’ve seen what disinvestment looks like.”
And he added, “There’s more than enough for everybody in the city of Chicago … We finally will have a City Hall, a city government that truly belongs to the people.”
Johnson also recalled his days as a public school teacher, with students from a notorious public housing project who lived within sight of some of the richest people in town.
Johnson, who lives in the Austin neighborhood on the West Side, made reference to the issue of urban crime, which marked much of the debate in the campaign, saying, “I’ve had to shield my children from bullets that fly right outside our front door.”
He closed his rousing speech by virtually shouting: “It’s time for Chicago to come alive. Come alive, Chicago! My name is Brandon Johnson, and I can’t wait to be sworn in as the next mayor of the greatest city in the world –- Chicago!”
The mayor-elect gave a nod of thanks to Vallas as well, who conceded to Johnson around 9:45 p.m.
Vallas said he called Johnson, conceded and promised to give him his “full support” in his transition to office.
Noting the bitter tenor of the campaign, Vallas said, “It’s time for all Chicagoans to put aside their differences,” and he predicted the challenges for the next mayor would be “daunting.”
“It’s clear based on the results tonight that the city is deeply divided,” Vallas said. “So tonight, even though, of course we believe every vote should be counted, I called Brandon Johnson and told him that I absolutely expect him to be the next mayor of Chicago.”
Vallas initially appeared to have a big advantage in the runoff, after finishing far ahead of Johnson and every other candidate — including incumbent Mayor Lori Lightfoot — in February’s first-round election. Vallas also vastly outraised Johnson, taking in more than double the campaign contributions.
But the 47-year-old Johnson’s campaign quickly gained momentum after qualifying for the runoff. Johnson grew up in a family of 10 children in Elgin, about 40 miles from downtown Chicago. His mother and father were pastors and also foster parents.
He was a teacher in public junior and high schools before becoming a union official, leveraging those ties to victory in the 2018 election for a county board seat. Johnson unseated Richard Boykin, a frequent critic of Preckwinkle.
“Isn’t it incredible?”
At Johnson’s election-night party at a hotel on the Near South Side, longtime activist Jitu Brown said it was incredible to him that someone who once joined him on a hunger strike to reopen a closed school was on the verge of becoming mayor.
“Isn’t it incredible?” Brown said, adding that he was already thinking about what progressive policy goals should be achieved in a Johnson administration.
“We need to generate grassroot demand for the type of housing, education, health care, food production and delivery systems that we need in our communities,” he said. “But if you have someone to support you on the fifth floor, then you are not burdened by state-sponsored sabotage, you know what I mean?”
Wearing a red Chicago Teachers Union shirt, Sarah Chambers noted that Johnson would have to negotiate a new deal with the CTU soon — after years of labor unrest between teachers and the last two mayors.
“We’re gonna be bargaining our next contract this coming year and to have someone who’s from the classroom who supports public schools wants to fully fund public schools means the world to us as teachers,” she said. “So I am just very excited.”
Joy Clendenning, a Chicago Public Schools mom and activist at the Johnson event, said it was a long time coming. She said education served as the starting point of what she sees as a movement.
“So like housing and mental health and jobs and youth, it’s all what public schools are about,” she said. “So many of us came over around all of those issues for so many decades now and those coalitions are strong. When a leader rises up out of those coalitions, we can win.”
Adrian Rojas, a 32-year-old who works for the service employees union, said he had been out campaigning for Johnson and saw a lot of excitement for him among young people. He said Johnson’s connection to the labor movement was key for many of them.
“I think young people are starting to wake up and see that the fight for laborers is a big deal,” he said. “I think labor has been neglected for a long time. So I think they’re seeing that reflected in him and really want to support that.”
Two Democrats with vastly different platforms
Vallas, 69, first rose to prominence in the 1990s, as then-Mayor Richard M. Daley’s first Chicago Public Schools CEO. But Vallas had lost in several efforts to become an elected official himself, including the 2002 Democratic primary for Illinois governor and the 2019 mayor’s race, when he won just 5% of the vote.
This time around, with heavy financial support from business leaders, Vallas finished first in February’s first-round election, unseating Lightfoot and qualifying easily for Tuesday’s runoff against Johnson.
But with a campaign powered heavily by the Chicago Teachers Union and other teachers’ unions, Johnson made a rapid rise from relatively unknown months ago to land among the top two vote-getters.
Throughout the campaign, the attacks grew increasingly hostile, as the two candidates tried to paint each other as too radical to lead the nation’s third-largest city.
Vallas rebounded from his last run for mayor four years ago, when he finished ninth out of 14 candidates, to become the top vote-getter in February’s general election, winning nearly 33% of the vote.
Labor support helped Johnson to earn the second-most votes in February, with nearly 22%.
Their ascension to the top two spots delivered a term-ending blow to Lightfoot, who came in third and failed to advance to the runoff election, the first time in 40 years an elected Chicago mayor was not reelected.
The future of Chicago’s schools
Among the starkest differences between Johnson and Vallas were their approaches to how to manage public education in Chicago.
While Johnson has been a teachers union official for about a decade, Vallas long has been the bane of CTU, touting himself as a “school reformer,” with a focus on recruiting private interests who run schools with taxpayer money.
Vallas had planned drastic changes to CPS’ structure, bolstering principals and local leaders’ power over spending and programming — and even the ability to let a charter school take over their campus. He wanted to prioritize standardized testing and make it easier to hold students back a grade so they don’t graduate without necessary reading and math skills.
Johnson would rather the school district’s central office end per-pupil funding and guarantee a baseline of resources for every school — such as art teachers, social workers and librarians. This would reduce the role enrollment plays in whether a school can afford staff and, he says, help ensure every neighborhood can offer a quality education. He would focus on addressing poverty and trauma.
Public education advocates worried Vallas’s plans would have created a stratified school system of winners and losers. Budget watchdogs wondered how Johnson would fund his plan.
The next mayor will have to grapple with an expected $600 million deficit, as well as the end of a moratorium on school closings and a new teachers contract. The first school board elections are soon after, ending a period of mayoral control that dates back to Vallas’s time as CPS CEO.
Throughout their campaigns, the two candidates also faced questions of how they will remain independent from the powerful unions that supported them.
Johnson raised over $2 million from the teachers union since he launched his campaign. He avoided singling out an area in which he disagrees with the union, but has said if elected he would no longer be a dues paying member.
At a mayoral debate in March he also acknowledged he might not always be able to meet the union’s demands if elected.
“There might be a point within negotiations that the Chicago Teachers Union’s quest and fight for more resources, we may not be able to do,” Johnson said. “So who better to deliver bad news to friends than a friend.”
Crime as a campaign issue
Issues of public safety dominated much of the campaign — and it’s a topic that voters have said was top of mind when choosing their next mayor after the city experienced its most violent year in a quarter century in 2021.
Vallas’s campaign stayed singularly focused on that issue, and repeatedly put a spotlight on Johnson’s past support for “defunding the police” — a stance that Johnson worked to distance himself from.
Meanwhile, Johnson threw cold water on Vallas’s plans to rely on the return to the force of hundreds of retired officers and attacked Vallas’s Democratic bona fides by pointing to his opponent’s support from wealthy business interests and the police union.
Vallas argued he appealed to rank-and-file officers and disavowed comments from the police union’s controversial president, who told The New York Times hundreds of officers will leave the city and that there will be “blood in the streets” if Johnson were elected.
However he approaches it, Chicago’s next mayor nonetheless will face the twin challenges of both tamping down crime and forwarding past efforts at policing reform.
Race and the campaign
The race of the candidates — Johnson is Black and Vallas is white — and race-related issues came up repeatedly in the campaign. When faced with critiques of his prowess at handling budget issues or claims that he will “defund the police,” Johnson called the attacks racist — a claim that Vallas’s supporters pushed back on.
Both candidates tried to court Black voters who favored other candidates in the general election. Each tallied sizable lists of prominent Black elected officials’ endorsements.
Former Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White and former Congressman Bobby Rush were among those who endorsed Vallas, while Preckwinkle and Raoul backed Johnson.
Last week’s poll released by Northwestern University and a coalition of Black and Latino nonprofits found Johnson had more support than Vallas among Black voters. Vallas led among white and Latino voters — although Latino voters were the least certain they would vote in Tuesday’s election.
Of the mayoral contenders who were eliminated from contention in February, four sided with Vallas — businessman Willie Wilson, activist Ja’Mal Green and Alds. Roderick Sawyer and Sophia King. Congressman Jesús “Chuy” García and state Rep. Kam Buckner endorsed Johnson.
Lightfoot stayed notably absent from endorsing either candidate, both of whom she criticized extensively during the general election.
WBEZ’s Mariah Woelfel covers city government and politics. Sarah Karp covers schools. Dan Mihalopoulos is an investigative reporter on the Government & Politics Team. Tessa Weinberg contributed.