Chicagoans will decide between former Chicago Public Schools CEO Paul Vallas and Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson Tuesday — two mayoral candidates who have vastly different visions for the city’s finances, schools and public safety issues.
Tuesday’s election is the culmination of a yearlong mayoral election season where attacks have grown increasingly hostile as the two candidates have tried to paint each other as too radical to lead the nation’s third-largest city.
Vallas rocketed from an afterthought when he ran for mayor four years ago and finished ninth out of 14 candidates to the top vote-getter in February’s general election, winning nearly 33% of the vote. If successful, it will be Vallas’s first time winning elected office despite three previous failed bids for state and local positions.
He faces Johnson, a little-known Cook County Commissioner prior to his mayoral bid who sailed on Chicago Teachers Union and labor support to earn the second-most votes, with nearly 22%.
Crime as the campaign issue
Issues of public safety have continued to dominate the final weeks of the campaign — and it’s a topic that voters have said is top of mind when choosing their next mayor after the city experienced its most violent year in a quarter century in 2021.
The outcome of Tuesday’s election will chart a path for whether the city will approach issues “from a presumption that there are investments in social services which should be an important part of the conversation even when it comes to public safety, or whether we need first and foremost to assure people that safety is the first goal,” said Jason DeSanto, a senior lecturer at Northwestern University’s Pritzker School of Law and Democratic debate strategist.
Vallas has stayed singularly focused on the issue of public safety this election, and the belief that Vallas “will do a better job of reducing crime in Chicago” was the top quality likely voters identified as very important when supporting him, according to a recently released poll by the Center for the Study of Diversity and Democracy at Northwestern University and a coalition of Black and Latino nonprofits.
In the same poll, Johnson supporters said the belief that Johnson “will do a better job for the poor and working class of Chicago” was the top factor they identified for backing him.
Vallas has repeatedly put a spotlight on Johnson’s past support for “defunding the police” — a stance that Johnson has worked to distance himself from.
“I’m not going to defund the police,” Johnson said at a debate last Tuesday. “What I’ve said repeatedly is that the $150 million should be appropriated towards making sure that we are doing smart policing, which includes training and promoting and hiring 200 more detectives, implementing the consent decree, making sure that we are providing mental health services for police officers. That is a part of the budget.”
Meanwhile, Johnson has thrown cold water on Vallas’s claims that hundreds of retired officers will return under his leadership, and has attacked Vallas’s Democratic bona fides by pointing to his opponent’s support from wealthy business interests and the police union.
Vallas has argued he appeals 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 is elected.
The two candidates have also faced questions of how they will remain independent from the powerful unions that support them.
Johnson, a CTU organizer and former teacher, has raised over $2 million from the Chicago Teachers Union since he launched his campaign. He’s 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.”
Vallas, who also served as a consultant to the Fraternal Order of Police amid contract negotiations, said that when receiving the police union’s endorsement, he made it a condition he would not accept money from them.
“So they’ll have no influence on me,” Vallas said at a debate last week.
Race and the campaign
The race of the candidates — Johnson is Black and Vallas is white — and race-related issues have come 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 have pushed back on.
“Wouldn’t it just be easy to believe a Black man when he’s telling you the truth?” Johnson said at a City Club speech last week.
Both candidates also aimed 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 are among those who have endorsed Vallas, while Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle and Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul are supporting 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. While the endorsements may not substantially tilt the scales, Jaime Domínguez, a Northwestern University political science professor, said Vallas still may be able to make inroads with older voters thanks to the endorsements from the “political guard” of Black officials.
Vallas led among white and Latino voters — although Latino voters were the least certain they would vote in Tuesday’s election.
Of the failed mayoral contenders, four have sided with Vallas — businessman Willie Wilson, activist Ja’Mal Green and Alds. Roderick Sawyer and Sophia King — while Congressman Jesús “Chuy” García and State Rep. Kam Buckner have endorsed Johnson.
Lightfoot has stayed notably absent from endorsing either candidate, both of whom she wasn’t short of criticisms during the general election. Last week, a Lighftoot campaign spokesperson also said Lightfoot had not given approval for her image and quote to be included on a mailer critical of Johnson that was paid for by Vallas’s campaign.
Asked last week, Vallas said he has not asked for Lightfoot’s endorsement, but “really wanted to sit down and talk to her about her legacy.”
“Now, if that results in an endorsement, that’s great,” Vallas said. “But I want to afford her the courtesy of at least talking about the things that she has done that I admire, because if you remember four years ago I endorsed her.”
A spokesperson for Johnson’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment on whether Johnson has asked for her endorsement.
A Lightfoot endorsement may have been helpful to capture the nearly 17% of total votes that went to her in the general election, DeSanto said.
“But I think if I were coming toward the homestretch and I were a candidate, and both of these candidates claim the mantle of something new, I’m not sure that I would want the something old,” DeSanto said, noting 71% of voters in a previous poll said they felt the city was on the wrong track under Lightfoot’s tenure.
Turnout could be a major factor
Just 36% of registered voters turned out in the February municipal election, and Tuesday’s outcome could be determined by which candidate has a stronger get-out-the-vote effort, especially “with Latino voters really being up in the air,” Sylvia Puente, the president and CEO of the Latino Policy Forum said last week.
At the end of the day, both candidates have their own liabilities to overcome, DeSanto said.
“For Vallas, it’s the question of whether or not he can be trusted as a relatively progressive Democrat in a city that’s going to elect a Democrat,” DeSanto said, referring to the criticisms of Vallas being a Republican.
Meanwhile, Johnson’s past comments on defunding the police and his plan to raise taxes to generate new revenue for the city could signify to voters “that you’re really going to approach things from a place of not making public safety your top priority and taxing people. And that’s just not a happy place for voters to be when they’re going in to vote,” DeSanto said.
WBEZ reporters Tessa Weinberg and Mariah Woelfel cover city government and politics.