With just five weeks until they go head to head in a runoff election, former CPS CEO Paul Vallas and Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson are scrambling to win over the more than 270,000 Chicagoans who backed someone else in Tuesday’s first round.
The race to 50%-plus-1 is going to be a likely ugly battle between the two starkly different candidates, who diverge most on two top issues: crime and education.
One key question is how either of these candidates’ visions for both of those issues will resonate with the supporters of the next closest finisher — Mayor Lori Lightfoot. Her support from 87,000 voters was consolidated this election in majority-Black wards on the South and West sides.
“I think [Lightfoot voters] are probably going to be split,” said veteran political strategist Delmarie Cobb, “unless she comes out and says ‘I’m going to support Brandon or I’m going to support Vallas.’ I can’t imagine her supporting Vallas though —– not if she really wants to protect whatever legacy she has to protect going forward.”
With the backing of the Fraternal Order of Police, Vallas has emerged as the tough-on-crime candidate who, in his victory speech Tuesday night, promised to make Chicago “the safest city in America” in part by bringing back retired police officers to boost department ranks.
Johnson in a 2020 interview said defunding the police is a “real political goal” but has shied away from that slogan on the campaign trail. He has instead emphasized the need for a “comprehensive approach” that focuses on preventing crime’s root causes, such as poverty and mental instability. He has not committed to decreasing the police budget, instead saying the department’s funds need to be spent better within.
Johnson used his victory speech to go on the attack, an indicator of more to come ahead of the April 4 runoff election.
“This is the truth about Paul Vallas: He has literally failed everywhere he has gone,” Johnson said. “In fact Paul Vallas is the author of the tale of two cities. He is backed by people who have done nothing as crime has paralyzed our city.”
Vallas did not mention Johnson by name in his victory speech, instead staying laser focused as he has throughout the campaign on the need to reduce crime. His campaign manager, Brian Towne, called Johnson’s tone “a page out of the CTU playbook, straight to the dirty/nasty politics that hasn’t gotten them much success in the past.”
Comments on Wednesday at a news conference also gave some indication of how Vallas will try to paint Johnson in the runoff race.
“Brandon’s going to have to answer for his long advocacy for defunding the police or the statements that he made a few years ago basically justifying the rioters downtown who almost destroyed the central business district,” Vallas said.
Vallas received the most support from majority-white wards along the lakefront and some of the more conservative wards of the Northwest and Southwest sides, including Beverly and Bridgeport, home to many city workers and police.
Johnson’s support Tuesday concentrated on the far north lakefront and parts of the Northwest Side, where he has built a coalition of progressive voters and progressive Latino politicians — such as Ald. Carlos Ramirez Rosa and State Rep. Delia Ramirez — who sided with him over Congressman Jesús “Chuy” García.
Neither candidate won a majority of the vote in the city’s Black wards — with those victories saved for Lightfoot. Even though turnout in those wards wasn’t enough to propel Lightfoot into the runoff, they’re key to building the across-city coalition needed to win.
Jason Lee, a senior adviser to Johnson’s campaign, said it’s “premature” to say whether they’ll seek an endorsement from Lightfoot, who has railed against Johnson as a “defunder in chief” and has gone head to head in heated battle with the Chicago Teachers Union for the past four years.
“But I do know we will be aggressively pursuing the voters who voted for Lori Lightfoot in round one, because those are Chicagoans and we want to add them to our coalition,” Lee said.
The two candidates’ positions on improving public education in Chicago run perpendicular, from their plans for dealing with under-enrollment, to their relationship with the teacher’s union to their overarching ideology of what public school education should look like.
Johnson, a former teacher who is backed by the Chicago Teachers Union, has said he is opposed to closing under-enrolled schools, saying savings don’t add up and education value doesn’t rise. While Vallas has said severely under-enrolled schools need to close, saying he would increase school choice for children and turn vacant buildings into other uses.
Asked at the news conference how Vallas would “change the perception” among Black voters that he has contributed to the decline of neighborhood schools for championing charter school alternatives, he said he’s already done so.
“I’m changing the perception. I think I’m doing well because I’ve already changed the perception by just talking about my record, talking about my history,” Vallas said. “And obviously, with the financial support I’m receiving I’m going to be able to do that.”
Candidates are also eyeing voters who lined up behind Garcia, who came in fourth with 13%, or 70,000 votes — many from majority-Latino wards. Vallas came in second in some of those Latino wards, better than the Johnson campaign expected, Lee said.
“I’m sure there are people within the Hispanic community who were concerned about public safety and maybe Vallas’s specific message might have appealed to those voters,” Lee said.
But he added he thinks Johnson’s approach to public safety will resonate more, once those residents learn more about him and, he hopes, with the help of García, whose endorsement they’ll seek.
“Hopefully, we can add him to our coalition, along with many of the folks that supported him.”
The story has been updated to clarify the wards where Garcia’s votes primarily came from.
Mariah Woelfel covers city government and politics for WBEZ.