Chicago chooses between progressive, moderate for mayor
CHICAGO (AP) — Voters in Chicago will elect a new mayor Tuesday as two candidates with opposing views on issues including crime, taxes, schools and investment in police vie to lead the heavily Democratic city, the third the largest in the country.
The race pits former Chicago schools CEO Paul Vallas, a moderate Democrat backed by the Chicago police union and major business groups, against progressive Brandon Johnson, a former teacher and union organizer backed by the Teachers Union. of Chicago. Both men finished ahead of incumbent Mayor Lori Lightfoot in the February election, making her the first mayor in 40 years to seek re-election in the city and lose.
The top two vote-getters in the all-Democratic but officially nonpartisan race advanced to Tuesday’s runoff because no candidate received more than 50% of the vote.
The competition is focused on the increase in violent crime during the COVID-19 pandemic and the increase in property taxes. But it also could have implications for Democrats nationally ahead of other elections, including mayoral races in cities such as Philadelphia and Houston. For both progressives and the more moderate wing of the party, the Chicago race is seen as a test of organizing power and messaging, especially on issues important to big cities like crime and alignment with law enforcement unions.
Vallas has repeatedly attacked Johnson for past comments in support of underfunding the police, something Johnson says he would not do as mayor. Still, Vallas — who wants to hire hundreds more officers — says the biggest quality that separates candidates is experience. Chicago’s former budget director, who took over struggling schools in Chicago and elsewhere, says his story will be critical for a city emerging from pandemic policing and economic crises.
“This is not the time for on-the-job training,” Vallas said. “This is not the time for someone who doesn’t have specifics, who really can’t answer questions in a substantive way.”
Johnson, in turn, has argued that Vallas, who has run for office several times as a Democrat, is too right-wing to lead Chicago. He noted that some of his big donors have also supported Republicans, including Donald Trump, and that the controversial head of the police union has defended the January 6 rioters. During a rally late last week with Sen. Bernie Sanders, a Vermont independent and progressive standard-bearer, he described his opponent as part of the far right and “greedy profiteers.”
“When you take dollars from Trump supporters and you try to be part of the progressive movement — man, sit down,” Johnson said before leading a crowd of several thousand gathered at the rally to chant “Paul Vallas, sit down.”
Both men have deep roots in the Democratic Party, albeit from very different backgrounds.
Johnson, who is black, grew up poor and is now raising his children in one of Chicago’s most violent neighborhoods. After teaching middle and high school, he helped mobilize teachers, including during a landmark 2012 strike that saw the Chicago Teachers Union become highly influential in city politics.
The 47-year-old says that instead of investing more in policing and incarceration, the city should focus on mental health treatment, affordable housing for all and youth jobs. He has proposed a plan he says would raise $800 million by taxing “ultra-wealthy” individuals and businesses, including a per-employee “head tax” on employers and an additional tax on hotel room stays. Vallas says the so-called “tax-the-rich” plan would be a disaster for the city’s economic recovery.
Vallas, who finished in first place in the February election, was the only white candidate in that nine-person field. The 69-year-old was endorsed by Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois, as well as the local Chamber of Commerce. The grandson of Greek immigrants, he grew up working in family restaurants. He has two sons who worked as police officers, one of whom is now a firefighter.
After serving as budget director under then-Mayor Richard M. Daley, Vallas was appointed to take over Chicago Public Schools. He then went on to lead districts in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and in Philadelphia and Bridgeport, Connecticut. He unsuccessfully ran for mayor in 2019.
This election, he has focused heavily on how to improve morale among officers — Vallas was a consultant to the union during its negotiations with Lightfoot City Hall — and said he would promote a new police superintendent from within the department.
Associated Press reporter Teresa Crawford contributed.