In a surprise victory for progressive organizing and the future of police reform efforts, Chicago voters elected underdog former education organizer Brandon Johnson as mayor, beating back moderate Democrat Paul Vallas, according to the Associated Press. Johnson beat Vallas, a centrist former budget and public schools chief, despite Vallas’s tough-on-crime messaging, which resonated with moderates and white voters.
The progressive victory happened a bit over a month since voters soundly rejected their incumbent mayor, Lori Lightfoot, in the first round of voting in the mayoral election, largely over dissatisfaction with her promises for reform of schools and city policing. With Johnson’s victory, the third-largest city in the country has made an ideological pronouncement about a core tension within the Democratic Party nationally about how to respond to concerns about crime.
Vallas had been the frontrunner for the last few months against Johnson, who got his political start as an organizer with the city’s teachers union. The election pitted two powerful Chicago constituencies against each other: Vallas was backed by the city’s vocal and controversial police union and Johnson was backed by the teacher’s union.
Lightfoot had sparred with two of the most powerful forces in this year’s mayor’s race: the Chicago Fraternal Order of Police, which endorsed Vallas, and the Chicago Teachers Union, which backs Johnson – a former teacher and union organizer.
The clash between those two unions is part of a larger battle over how the city handled the Covid-19 pandemic – a period during which violent crime increased and schools were shut down.
Vallas campaigned on a pro-police, tough-on-crime message. He vowed to fill hundreds of vacancies in the Chicago Police Department, and said he would emphasize community policing and place officers on public transit, after a recent violent crime spike at the Chicago Transit Authority’s trains and stations alarmed many commuters.
Johnson said during the campaign that he did not want to slash police spending. He said he would promote 200 new detectives, arguing that solving more crimes would increase Chicago residents’ trust in police and deter crime.
In his victory speech Tuesday night, Johnson nodded to his clashes with Vallas over crime and policing. He said he envisions “a city that’s safer for everyone by investing in what actually works to prevent crime. And that means youth employment, mental health centers, ensuring that law enforcement has the resources to solve and prevent crimes.”
Vallas and Johnson spent the weeks leading up to the runoff courting the approximately 45% of the electorate that did not vote for either candidate in February.
They were particularly focused on Black and Latino voters outside of Johnson’s progressive base and Vallas’ support in White ethnic neighborhoods and the northwestern portion of the city.
Vallas featured Black mainstays of Chicago politics, including former Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White and former US Rep. Bobby Rush, in his closing television advertisement touting his Democratic credentials.
Johnson had argued that Vallas was too conservative for the electorate of a city where 83% of voters backed the Democratic presidential ticket in 2020. He highlighted donations Vallas’ campaign received from business interests and Republicans, as well as digital ads paid for by a PAC with ties to former Trump Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.
Vallas concedes to Johnson
Johnson’s victory was a momentous win for progressive organizations such as the teachers union. His win is the highest office of any active teachers union member in recent history, leaders say.
On Tuesday night, Vallas told his supporters that he had called Johnson and said he expected him to be the next mayor.
While some supporters seemed to jeer the news, Vallas urged them to put aside differences and support the next mayor in “the daunting work ahead.”
“This campaign that I ran to bring the city together would not be a campaign that fulfills my ambitions if this election is going to divide us,” Vallas said.
In his victory speech, Johnson struck a triumphant and highly optimistic note. He talked about how tonight means the civil rights movement and labor rights movement have finally won, and said his government will be a government that truly belongs to the people of Chicago.
He also ended his speech saying this is a time to “celebrate the revival and the resurrection of the City of Chicago.”
By contrast, Vallas’ supporters were stunned and even booed when he told them he had conceded to Johnson, but the former CPS CEO and city budget director had clearly looked at the math and did not see a way for him to close the gap with the outstanding mail-in ballots.
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