Lightfoot Goes Down, and a Moderate Liberal Faces a Leftist in Chicago

What do we know about police union-backed Paul Vallas and teachers union-backed Brandon Johnson?

News Analysis

The verdict was in: Lori Lightfoot was out.

The Feb. 28 election marked a decisive failure for Chicago’s controversial incumbent and the first loss for a one-term mayor in the city in four decades.

She finished third in a crowded field, earning just over 17 percent of the vote.

Lightfoot edged out Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, a former favorite of the left, at 13.7 percent of votes.

She also defeated black Chicago’s answer to former president Donald J. Trump, South Side businessman Willie Wilson.

The self-funded Wilson, who has endorsed Trump in the past, got almost 10 percent of the vote.

A glance at the electoral map shows how the Windy City foreshadows one potential future for the United States, should mass immigration continue alongside sustained attacks on a positive, shared American identity.

Votes balkanized along ethnic and racial lines, except in areas with many liberal or left-leaning whites–a group that exhibits a unique level of racial self-hatred, as detailed by political scientist Zach Goldberg with the help of national survey data.

A map from Northwestern University’s Frank Calabrese shows that Lightfoot claimed much of Chicago’s South Side and West Side. That marks a contrast from her performance in the 2019 general election, when her support was concentrated in whiter neighborhoods on the North Side. (Lightfoot went on to win most of the city in a runoff contest against Cook County Commissioner Toni Preckwinkle.)

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Epoch Times Photo
Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot speaks during an election night rally at Mid-America Carpenters Regional Council in Chicago, Ill., on Feb. 28, 2023. (Kamil Krzaczynski/Getty Images)

Wilson snatched up bits and pieces of heavily black neighborhoods on the South and West Sides.

Garcia, meanwhile, dominated Hispanic corridors on the Southwest, Northwest, and Far South Sides.

What about the two top vote-getters, Paul Vallas and Brandon Johnson?

Vallas, the former CEO of Chicago Public Schools (CPS), did well on the Far Northwest Side and the Far Southwest Side, as well as in Bridgeport. Though they’re more black, Asian, and Hispanic now than in the past, they remain some of the final redoubts of ethnic, white, working-class Catholic Chicago in the southern half of the city.

Vallas also beat all comers downtown and in other parts of the North Side. He ultimately claimed 34 percent of the vote.

Brandon Johnson’s performance, meanwhile, almost mirrors Lightfoot’s in the 2019 general–almost, but not quite.

The Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) organizer and Cook County commissioner won Logan Square, Lincoln Square, Uptown, and Edgewater. He also excelled in “Mr. Obama’s neighborhood,” Hyde Park, and Kenwood on the South Side.

Although those neighborhoods aren’t ethnically uniform, their tone is influenced by young, left-wing, predominantly white Chicagoans—a close cousin of Lightfoot’s heavily white, North Side coalition from 2019, albeit one further from the center of the political spectrum.

Johnson and Vallas will face each other in an April 4 runoff.

The two share some similarities. They’re both Democrats. They’ve both worked in education. They both want to seem like a breath of fresh air after Lightfoot—herself a one-time reform candidate.

So, what really sets them apart from each other?

Political Life in a One-Party City

The answer has a lot to do with how Chicago, as a one-party city, actually works.

Writing in UnHerd, journalist Matthew Crawford described what Democratic rule in rapidly diversifying California means for individual American citizens who still imagine they matter:

“There is little meaningful distinction to be made between the government and the Democratic Party. Competition for control of California takes place, not between two rival parties with different political visions and corresponding electorates in a general election, but between aspirants within the Democratic Party, under a shared political vision.”

“In practice, this means competition for money from [organized] interests that fund the activist networks, which in turn translate those interests into various moralisms and thereby shape the vision of the party. The electorate largely drops out of consideration as a constituency.”

That’s pretty much the ground truth in the Second City. Organized ethnic lobbies, public sector unions, high finance, and a smattering of other powerful collectivities dictate who wins political office and how they govern.

In practice, anyone who wants to run Chicago must be a Democrat. Exceptions come from the left of the formal party, among groups that seek to steer the city toward socialism.

During the 2019 election, for example, multiple members of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) were elected to City Council.

Vallas and Johnson should be viewed in the context of Chicago’s one-party, left-skewed system.

Some have presented Vallas as a conservative, pointing to a 2009 interview in which he said he was “more of a Republican than a Democrat now.”

Yet, the veteran of school reform efforts is, by national standards, a man of the center-left.

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Epoch Times Photo
Chicago mayoral candidate and former Chicago Public Schools CEO Paul Vallas arrives at Robert Healy Elementary School to cast his ballot in a City’s Mayoral Election on Feb. 28, 2023. (Kamil Krzaczynski/Getty Images)

Vallas, who describes himself on Twitter as a “lifelong Democrat,” has the record of a moderate liberal. That’s evident in his platform too.

For instance, it includes a proposal to reestablish an environmental department for the city.

“A healthy city,” Vallas’ website states, “is one where environmental justice and climate resiliency are incorporated into all aspects of municipal operations.”

Vallas’ plan for homelessness would put in place a “housing-first orientation.” That could place him at odds with more conservative critics of “housing-first” policies, who argue that the approach undermines homeless shelters while also fueling crime.

Ideological Rationalizations

In a one-party city, politics still has something to do with ideology. Any City Council attendee who has heard aldermen speechify against President Donald Trump and conservatism can attest to that.

Yet, in some ways, ideology is merely a loose skein holding together very different and, at times, opposed interest groups.

Ideological formulas also fail when circumstances press upon political actors.

In Chicago’s case, rising violence has apparently surpassed the population’s high tolerance for lawlessness and criminality.

A few years after 2020, when talk of “defunding the police” and a “racial reckoning” was mainstream, law and order is back in style across much of the city.

For the most part, the mass demand for public safety drives ideological rationalizations, not vice-versa. Yet, the demands of earnestly held belief, and of factional allies, still hem in the universe of political possibilities.

The play between ideology, bloc politics, and mass public opinion explains Vallas vs. Johnson.

Vallas has the backing of a growing legion of top Illinois Democrats.

Longtime Secretary of State Jesse White, now retired, and former mayoral candidate Ald. Rod Sawyer, who is retiring, are two among the Democratic public figures to have endorsed Vallas in recent days.

Prior to the Feb. 28 election, Vallas secured the support of independent Ald. Anthony Napolitano, along with that of retiring Ald. Tom Tunney.

Johnson, meanwhile, has received the endorsement of Rep. Danny K. Davis (D-Ill.). The Chicago Sun-Times reports Preckwinkle is slated to endorse Johnson on March 7.

Epoch Times Photo
Epoch Times Photo
Chicago mayoral candidate and Cook County commissioner Brandon Johnson speaks during a press conference outside of City Hall to explain his proposed agenda if elected mayor on Jan. 24, 2023. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Vallas has made public safety a central theme of his candidacy, calling for more police officers and for the resignation of Lightfoot’s top cop, David Brown.

Brown has already resigned from his post, following the general election.

Vallas has also marshaled more traditionally liberal rhetoric in service of his tough-on-crime pitch; his website states that “public safety is a human right.”

In early Jan. 2023, Vallas was endorsed by Chicago’s Fraternal Order of Police—a cosign sought by just one other candidate, Willie Wilson, and one that may well have redounded to Vallas’ benefit, judging by the Feb. 28 results.

Epoch Times Photo
Epoch Times Photo
Chicago mayoral candidate Paul Vallas speaks during a press conference at his campaign headquarters in Chicago, Ill. on Feb. 3, 2023. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

At the time, then-Mayor Lightfoot came after Vallas for the endorsement from the union, which represents more than 8,000 Chicago Police Department officers.

“So much for being a ‘lifelong Democrat,’” she wrote on Twitter, citing remarks by that union’s president, John Catanzara, on the events of Jan. 6, the COVID-19 response, and other topics.

Two Public Sector Unions Face Off

Now up against Vallas, the police union’s pick, Johnson is the candidate of the very teachers union for which he has lobbied.

Indeed, the CTU endorsed Johnson in Sept. 2022, before he had formally entered the race.

The CTU and its affiliates at the state and national level went on to spend $2.5 million on Johnson’s campaign, as documented by the Illinois Policy Institute.

Vallas, for his part, recently lent his mayoral campaign fund $100,100, meaning neither he nor Johnson will face caps on contributions.

His mayoral campaign has so far raised more than $6.5 million. That includes large donations from Citadel executive Peng Zhao, Koch Foods executive Joseph Grendys, and other wealthy members of Chicago’s business community.

Johnson’s campaign has raised a total of more than $5.4 million.

In practice, the CTU’s opposition to Vallas has a great deal to do with his school reform philosophy, which encompasses support for charter schools. Like everything else in Chicago politics, it is framed in explicitly racial terms.

“He boasts that as CEO he kept educators and schools “accountable,” but conveniently ignores the decades-long destabilization of Black and Latine schools and communities he set in motion,” a CTU blog post on Vallas’ candidacy states.

Johnson has sometimes sought to position himself as a police advocate.

“We have placed too much pressure and responsibility on law enforcement to behave as social workers, counselors, marriage therapists—that’s not what law enforcement should be doing,” he told WTTW on March 1.

Epoch Times Photo
Epoch Times Photo
Mayoral candidate and Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson chats with a supporter inside Manny’s Cafeteria and Delicatessen on City’s Mayoral Election day on Feb. 28, 2023, in Chicago, Illinois. (Kamil Krzaczynski/Getty Images)

Yet, his campaign website is much longer on “root causes of crime and poverty” than it is on calls to support the Chicago Police Department. The explicit policies—for example, a call to get rid of the city’s gang database—tend to fall on the side of curbing the power of law enforcement.

Johnson explicitly called to “defund the police” in 2020, describing it as not simply a mantra for activists but as an “actual real political goal.”

Johnson’s leftist bona fides don’t end there. Jacobin, a socialist magazine, praised him for leading “an unapologetic left-wing campaign that prioritized taxing the rich to fund social programs and reimagining public safety to increase investments in mental health and other city services.”

Public Safety

The runoff may ultimately come down to whether fear of crime overrides other concerns, whether at the level of the alderman or that of the individual voter.

Johnson, an African American, is expected to do well in the parts of the city where Lightfoot, also African American, performed well in last month’s general election.

Although Vallas, who is of Greek descent, grew up in Roseland on the South Side, his skin color may still pose a problem in black neighborhoods.

On the other hand, the precedent set in 2019, when CTU-backed Preckwinkle lost badly to Lightfoot, suggests Johnson could still have an uphill battle, especially if Chicago voters worry more about public safety than about a few more charter schools.

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