After a Stunning Election, the Future of Chicago Is Up for Grabs

Incumbent Mayor Lori Lightfoot is out and voters now face a choice between former public school teacher Brandon Johnson and corporate education reformer Paul Vallas.

Kari Lydersen

Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson and former Chicago Public Schools CEO face off in a mayoral debate on ABC 7. GETTY IMAGES

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s third-place finish in Chicago’s mayoral race this week made national headlines. Mainstream pundits largely attributed the outcome to Chicagoans’ fear of crime, while many Lightfoot supporters blamed racism, sexism and homophobia. 

While there’s truth to both arguments, they are simplifications that miss more complicated dynamics. Lightfoot’s loss is not so surprising when one takes a harder look at her seemingly Cinderella-story victory in 2019, not to mention the pandemic and racial justice protests that were difficult for any big city mayor to weather. 

The larger story of the election is not Lightfoot’s loss but what the upcoming runoff between the top two finishers says about the city. 

Perennial candidate and quasi-Republican Paul Vallas will face off against progressive Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson on April 4. Vallas won nearly 34% of the vote on Tuesday, with Johnson taking 20%, beating out Lightfoot’s 17%. 

In many ways, Johnson and Vallas make perfect foils. Vallas is a 69-year-old white man closely aligned with the city’s political and economic power brokers and is endorsed by the Fraternal Order of Police. Even in Democratic Chicago, he described himself as more of a Republican” in a 2009 interview, and has been backed by right-wing pundit Charlie Kirk.

Johnson, meanwhile, is a 46-year-old Black former public school teacher from Austin, one of Chicago’s largest and most iconic Black neighborhoods. He is endorsed by the powerful Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) and the influential United Working Families group, as well as its national partner organization Working Families Party. 

Vallas is best known for his controversial roles dismantling and privatizing public education as leader of the school systems in Chicago, Philadelphia, New Orleans and Bridgeport, Connecticut. Among critics he gained a reputation as a shock doctrine” mercenary, tearing apart public schools in the Big Easy after Hurricane Katrina and consulting on school overhauls in Haiti and Chile after devastating earthquakes in 2010. Chris Geovanis, CTU spokesperson and long-time political operative, told me that Vallas has left a trail of tears everywhere he’s gone.” 

Johnson has played a central role in the CTU’s ascent as not only an effective and influential labor union but a progressive force demanding a say in issues beyond education, like housing and immigration policy. 

After decades of complacency in the union, the progressive Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators (CORE) won leadership in 2010 and proceeded to win a standoff against then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel with a 2012 strike that helped teachers fight off test-score-based metrics they argued would harm students, among other wins. A 2019 strike early in Lightfoot’s tenure was also a major victory for the union, ensuring more nurses and social workers in schools, promises around racial equity and protections for homeless students. 

Public education in Chicago, as elsewhere, has long been about much more than the classroom, symbolizing a societal commitment to the well-being of all residents. Attempts to privatize schools, impose top-down authority and undercut teachers unions — major tenets of Vallas’s career — are seen by many critics as inherently hostile to the democratic social contract that a healthy public education system represents. 

So it’s fitting that both mayoral candidates come from the education sphere, and now the city will decide between potential leaders representing either neoliberalism and the cronyism of Chicago’s past, or hopes for a more progressive and egalitarian future. 

Johnson advocates for taxing sales of multi-million dollar homes to fund affordable housing for those experiencing homelessness; canceling the city’s contract with the dysfunctional and problematic ShotSpotter gunshot detection company; ending no-knock warrants; and reopening public mental health clinics. Lightfoot, like nearly every candidate in the 2019 mayor’s race, vowed to reopen mental health clinics shuttered by Emanuel and former Mayor Richard M. Daley, but she never fulfilled the promise. 

In stark contrast to Johnson, Vallas ran hard on a law-and-order” platform, driven by his close ties with Chicago police. He helped negotiate the city’s 2021 contract with the police union, whose head John Catanzara defended the January 6 insurrection. Vallas has vowed to hire almost 2,000 more police officers, and his campaign website says he will ensure suburbanites and tourists will no longer fear traveling downtown.” Of particular concern to civil rights and racial justice advocates, he wants to pass a public nuisance ordinance that could be used to prosecute and fine people who threaten, engage in, or promote looting, damage to property or violence.” The idea of criminalizing ambiguous concepts like promoting” property damage is especially chilling. 

The 2019 mayoral race that Lightfoot ultimately won took place in the midst of the Trump presidency and after eight years of Emanuel, who was widely slammed for prioritizing the wealthy, catering to financial and Hollywood elites and allegedly covering up the police shooting of Black teenager Laquan McDonald. 

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot concedes after not advancing to the 2023 runoff election. GETTY IMAGES

Lightfoot won largely on the strength of her popularity with North Side, largely white lakefront liberals,” exhilarated by the chance to elect the city’s first Black woman mayor and first openly gay or lesbian mayor, and one who talked a progressive game. I was among those moved and thrilled by her inaugural speech, honoring her mother — a healthcare aide and school board member from Arkansas — and boldly staring down City Council stalwart Ed Burke, who was soon to be indicted on corruption charges.

But Lightfoot’s 2019 victory didn’t necessarily signify widespread support or progressivism.

In that primary, she won only 17.5% of the citywide vote, and she won overwhelmingly in the 2019 runoff not so much because of sweeping adulation, but because of growing distrust of her opponent Toni Preckwinkle, affiliated with both embattled county assessor Joe Berrios and Burke.

Even as some saw Lightfoot as a progressive star, grassroots activists were suspicious of her close ties to police and her background as a corporate lawyer and federal prosecutor with little connection to community organizing or social movements.

Preckwinkle bore parallels to Johnson, as president of the Cook County Board and a former teacher and teachers union member. But she was bogged down by her connections to figures accused of corruption and machine politics, not to mention her advocacy for a hated and regressive tax on soda pop.

This time, Johnson won over the lakefront liberal wards that were Lightfoot’s former base, as well as winning Northwest Side wards that represent the emerging progressive Latino power center of Chicago.

It’s no surprise that the city’s largely white Northwest and Southwest Side wards — home to many police and firefighters — went for Vallas, as did downtown and the Near North Side. Congressman Jesús Chuy” García, as expected, won wards on the Southwest Side where he has long lived and held office, but this was only a pale shadow of the progressive and teachers union support that propelled him into a surprise run-off with Emanuel in 2015.

This year, Lightfoot won many of the city’s Black South and West Side wards, where her INVEST South/​West public-private partnership helped fund infrastructure and business development. But Lightfoot did not win enough of the Black vote to counter Vallas’s overwhelming backing from white voters, nor Johnson’s show of support.

On a recent podcast, Ben Joravsky, the long-time progressive pundit and Chicago Reader journalist, called out the illogic of white people who chose Vallas over Lightfoot, given that Lightfoot’s policies consistently furthered gentrification and continued segregation.

White people, I don’t know why you turned against Lori Lightfoot,” Joravsky said sarcastically. What did she ever do to bother you?… What did she get in return for following the agenda that the Rahm administration followed, that the Daley administration followed? She got slapped in the face.”

Joravsky noted that Lightfoot raised the bridges in the Loop, during a riot, after George Floyd was murdered…She was protecting the downtown.” From the Blacks” interjected his guest, legendary Black Chicago journalist Monroe Anderson.

Both conservative and centrist white voters are likely to go with Vallas again in the runoff, so the race depends largely on the turnout and decisions of people of color who voted for García, Lightfoot and five other Black candidates in the primary.

Indeed Lightfoot was abandoned by centrist or scared white voters despite serving their interests; and also by liberals and progressives angry at her breaking promises and changing course on issues like an elected school board, which she supported as a candidate before reneging on it, and tax subsidies for megadevelopments like the $6 billion Lincoln Yards project, which she opposed on the campaign trail before approving in office.

Both conservative and centrist white voters are likely to go with Vallas again in the runoff, so the race depends largely on the turnout and decisions of people of color who voted for García, Lightfoot and five other Black candidates in the primary.

Progressives who voted for García will most likely shift in large numbers to Johnson. That means Chicago’s near-term future could be determined by Black and Latino working-class and middle-class people who don’t necessarily strongly identify as progressive.

Will those voters — in neighborhoods much harder hit by crime than the white enclaves Vallas won — respond to conservative fear-mongering about defunding police” and radical socialism”? Will Johnson be able to negotiate the nuances of providing a sense of security in communities where many say they want more police presence, even as there is also deep distrust of law enforcement?

Chicagoans in lower-income neighborhoods are desperate for violent crime to be curbed and there’s much apprehension about defunding” police, as Johnson has tacitly acknowledged by avoiding the term on the campaign trail.

But Chicagoans in embattled neighborhoods are clearly eager for policies that reduce criminalization of minor offenses and address the root causes of violence. This is evidenced by popular demands for non-police responses to mental health crises, and by support for Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx, who has backed off on prosecuting misdemeanor offenses and crimes of survival like shoplifting, as well as minor charges resulting from the George Floyd protests. Johnson’s approach is also in line with the ambitious state criminal justice reform law, supported by Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker, that eliminated cash bail and increased police and prison oversight.

Johnson’s opponents are likely to paint him as a puppet of the CTU, tapping into red-baiting and latent distrust of the powerful and outspoken union. But even as many Chicagoans, including CTU members themselves, may disagree with CTU leadership, there’s no doubting widespread affection and support for teachers, as evidenced by the massive turnout during historic teacher strikes in both 2012 and, more recently, 2019.

Brandon Johnson at a press conference on Jan. 24, 2023 GETTY IMAGES

It’s also likely that Johnson will have to fight assumptions that he is too young or inexperienced for the job, as Vallas touts his own decades in public service” and his friends in high places. But Johnson is close to the age Barack Obama was when elected president, and has served four years in elected office on the county commission, whereas Vallas lost previous elections for mayor, governor and lieutenant governor, and was appointed, not elected, to his previous posts.

Vallas stepped down as Chicago schools CEO as test scores were falling and he lost support of then-Mayor Richard M. Daley. Vallas’s decision to divert teacher pension payments into general operation funds caused a pension crisis that plagued the system for years. His leadership in Philadelphia was tumultuous and controversial; he left the district after five years and was then fired less than two years into his tenure in Connecticut over a judge’s finding that he manipulated required state certifications.

Ultimately, will Chicagoans take a chance on Johnson’s progressive policies — crafted and demanded by grassroots organizations and leaders? Or will they believe Vallas’s cynical framing of a nearly lawless city besieged by carjackings and murder, in need of a white savior?

Under a Mayor Vallas, it’s possible to imagine an accelerated descent into a tale of two cities” with widening chasms between the haves and have-nots, a continued loss of Chicago’s Black population, the criminalization of protest and paralyzing polarization of City Council.

Electing Johnson will hardly be a panacea. No Chicago mayor yet has been able to stem the carnage of gun violence, and Johnson’s plan to address the root causes of crime will be a slow process. The recent election only underscores the deep racism and segregation that is synonymous with Chicago, and the runoff will likely further expose and exacerbate roiling tensions. Business leaders are likely to revolt over policies like the real estate transfer tax, raising hell and threatening to leave the city; while the police union would surely revolt against the progressive criminal justice policies Johnson proposes.

Given these stakes, the leadup to the April 4 vote could become tense and ugly. Johnson’s backers will have a formidable challenge in rallying voter turnout and convincing Chicagoans to let themselves hope for a brighter and more equitable future, even as Vallas appeals to fear and divisions. Lightfoot has called out Vallas for racist dog whistles” when he has promised taking our city back.”

But that promise may backfire for Vallas, considering so many Chicagoans feel they’ve never had a fair chance to claim ownership over their own city — or have a voice in how it’s run. The future Johnson and his supporters propose may be uncharted territory, but especially after surviving the tumult of recent years, Chicagoans may be ready to embrace a new direction.

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Kari Lydersen is a Chicago-based journalist, author and assistant professor at Northwestern University, where she leads the investigative specialization at the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications. Her books include Mayor 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago’s 99%.

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