Why the Chicago mayoral runoff matters for national politics

Chicago mayoral candidates Brandon Johnson, left, and Paul Vallas
Chicago mayoral candidates Brandon Johnson, left, and Paul Vallas greet each other before a debate, on March 21. (Armando L. Sanchez/Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service via Getty Images)

CHICAGO — In 2009, President Obama tried to bolster Chicago’s bid to host the 2016 summer Olympics by telling the International Olympic Committee how he had come “to discover that Chicago is that most American of American cities.”

On Tuesday, voters in that city will select their new mayor, and what happens in this most American of cities could be a sign for the rest of America. The choice is between progressive Brandon Johnson and moderate Paul Vallas, who were the top two finishers in the first round of voting last month, which saw incumbent Lori Lightfoot finish third.

The two represent starkly different visions of the city, informed by starkly different backgrounds.

Johnson is a Black former teacher who now serves on the Cook County Board of Commissioners. In 2020, he proposed a Budget for Black Lives, which he has touted as a signature accomplishment. Now, Johnson is pushing for higher taxes and more expansive social services.

Vallas is the grandson of Greek immigrants who has touted his own managerial competence as a school reformer in Chicago, Philadelphia, New Orleans and Bridgeport, Conn. His top priority is hiring more police officers and bringing down the city’s troublingly high rate of both violent and property crime.

“This is a hope-versus-fear election,” Ben Head, political director for Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., who has endorsed Johnson, told Yahoo News.

The results could be one of the last and best barometers of the electorate’s mood ahead of the 2024 elections. What happens in Chicago could tell the national Democratic Party how much issues like crime continue to weigh on voters; how much bitterness lingers from pandemic-related school closures; how much progressive policy middle-class voters are willing to countenance.

Voters cast their ballots in a Chicago's mayoral election, Feb. 28
Voters cast their ballots in a Chicago's mayoral election, Feb. 28. (Kamil Krzaczynski/Getty Images)

“The April 4 runoff election for mayor of Chicago is a proxy war for the forces of reaction and transformation in our country at the moment,” said Jackson Potter, a vice president of the Chicago Teachers Union, which has invested heavily in Johnson’s candidacy, in an interview with Convergence magazine. “What happens here will have huge repercussions for what’s possible, not just in city elections across the country, but in our national elections.”

Chicago — the nation’s third-largest city, with 2.7 million people — may be more indicative of the national mood than New York City and Los Angeles, which both elected new mayors in the last two years. Unlike those cities, Chicago is not a coastal destination for celebrities and global billionaires. But it is the most populous city in the Midwest, its population evenly divided between white, Black and Latino residents.

Although life here has become unaffordable to some, the contrast between Chicago and star cities on the coasts remains astonishing. A home, on average, costs $262,866 in Chicago, much closer to the national average of $354,649 than San Francisco ($1.23 million) or even Washington, D.C. ( $617,377).

“Chicago is a place where middle class families can afford a nice place to live,” Chicago-based political consultant Tracy Mayfield told Yahoo News. “You can have just a beautiful neighborhood existence.”

What homeowners in Bronzeville, a historic South Side epicenter of Black culture, and young professionals in fashionable North Side neighborhoods like Lincoln Park say about what they want for Chicago could prove relevant, as both parties gear their pitches to the suburbs of Philadelphia and the exurbs of Phoenix and other battleground regions of the country.

'I Voted
"I Voted" stickers at a polling place in Chicago, Feb. 28. (Kamil Krzaczynski/Getty Images)

Moreover, Chicago could serve as the site of next summer’s Democratic National Convention, potentially elevating the profile of the next mayor, who would likely have a speaking spot along with national figures including President Biden. (Obama, then a state senator from Chicago’s South Side, first achieved national renown with his speech at the 2004 convention.)

“The next leader will be a major political figure in the national conversation,” Mayfield said. His policies could become a referendum on the party’s broader priorities.

The contrasts between the two candidates could not be more stark.

Johnson and Vallas are both running as Democrats, but in 2009, Vallas told a conservative pundit that he is “more of a Republican than a Democrat” and that he “would run as a Republican,” were he to seek public office. He also previously opposed abortion rights, though he says he now favors reproductive choice. Throughout 2021, Vallas repeatedly appeared on conservative talk radio programs, mocking both President Biden and Obama, whose presidential library is currently being built on the South Side.

Even so, many establishment Democrats are wary of Johnson and his progressive ideas. Vallas has the endorsement of Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois and Arne Duncan, who served as the education secretary in the Obama administration after a stint as CEO of the Chicago Public Schools and remains deeply involved in Chicago affairs.

By endorsing Vallas, Democrats are making clear that they view public safety as a top concern, not to mention a top electoral vulnerability. Though he has embraced ideas like school choice and outlined proposals to build more affordable housing, Vallas is inarguably the law-and-order candidate. If voters know anything about him, it is that, and perhaps nothing else.

“Valla’s message has been very simple, very clean,” Chicago political consultant Thom Serafin told Yahoo News. If he wins (and Serafin believes that will be the case), “it’s going to send a loud message to a lot of folks.”

Conservatives have charged that progressive Democratic policies have made American cities unsafe. Republican attacks to the same effect have become concerning enough to President Biden that he recently took the surprising step of blocking the Washington, D.C., City Council from implementing a public safety reform bill that was seen as being overly lenient by conservatives and some moderates.

Chicago mayoral candidate Brandon Johnson
Chicago mayoral candidate Brandon Johnson at a recent campaign stop in Chicago's Sixth Ward. (Armando L. Sanchez/Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service via Getty Images)

Johnson has the support of the powerful Chicago Teachers Union. Vallas has the endorsement of the smaller local chapter of the Fraternal Order of the Police, which cannot provide the logistical or financial support of the CTU. Nevertheless, a vote of confidence from the police is a telling sign, comforting to some voters but potentially alienating to others.

“If Paul Vallas is even a Democrat, he’s at the far edge of the party. He’s called himself a Republican,” said Head. “At best he is in the Dan Lipinski wing of the party,” Head argued to Yahoo News, an unflattering reference to a combative local congressman who was ousted in 2020 by a more liberal challenger.

So what does it mean for Democrats here and across the country that Vallas appears to hold a narrow lead heading into Tuesday’s election?’

Having unsuccessfully sought office several times before, Vallas became a frontrunner by focusing on Chicago’s crime problem, including a sharp rise in murders around the time the pandemic began. Carjackings and car theft, which were previously prevalent in only the city’s poorer precincts, have also become a citywide problem.

Johnson has been forced to explain — and renounce — his earlier support for shifting city funds away from police departments to social service agencies. At recent debates, he has grown frustrated at constant reminders by Vallas that he had supported the so-called defund movement.

Johnson has “never been able to shake the ‘defund the police’ issue,” says Serafin, an issue that has even hounded Biden, despite his being an author of the 1993 crime bill and a centrist Democrat who never expressed support for defunding the police.

“It's like getting paint on your hand,” Serafin says. “You can’t get the paint off.”

Paul Vallas
Vallas meeting with supporters at the Copernicus Center in Chicago on Saturday. (Jacek Boczarski/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

When it comes to homicides, the overwhelming majority of victims in Chicago are Black. Murders with Black victims are the least likely to be solved by the police department. And there are longstanding allegations that cops are slow to respond when receiving calls from Black neighborhoods.

Frustrations with crime may explain why Vallas has received a surprising number of endorsements from Black electoral and religious leaders in Chicago, including from former Rep. Bobby Rush, a founder of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panthers. Discussing what it meant to have Rush’s support at a recent City Club of Chicago forum, Vallas teared up.

“A lot of progressives make the mistake of thinking that Black people are progressive: Not the folks who go to church twice a week, not the folks who are older and homeowners,” political consultant Pete Giangreco told Yahoo News. “The most middle-class people in the world are middle-class people on the South Side,” he added, referring to a historically Black part of Chicago.

National polls suggest that Black voters are drifting away from the Democratic Party, potentially severing a decades-long allegiance.

Chicago has not elected a Republican mayor for a century, but even here there are hints of a split. “When you go through the South Side, you go to Bronzeville, Englewood, Roseland, the depth of poverty and destruction, the disinvestment, the institutional racism — they have allowed it,” said Devin R. Jones, a Black conservative who leads a local GOP chapter, of the city’s Democratic leadership.

Members of the Chicago Teachers Union listen to speakers at a press conference outside of John Spry Community School
Members of the Chicago Teachers Union listen to speakers at a press conference outside of John Spry Community School, Jan. 10, 2022. (Jose M. Osorio/Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service via Getty Images)

Schools are another wedge issue. The CTU fought against reopening schools into 2022, arguing that it was not safe to do so even after vaccines became available. While ardent supporters of the union — and of public sector unions more broadly — cheered the teachers’ recalcitrance, many Chicago parents grew frustrated.

The frustration could linger. “The CTU flexed its muscle in keeping schools closed,” Mayfield told Yahoo News. “People are just scared they could do it again.” A recent strike by teachers in Los Angeles, albeit brief, served as a throwback to the bitterness that marked the debate about reopening schools during the pandemic.

That very same bitterness helped power Republican Glenn Youngkin to an unlikely victory in 2021’s gubernatorial race in Virginia, when he energized parents frustrated by school closures and uncertain about lessons on the history of systemic racism, which he described with the inaccurate catch-all term “critical race theory.”

In doing so, Youngkin came to serve as a kind of prototype for other Republicans who have embraced similar messages on education.

Vallas has been criticized for expressing his own reservations about how Black history should be taught, agreeing with one interviewer that learning about past oppression would turn Black children into “criminals,” earning comparisons to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, an eager culture warrior.

Sen. Bernie Sanders and progressive mayoral candidate Brandon Johnson, right
Sen. Bernie Sanders and progressive mayoral candidate Brandon Johnson, right, rally the faithful at the Credit Union One Arena last Thursday. (Jacek Boczarski/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

In the final day of the 2021 gubernatorial race in Virginia, powerful American Federation of Teachers leader Randi Weingarten campaigned with McAuliffe. She was in Chicago last week at a boisterous Johnson rally that featured Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, the independent progressive superstar. Johnson has also won the backing of Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Squad member Rep. Ayanna Pressley, both Democrats from Massachusetts.

“The last time I saw this kind of energy in Chicago, it was when Barack Obama was president,” Weingarten said.

Yet for all their differences, both Vallas and Johnson have both been marching towards the middle since the first round of voting, in an effort to make themselves palatable to moderate voters.

It’s not clear how convincing they have been. “For a lot of normal Democrats, this is a choice between a Republican and a socialist,” Giangreco said. “There’s a big chunk of the vote that’s like, ‘I just want to vote for normal.’”

Biden is preparing to make that very case to voters once he announces his reelection bid, as most everyone expects he will do within a matter of weeks or months. Ahead of the 2022 midterms, he argued that MAGA Republicans beholden to former President Trump and opposed to reproductive rights and expanded access to affordable health care could not be trusted with congressional control.

The argument helped Democrats retain control of the Senate and prevail in key gubernatorial races.

“In general, moderation seems to be good for candidates electorally,” says University of Chicago political scientist Anthony Fowler. “There’s lots of good evidence that when given a moderate option, voters typically choose the moderate option.”