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Paul Vallas and Brandon Johnson head to Chicago mayoral runoff

Vallas Johnson.jpg
Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere and Anthony Vazquez
Chicago Sun-Times
Former Chicago schools CEO Paul Vallas and Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson advanced to an April runoff Tuesday in the nine-way Chicago mayoral contest.

Former Chicago schools CEO Paul Vallas and Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson advanced to an April runoff Tuesday in the nine-way Chicago mayoral contest, bringing to a close the historic and tumultuous reign of Mayor Lori Lightfoot.

After falling far short in his first run for mayor in 2019, Vallas delivered a convincing thrashing of the one-term incumbent and ran up the score on Johnson and U.S. Rep. Jesús “Chuy” García with a centrist campaign that made the city’s surging violence a signature issue.

While no candidate reached the 50% threshold, Tuesday’s outcome now means the April 4 runoff election will be an epic clash between two of Chicago’s most powerful and politically active unions — the cops, who back Vallas, and Chicago’s public school teachers, who are behind Johnson.

“Let me just tell you, I haven’t been this happy since my son returned from Afghanistan,” Vallas said to cheering supporters at his West Loop campaign party. “And I want to thank you all, old friends and new, for joining this campaign. It’s because of you that we are in the second round.”

In his victory speech, Vallas expressed support for abortion rights and gay marriage and made a dramatic pledge on crime.

“Public safety is the fundamental right of every American. It is a civil right. And it is the principle responsibility of government, and we will have a safe Chicago,” Vallas said. “We will make Chicago the safest city in America.”

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere
Chicago Sun-Times
Chicago mayoral candidate Paul Vallas takes a photo with a supporter during his election night party at Recess, located at 838 W. Kinzie St., Tuesday on Feb. 28, 2023.

Johnson, meanwhile, didn’t dwell on violence in his impassioned victory speech, instead giving a nod to his fast and unlikely ride into the runoff that many didn’t believe was likely just a few months ago when he began the campaign as a relative political unknown.

“You know, a few months ago, they said they didn’t know who I was. Well, if you didn’t know, now you know!” he yelled to jubilant supporters jammed inside a West Garfield Park banquet hall.

Johnson paid homage to his swath of labor support that injected rocket fuel into his candidacy — from the Chicago Teachers Union to SEIU to a variety of other unions. Then, he delivered a between-the-eyes rhetorical broadside at Vallas, saying he “failed” in every school system in which he has worked and is a candidate cloaked in contradictions.

“Paul Vallas is someone who is supported by the Jan. 6 insurrectionists,” he said, referring to the FOP’s president John Catanzara’s past defense of the insurrection. The Fraternal Order of Police union is backing Vallas.

“He switched parties when President Barack Obama became president of the United States. He went as far as to say he’s more of a Republican than anything else. He says he fundamentally opposes abortion. These are direct quotes,” Johnson said.

Reversal for Lightfoot

Both candidates gave glimpses of what promises to be a vigorous and nasty contest between two ideological polar opposites. Missing from that upcoming campaign is Chicago’s first Black female and openly gay mayor.

Tuesday’s vote was a stunning and humbling reversal for Lightfoot from four years ago, when she won every ward in her 2019 mayoral election, and the first time in 40 years an elected Chicago mayor lost reelection.

“Obviously, we didn’t win the election today, but I stand here with my head held high and a heart filled with gratitude,” a somber Lightfoot said in delivering her concession speech, with her wife Amy at her side.

“Regardless of tonight’s outcome, we fought the right fight and put this city on a better path, no doubt about it,” she said in a speech interrupted by cries of “We love you” and “Thank you” from supporters. “Now as we all know in life, you don’t always win every battle. But you never regret taking on the powerful and bringing in the light,” she said.

The Associated Press called it for Vallas’s runoff berth less than an hour after polls closed and for Johnson about an hour after that.

With 98% of precincts reporting citywide in a low-turnout election, Vallas had 34% of the vote, with Johnson at 20% and Lightfoot at 17%. U.S. Rep. Jesús “Chuy” García stood in fourth place with 14% of the vote.

Garcia’s loss was his second in less than a decade, after losing in a runoff against Rahm Emanuel in 2015. He had been considered a potential favorite, and certainly had the most name recognition besides the incumbent going into the race. But he entered it fairly late, losing potential progressive backers — like the CTU — to Johnson.

At his election night party, Garcia thanked supporters and said he gave it his best shot.

“Thank you for everything that you left on the field today. Mil gracias a todos,” Garcia said. Garcia said he will continue the political struggle begun by his slain ally, the labor activist Rudy Lozano, and the late Mayor Harold Washington. Whoever wins the mayor’s race, he said, would “be held accountable.”

“Tonight I still believe Chicago has more of a future than ever before,” Garcia said. “I have no regrets. I left it all on the field.”

Vallas comeback

Four years ago, Vallas stumbled his way to a ninth-place finish in the 14-way mayoral election that Lightfoot won. That disappointing result followed his defeat in 2014 as Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn’s running mate and his 2002 loss in the Democratic gubernatorial primary.

But this go-around, Vallas reinvented himself politically, emphasizing what happened to be one of Lightfoot’s Achilles heels: crime.

Since 2019, murders were up by nearly 40% across the city, and robberies and theft jumped by double-digit percentage increase. Carjackings during the past four years increased by an alarming 139% during Lightfoot’s term.

Buoyed by an aggressive television advertising campaign, Vallas zeroed in on her failure to curb violent attacks throughout the city, mining an issue that came to define her four years on City Hall’s 5th floor as much as her response to the pandemic and the stabilization of city finances.

He adopted the campaign slogan, “Public Safety First,” vowed to fire police Supt. David Brown, criticized Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx and pledged to hire more police officers.

At Vallas’s party at the West Loop venue, The City Hall, Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” and Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” played over the speakers. Vallas’s law-and-order message, promising to increase the number of police on Chicago’s streets, resonated with supporters there.

“I live up north in a bungalow district with relatively low crime and it’s getting closer to home every single day,” Keith Forshaw, 49, said. “Paul has a plan with the police. I like his plan. I think he can execute on it.“

Vallas indeed capitalized on big turnouts in largely white Southwest and Northwest wards, home to large concentrations of city cops.

As Vallas’s campaign gained momentum, Lightfoot in recent weeks settled into the role of underdog despite her incumbency. She accused Vallas of being a shadow Republican, belittled his acceptance of the Chicago FOP endorsement and, of late, hit him for a series of “likes” of racially questionable tweets.

Johnson support

Johnson ascended as the favored candidate of the Chicago Teachers Union, which helped underwrite his political advertising. He has advocated for increased school funding, new investments in housing and mental health and additional police reforms. But Lightfoot hit him in campaign advertising with claims that Johnson wanted to defund police.

But to supporters of Johnson, the candidate represents change that only someone raised in Chicago can make. At Johnson’s West Side party, David Hernandez, a high school computer science teacher in Little Village and a Chicago Teachers Union delegate, explained his support.

Anthony Vazquez
Chicago Sun-Times
Mayoral Candidate Cook County commissioner Brandon Johnson gives a speech to his supporters during his election watch party at El Palais Bu-Sche at 4628 W. Washington Blvd. on the West Side on Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2023.

“Brandon is better for so many reasons,” Hernandez said. “I like his phrasing, Investor in Chief. I think that’s what his campaign is all about. Making sure that we deal with root cause issues, and I think that’s what caused a surge in the polling. People that live and reside in Chicago can relate to that.”

For Lightfoot, suffering the same defeat at the polls that Jane Byrne did a generation ago may be a particularly stinging result, but it wasn’t entirely surprising.

Lightfoot clashed with the City Council, the police union and the CTU through the entirety of her term, prompting the union to front its own candidate in Johnson to run against her. Lightfoot went into the election with lagging support from voters, whom polls showed were dissatisfied with her leadership.

And her frayed or distant relationships with other Democrats contributed to her struggles. Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker, who captured 83% of the vote in Chicago during his successful reelection last fall, stayed out of the race.

Turnout in Tuesday’s election was just above 32%, lower than any city municipal election going back to at least 2011.

Among those voting, it was a gray majority who headed to the polls. Chicago election authorities said nearly 51% of the turnout involved those aged 55 or older.

Meanwhile, for the rest of the field, sitting in fifth place was businessman Willie Wilson with 9% of the vote; Ja’Mal Green with 2%; state Rep. Kam Buckner with 2%; Ald. Sophia King, 4th, with 1%; and Ald. Roderick Sawyer, 6th, with less than 1%.

On Tuesday night, Garcia, Buckner, King, Green and Sawyer conceded.

WBEZ reporters Shannon Heffernan, Dan Mihalopoulos and Kristen Schorsch contributed.

Dave McKinney is a reporter at WBEZ in Chicago.
WBEZ's Tessa Weinberg covers city government and politics.
WBEZ's Mariah Woelfel covers city government and politics in Chicago.