Brandon Johnson, teacher’s union organizer and social programs advocate, will officially replace Lori Lightfoot as the 57th mayor of the Windy City. He defeated Paul Vallas, described as a “Republican in disguise,” and ran on a tough-on-crime platform, 51.4% to 48.6%. The Democrat will take office in May, inheriting a Chicago in flux, with an emptier downtown than before the pandemic, a Police Department with no leader, a skyrocketing crime rate, and a public school system that has seen a decline in enrollment. In his victory speech, Johnson began by thanking God, his family, and the labor unions that helped propel him to a win. “Chicago is a union town,” he said.
By Mitch Smith; April 4, 2023
CHICAGO — Brandon Johnson, a county commissioner and teachers’ union organizer who called for a vast expansion of social programs in Chicago, as well as new taxes, was elected mayor of the country’s third-largest city on Tuesday, according to The Associated Press.
Mr. Johnson’s victory over Paul Vallas, a fellow Democrat with far more conservative views on crime and education, revealed voters rejecting the tough-on-crime politics that have become a staple of municipal elections in recent years and instead embracing a decidedly progressive vision for a city still working to emerge from a pandemic malaise.
The mayor-elect, who takes office in May, will inherit a Chicago in flux, with a downtown that is emptier than before the pandemic, a Police Department that has no permanent leader and a public school system that has seen a decline in enrollment. Fewer commuters have been riding buses and L trains, and census estimates have shown a decline in population.
Mr. Johnson, 47, who in one early poll had just 3 percent support, overcame a lack of name recognition to beat several better-known candidates and advance to Tuesday’s election. In recent weeks, he consolidated progressive support by promising to improve life for struggling residents, overcoming Mr. Vallas’s 11-point margin of victory in the first round of voting in February with the help of large donations from labor unions.
“I know what he’s fighting for,” said Mary Bridges, 41, a third-grade teacher who voted for Mr. Johnson. “I believe in his administration as far as helping to improve schools and get the policing together.”
The race was defined by a pandemic-era rise in crime that left Chicagoans frightened, angry and ready to chart a new course, even as they disagreed about what that should look like.
Mr. Johnson, who distanced himself from his past support for defunding law enforcement, talked about improving public safety through more than policing, including youth employment programs and mental health treatment. Mr. Vallas called for expanding Chicago’s police force and taking a hard line on minor offenses. With 91 percent of the expected votes in as of Tuesday night, the results were quite close, reflecting the split visions for the city’s future. Mr. Johnson had 51.4 percent of the tabulated votes and Mr. Vallas had 48.6 percent.
“It’s clear, based on the results tonight, that the city is deeply divided,” Mr. Vallas said in his concession speech, in which he reiterated his view that “public safety is a fundamental right” and that “without it, we will be continue to be defined more by our differences than by what we yearn for in common.”
Crime was also at the center of recent mayoral elections in New York City, where Mayor Eric Adams called for a crackdown during his successful 2021 campaign, and in Los Angeles, where Mayor Karen Bass held off a more conservative challenger last year who ran on a law-and-order platform.
During his acceptance speech on Tuesday, Mr. Johnson said “Chicago is a union town” and rattled off the names of several labor groups, including the powerful but polarizing Chicago Teachers Union. The union, which has employed Mr. Johnson for the last dozen years, engaged in three work stoppages over the same period.
“Now Chicago will begin to work for its people, all the people,” said Mr. Johnson, who worked as a social studies teacher before joining the union’s staff.
The teachers’ union has clashed repeatedly with the last two mayors and put forth a progressive vision for the city, largely shared by Mr. Johnson, that extends well beyond its classrooms. Organized labor donated millions of dollars to Mr. Johnson’s campaign, issued key endorsements and provided a dedicated network of volunteers, helping him emerge as the standard-bearer for progressives in the overwhelmingly Democratic city.
“Chicago has said yes to hope, yes to investment in people, yes to housing the unhoused and yes to supporting young people with fully funded schools,” the teachers’ union president, Stacy Davis Gates, said after Mr. Johnson’s election. “It is a new day in our city.”
Though those union ties were a positive for some Chicagoans, others raised questions about how he would approach working with the teachers’ union. In a recent interview, Mr. Johnson did not provide specific examples when asked if there were areas where he expected to have to tell the union no.
At the polls on Tuesday, supporters of both candidates described living in fear of crime and having a widespread sense that their neighborhoods were becoming less safe. Homicides, which surged to generational highs during the pandemic, have since declined somewhat, but rates of property crimes continue to rise.
Jena Doolas, 60, a school social worker, voted for Mr. Johnson at a downtown polling place and said she did not accept Mr. Vallas’s approach to public safety.
“Tough on crime often comes on the backs of people that are already having a tough time,” Ms. Doolas said. “Yes, we don’t want crime. But I don’t know if tough on crime, sending people to jail, is the only way to do it.”
But Kimberly Dhooghe, 55, who voted for Mr. Vallas, said in an interview on the Northwest Side that she worried Mr. Johnson would reduce spending on law enforcement.
“It’s getting worse, the guns and gangs,” she said. “I work at night and I’m afraid to get out of my car. A car was just hijacked near my house. So, I get out of my car with my flash light and my pepper spray. I shouldn’t have to live like this.”
When Mr. Johnson takes office, he will succeed Mayor Lori Lightfoot, a Democrat who served a single term in office before coming in third in the February election and failing to qualify for Tuesday’s runoff.
During Ms. Lightfoot’s tenure, which was defined by the pandemic, she presided over fights with the teachers’ union, civil unrest and rising crime. Ms. Lightfoot, the first Black woman and first openly gay person to lead the city, campaigned on her investments in long-neglected parts of the South and West Sides, but she failed to hold onto the coalition that had propelled her into office.
In a statement on Tuesday, Ms. Lightfoot congratulated Mr. Johnson and pledged to work with him during his transition.
Race has often played a role in elections in Chicago, which has long been segregated but has roughly equal numbers of white, Black and Hispanic residents.
Mr. Vallas, 69, who is white, had strong support downtown and in largely white areas of the Northwest and Southwest Sides. He spent recent weeks touting support from well-known Black politicians but was unable to win over enough voters in neighborhoods with many Black residents.
Mr. Vallas, who grew up on the South Side, has been a familiar figure in Chicago since the 1990s, when he worked in a finance role in City Hall and served as chief executive of Chicago Public Schools when the district was facing an educational and fiscal crisis. In the years that followed, he led other struggling school districts in Philadelphia, New Orleans and Bridgeport, Conn., and ran unsuccessfully for office three times in Illinois.
But many voters expressed concern that Mr. Vallas was too conservative for Chicago. They cited his support for charter schools, past comments that he considered himself more of a Republican than a Democrat and his endorsement from the local chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police, whose leaders frequently use brash rhetoric and support Republican politicians.
Mr. Johnson, who is Black, expanded his base of white progressive voters on the North Side’s lakefront and decisively carried many majority Black wards on the South and West Sides. Mr. Johnson, who lives on the West Side, often speaks of the effects of gun violence in his neighborhood and growing up in a large family in which money was tight.
That story resonated with many voters, including Lyric Newbern, 23, a college student who lives on the South Side and is Black. She said she chose Mr. Johnson because he “is from the inner city of Chicago and has been involved in the fight against racism and white supremacy.”
“It’s as simple,” she said, “as having the desire to have someone who represents me.”
Photo: Photo/Paul Beaty