Brandon Johnson defeated Paul Vallas in Tuesday’s election to become the next mayor of Chicago, a stunning rebuke of the political establishment by the unapologetically progressive Cook County commissioner whose campaign themes of racial justice and uplifting the working class caught fire.
“Chicago, tonight is just the beginning,” Johnson said as he kicked off a emphatic victory speech, which aimed to strike a conciliatory and upbeat tone after a polarizing campaign against former Chicago Public Schools CEO Paul Vallas to lead the nation’s third-largest city.
“With our voices and our votes, we have ushered in a new chapter in the history of our city,” Johnson said. “And now, Chicago will begin to work for its people — all the people.”
He then shared memories of his childhood, such as days he’d return home to find the water shut off again. “I’ll be honest: This is personal for me. Investing in people is at the heart of this campaign, because I’ve seen what disinvestment looks like.”
And Johnson drove home his campaign mantra of “building a better, stronger, safer Chicago” before again casting his election — falling on the 55th anniversary of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination — as “the revival and the resurrection of the city of Chicago.”
“It was right here in the city of Chicago that Martin Luther King Jr. organized for justice, dreaming that one day that the civil rights movement and the labor rights movement will come together,” Johnson said. “Well, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the civil rights movement and the labor rights movement has finally collided. … Today, we did not just acknowledge the assassination of a dreamer. Today, the dream is alive.”
Johnson, a 47-year-old longtime Chicago Teachers Union leader, announced his candidacy for mayor in October by the Jenner Academy school building, where he started his career in education at the mostly Black elementary school that had served children who lived in the Cabrini-Green public housing complex next door.
The affable but gutsy Johnson first won public office in 2018 when he defeated Cook County Commissioner Richard Boykin, who earned the ire of organized labor by voting against Board President Toni Preckwinkle’s so-called pop tax. There, Johnson largely heeded Preckwinkle’s direction while passing some legislation of his own that focused on criminal justice. None of that work earned him substantial name recognition among Chicagoans during the early months of the race.
But his run for mayor was years in the making.
CTU President Stacy Davis Gates often invoked the Chicago Board of Education vote to close 50 schools in 2013 as a pivotal moment for the city’s progressive movement. Her predecessor, late President Karen Lewis, declared that they needed to shift the political landscape to influence decisions from City Hall, setting a string of events in motion that culminated with Johnson’s election.
Despite formidable progressive labor support, Johnson entered the race as an underdog and was polling as low as 3% in December. Vallas emerged as the top vote-getter in the city’s Feb. 28 election after focusing on crime and public safety in a divided nine-candidate field where he was also the only white hopeful.
In February’s first round, Vallas won 33% of the vote to Johnson’s 22%, while Mayor Lori Lightfoot only received 17% of the vote en route to the first reelection defeat of a Chicago mayor since Jane Byrne lost her bid for a second term in 1983. So began a runoff campaign in which the two extreme poles of a once-crowded race jockeyed for the middle.
Johnson was able to turn his standing around with a swell of grassroots energy — coupled with his charm as a gifted public speaker — and a campaign promise to “invest in people.”
Along the way, the rest of the nation watched with anticipation as the election came down to the wire and many poured their hopes and anxieties about the direction of the Democratic Party into the race between Vallas, the more conservative option, and Chicago’s most leftist finalist for mayor in decades with Johnson.
Tuesday, with roughly 99% of the city’s precincts reporting, Johnson was ahead with 51% of the unofficial vote to 49% for Vallas, who came close as ever but failed to shake off his history of never winning elected office.
Early returns also showed voter turnout among young adults aged 18 to 24, consistently the most reluctant to cast ballots but likely a core base for Johnson, surged compared to the Feb. 28 election, up 32%. Among 25- to 34-year-olds, that jump was 24%.
In his concession speech, Vallas told supporters at the Hyatt Regency that it was important for the city to remain united after the contentious campaign.
“It’s clear based on the results tonight that the city is deeply divided,” Vallas said.
Some in his crowd booed when he declared that Johnson will be the next mayor, to which Vallas repeated “please” until they tamped down.
“This campaign that I ran to bring the city together would not be a campaign that fulfilled my ambitions if this election is going to divide us more,” Vallas said. “So it’s critically important that we use this opportunity to come together, and I’ve offered him my full support on his transition.”
The night’s results capped a remarkable ascent for Johnson, who began the race as one of several progressive candidates, sparking worries that the power of the left-leaning vote would be split. With just four years of legislative experience under his belt, he was criticized by Lightfoot in late January when she sneered, “God bless. Brandon Johnson isn’t going to be the mayor of this city,” the news outlet Semafor reported.
The comment echoed a remark Rahm Emanuel made in September 2018, when he dropped his reelection bid and told WGN his replacement was not yet in the race.
Lightfoot proved Emanuel wrong, the same way Johnson proved her wrong.
As a CTU organizer, Johnson was an instrumental force in crafting the union’s brash political strategy that earned the group a formidable reputation as a progressive powerhouse but also raised criticisms from opponents that Chicago doesn’t need a mayor beholden to CTU. As his candidacy nonetheless gained momentum, eventually propelling him into the runoff, those attacks snowballed with Vallas trying to paint him as too radical.
The son of pastors who also were foster parents, Johnson grew up in northwest suburban Elgin and frequently talks of his modest upbringing in which he shared a bathroom with nine siblings, fought over the “Thanksgiving menu” and ran an extension cord out the window when electricity was scarce.
Johnson will succeed Lightfoot — Chicago’s third Black mayor, the second woman and first openly gay City Hall chief executive in City Hall. She was ushered into office on a rousing message of reform, but the COVID-19 pandemic, crime wave and recurring political feuds of her own making made her a one-term mayor.
The city’s first Black mayor was Harold Washington, who was elected in 1983 and again in 1987 before he died in office later that year. Eugene Sawyer, the city’s second Black mayor, was appointed to serve out Washington’s term until a 1989 special election, when he lost to Mayor Richard M. Daley.
Vallas and Johnson entered the runoff after knocking out Lightfoot and six other candidates seeking City Hall’s top job in the first round of voting on Feb. 28. The Chicago police union-backed Vallas received support from the more conservative bungalow belts on the Northwest and Southwest sides as well as downtown voters while Johnson, the CTU’s candidate of choice, primarily pulled progressive votes along Milwaukee Avenue and north of Lakeview.
The runoff campaign promised to be contentious from the beginning as Vallas and Johnson represent starkly different wings of the Democratic Party.
Vallas had reassembled the vestiges of the Daley machine as well as Black establishment Democrats, the business community and labor groups representing first responders and the trades in propelling his candidacy as one that he signified would steer the city back to its former glory.
His campaign mantra that “public safety is a human right” was backed with detailed plans to beef up the police force and remove policies he described as encumbering. On the trail, he depicted the city as one overrun by lawlessness, where children are murdered without impunity and once-gleaming business corridors are under siege.
But above all, Vallas tapped into a less tangible sense that Chicago’s cops have been left behind, and his candidacy was about returning the respect he said they deserve.
Johnson amassed a coalition that included the powerful CTU and its allied unions as well as similarly left-leaning politicians ranging from City Council’s growing democratic socialist bloc to national figures such as the two-time presidential candidate Bernie Sanders — a popular U.S. senator with whom Johnson held the mayoral race’s biggest rally last week.
The progressive umbrella under which Johnson’s followers fell were motivated by his campaign promise to rid Chicago of its “politics of old” and “tale of two cities,” slogans that he buttressed with sweeping proposals to ramp up community investments — as well as raise some taxes. Johnson, while stressing the concerns of crime, pitched his candidacy as not that of another politician’s quest for higher office but as a movement to bring “the people” to the fifth floor of City Hall.
Throughout the race, Vallas faced repeated questions about his association with Republicans, a toxic label for a politician in overwhelmingly blue Chicago.
GOP donors and business interests poured millions of dollars into Vallas’ campaign, giving him resources he lacked four years ago but raising questions about his political loyalties.
He also faced questions about his associations with the firebrand Chicago Fraternal Order of Police President John Catanzara and right-wing former state Rep. Jeanne Ives, who ran a failed bid for the GOP gubernatorial nomination in 2018.
As the campaign unfolded, Vallas came under fire for attending an event for Awake Illinois, a suburban group that has taken extreme positions and called Gov. J.B. Pritzker a “groomer.” He later said his attendance was a mistake.
To ease voters’ concerns about his party identification, Vallas unfurled endorsements from political leaders ranging from City Council progressive caucus chair Sophia King to U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, the second-highest ranking Democrat in the Senate. Vallas also introduced himself everywhere he went as a “lifelong Democrat.”
Initially, Vallas sought to remain above the fray, releasing campaign ads aimed at cultivating a positive image and broadening his base by featuring support from the popular Black ex-Secretary of State Jesse White and former Whitney Young High School principal Joyce Kenner. Johnson, however, went immediately negative, lashing into Vallas in his victory speech on Feb. 28.
“This is the truth about Paul Vallas: He has literally failed everywhere he has gone. In fact, Paul Vallas is the author of ‘The Tale of Two Cities,’” Johnson said, setting the tone of what would be a bitter runoff.
The decision to hold back fire was a potentially pivotal one for Vallas. One of the most critical tasks political campaigns face is portraying their candidate positively while defining their rival in negative tones.
Vallas entered the runoff with a financial advantage over Johnson but waited to launch negative advertisement, giving the upstart campaign more room to catch its breath and maneuver. By contrast, Lightfoot’s campaign was ready to launch negative ads against Vallas immediately if she had made the runoff.
In the middle of March, Vallas began attacking Johnson more aggressively for his past support of the “defund the police” movement and his record as a teachers’ union organizer.
At debates, Vallas often scoffed while criticizing Johnson’s record on the County Board. “I’m basically debating with someone who never managed a budget,” Vallas would say before admonishing Johnson, “Please don’t lecture me on managing multibillion-dollar budgets.”
One of Johnson’s biggest hurdles during the campaign was addressing criticism over his past support for “defund the police,” or the activist-backed calls to reallocate law enforcement budgets and send the funds to other social services in the wake of the 2020 Minneapolis police murder of George Floyd.
Johnson struggled to give a consistent, coherent answer and, at some points, attempted to pivot and sidestep the issue entirely.
When asked during a debate about his statement that defunding police was “a real political goal,” Johnson said, “I said it was a political goal. I never said it was mine.”
Despite Johnson’s denials, he repeatedly endorsed the “defund” movement.
In 2020, he referred to “defund the police” as “a cause that I think, quite frankly, is not just admirable, but is necessary” and praised organizers of a “We Don’t Call Police: Fighting for a Police-Free Future” panel for pushing “an agenda that actually can transform people’s lives.”
“And part of it is removing ourselves away from this, you know, state-sponsored policing,” Johnson said.
Eventually, Johnson settled on an answer where he stated simply, “I’m not going to defund the police” and promised the Police Department’s budget would not be “one penny” less.
Vallas and Johnson also argued over the shift to remote learning during the COVID-19 pandemic. Vallas attacked Johnson over the CTU’s refusal to teach in-person during two work stoppages.
At one debate, Vallas blamed juvenile crime spikes on closed schools, leading to a counterattack from Johnson: “My opponent talks about school closures. Well, he set up the market for schools to be closed. He got so good at it, he went around the country doing it.”
Johnson then argued there is a link between violence and neighborhoods that faced school closures or privatization. To that, Vallas retorted that his opponent is the one to blame for any classroom shutdowns before rolling through his record building new schools and growing enrollment, almost daring Johnson to poke holes in it.
“Have you ever been to New Orleans? Have you ever seen New Orleans after Katrina? Eighty percent of the schools were destroyed,” Vallas said.
Vallas continued: “I had rebuilt this school district out of nothing, from scratch. Every single child is in either a brand-new school or a completely renovated public school governed by local community boards. … And that school district led the state for seven consecutive years after Katrina.”
Johnson’s racial justice-themed campaign was the result of a decadelong effort to move Chicago to the left, largely led by progressive labor groups including the CTU and SEIU.
Lewis, the beloved former CTU president, considered running for mayor in 2015 but dropped the idea after being diagnosed with brain cancer and threw her support behind then-Cook County commissioner Jesús “Chuy” García, who lost to Emanuel but became a progressive folk hero after forcing him into the city’s first runoff election.
CTU and its close allies in the progressive labor movement worked to push a broad slate of candidates in 2019 and 2023 that have helped create a more independent City Council while frustrating more traditional Democrats who are often criticized for going to get along.
“We planted seeds in 2015,” Davis Gates once told the Tribune.
Vallas entered Election Day with endorsements from 23 sitting members of City Council while Johnson had support from 13.
Both candidates spent significant resources campaigning for Black and Latino support.
Johnson did not pull off major surprises when it came to broadening his base after the first round. He was unexpectedly endorsed by Ald. Pat Dowell, Lightfoot’s budget chair who represents the Bronzeville neighborhood, in February, a move that gave his campaign legitimacy and embarrassed the incumbent.
But for the most part, Johnson relied on national support from Sanders, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, and U.S. Rep. Ayanna Presley to boost his support with progressives while visiting churches on the South and West Side to earn Black votes.
At the start of Johnson’s spirited victory speech Tuesday, the candidate too seemed to just be absorbing the enormity of his triumph.
“Chicago, how the heck are you?” Johnson said. “You know they said this would never happen. So you know, if they didn’t know, now they know.”
Tribune’s Adriana Perez and Hank Sanders contributed.
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