Former Chicago Public Schools CEO Paul Vallas will face off in April against Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson to become Chicago’s next mayor as voters Tuesday rejected incumbent Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s efforts for a second term after four tumultuous years marked by a pandemic, spikes in crime citywide and widespread divisiveness.
The results followed a frequently bitter nine-way race to lead the nation’s third-largest city and all but guarantees an ideological battle over the next five weeks before the April 4 runoff between two politicians with starkly divergent visions on how to lead the city.
The final matchup was a stunning blow to Lightfoot, who became the first full-term incumbent to fail to win reelection since Jane Byrne lost to Harold Washington in 1983. It also clearly reflected that residents were clamoring for a new direction from City Hall. But what direction that is remains to be seen.
The more conservative Vallas and progressive Johnson sparred throughout the divisive campaign, which saw the two typically on opposite ends of the biggest issues in the race — education and crime.Vallas, a 69-year old former schools chief, has long been a critic of the Chicago Teachers Union that Johnson helps lead, asserting the union’s work stoppages during the pandemic harmed children’s well-being and hurt their growth for generations. Johnson, 46, regularly paints Vallas’ approach to public education as “morally bankrupt” for its promotion of private school vouchers and expansion of charters across the country.
On crime, Vallas has spouted tough talk and positioned himself as the pro-law enforcement candidate who will stamp out the “complete lawlessness” he has seen in Chicago by, among other things, reversing Police Department rules he contends restrict cops from doing their jobs. Johnson, meanwhile, decried the city’s reliance on policing as a “failed” strategy and instead promised a new citywide strategy that would shift focus toward community investments in housing, mental health and more.
A visibly shaken Lightfoot conceded the race just before 9 p.m. and said she will be “rooting and praying for our next mayor to deliver for the people of the city for years to come.”
“I looked into the camera and spoke directly to young people of color who looked like me and to every kid who felt like I did when I grew up. And I’m going to do that again tonight. Obviously, we didn’t win the election today, but I stand here with my head held high and a heart full of gratitude,” Lightfoot said in brief remarks, highlighting how the city emerged from a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic and made “real progress on public safety.”
Vallas spoke to his supporters shortly afterward, surrounded by a gleeful campaign staff.
“I want to thank the voters of Chicago for making this campaign about the issues, and nothing but the issues,” Vallas said, a pointed rebuke of attacks from many of his rivals who painted him as a Republican despite his assertions he’s a lifelong Democrat. But the clear victor of Tuesday night did not linger on that negativity, instead beaming at how he hasn’t been this happy since his son returned from war in Afghanistan.
Vallas, who throughout the race echoed that public safety is a “fundamental right,” continued with a campaign promise that the now-lame duck mayor too had pledged: “We will make Chicago the safest city in America.”
“Are you with me?” Vallas asked his supporters, who responded by chanting “Vallas, Vallas, Vallas.”Over at Johnson’s campaign watch party, the atmosphere was just as ecstatic as supporters of the newest face of Chicago’s progressive coalition chanted, “We want Brandon.”
“Well, here’s Brandon,” Johnson opened, a clear reference to the famous “You want Harold? Well, here’s Harold!” line Harold Washington uttered when he was elected Chicago’s first Black mayor in 1983. “Well, Chicago, we did it, y’all. You know, they said that this would never happen. I am so freakin’ proud.”
The commissioner took a moment to celebrate his arc from growing up the son of a pastor and a foster child in a home with 10 siblings to potential Chicago mayor — and then went after Vallas in the first attacks of the runoff season.
“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, again accusing Vallas of being a closet Republican. “Chicago, we cannot have this man as the mayor of the city of Chicago.”
More than a half-million people cast ballots in the race with voter turnout at the time polls closed coming in at just above 32%, city election officials said.
Unofficial results showed Vallas with 34% of the vote, Johnson with 20% and Lightfoot with 17%, with 98% of precincts counted.
They were trailed by U.S. Rep. Jesús “Chuy” García with 14% and businessman Willie Wilson with 9%. The remaining four candidates, community activist Ja’Mal Green, state Rep. Kambium “Kam” Buckner, 4th Ward Ald. Sophia King and 6th Ward Ald. Roderick Sawyer, each collected about 2% or less.
Tuesday’s election ushers in the city’s third consecutive runoff in the race for mayor, following a 2015 contest between Mayor Rahm Emanuel and García, who at the time was a Cook County commissioner, and a 2019 battle between Lightfoot and Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle.
Wilson’s position in the race was critical to the result. The businessman campaigned vigorously with Lightfoot in 2019 but their relationship fell apart before she even took office, spurring his run and potentially siphoning votes from the reelection-seeking mayor.
“You won’t see her no more after today,” Wilson said. “So, that’s a blessing to Chicago.”
From the start, the race was as much about electing a mayor for the next four years as it was a referendum on the previous four under Lightfoot.
Elected to public office for the first time in her life, Lightfoot oversaw the city through the COVID-19 pandemic, several work stoppages and other labor strife within the school district, as well as a surge in violence that has yet to fully abate and civil unrest in 2020 following George Floyd’s murder by Minneapolis police.
Lightfoot did not run as transparent an administration as promised and engaged in constant feuds with unions representing teachers and police — all while struggling to forge good relationships with members of the City Council, other politicians and leaders in the city’s business community.
Her clashes with members of the City Council weren’t shocking. In her inauguration speech, Lightfoot blasted aldermen sitting behind her for a history of corruption. Though Chicago residents might have agreed with her calls for reform, her inability to reach major compromises with aldermen also created an impression she couldn’t accomplish the hard work of being mayor.
Council members who had supported her peeled off. Her council floor leader resigned and, as the mayoral election season dawned, some of her allies said they wouldn’t support her for reelection and then backed some of her opponents.
As concerns about safety rose amid the pandemic, she countered during the campaign that crime went down by more than 10% in 2022 compared with 2021, though it remained higher than when she first took office. The city’s first African-American female mayor, who is also openly gay, Lightfoot often argued she was held to a double standard for her behavior compared to white male politicians, including her immediate predecessors who occupied the fifth floor offices at City Hall.
In the first round of the 2019 mayoral race, Lightfoot emerged from a historic 14-candidate field with roughly 18% of the vote. Much of it came from white lakefront residents on the North Side who backed her over more established politicians.
This time, Lightfoot sought to transform her base and unite the Black community behind her candidacy, making a series of comments in recent weeks urging Black residents to coalesce around her campaign or risk losing City Hall. She also stood with a group of ministers who criticized other Black candidates for being in the race and potentially dividing up community support on the South and West sides.
The final results proved a colossal disappointment for García, who entered the race with positive personal approval numbers and a high name recognition originating from his upstart 2015 mayoral bid that ultimately failed but earned him a reputation as a progressive folk hero.
García was a late entrant to the race, frustrating many of the progressive political unions that supported him in 2015 but felt he was too slow to signal his intentions and make a final decision. Two powerful labor unions, Service Employees International Union Healthcare and SEIU 73, decided to join the teachers union in backing Johnson, sapping García’s campaign of some of the energy he had against Emanuel.
Still, in the early days of this campaign, García received a $1 million pledge from the operating engineers’ union and a slew of endorsements, fostering the sense he would be a front-runner.
But after his entry into the race, García ran an underwhelming and often bland campaign. He did not release much by way of policy proposals. When asked about hard issues at debates, García frequently pivoted to talk about collaboration and promised to call meetings to discuss the topics.
Most critically, García made a strategic decision to hold onto the money he raised in the first quarter and waited to launch television ads while Vallas and Johnson took to the air with commercials introducing themselves and their policy positions to voters. Lightfoot, meanwhile, spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on campaign ads insinuating García is a crook for his ties to indicted former Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan and his since-returned campaign contributions from disgraced crypto mogul Sam Bankman-Fried.
García countered in debates that he had a long history fighting the old-time Democratic machine alongside Washington and defended his connections to Madigan as a political necessity. On Bankman-Fried, García repeatedly said he didn’t know him or why the now-federally indicted entrepreneur made those donations. Without a rigorous televised defense, however, García’s campaign stagnated.
Successful political campaigns are known to spend the money they have and rise in the polls, or generate support from special interests and raise more money off that. If the campaigns begin to lose ground, it often kicks off a death spiral in which they struggle to raise money and lose more ground to other candidates. That’s what happened to García after he ceded the airwaves in January and he was never able to regain momentum.
On the flip side, Johnson entered the mayor’s race with low name recognition among Chicago voters and went all in on campaign spending early to generate support. As his profile rose, allies in the teachers unions put financial skin in the game to keep his momentum going. The CTU even borrowed hundreds of thousands of dollars against teachers dues to make sure he had resources. In the end, the gamble paid off.
Johnson’s emergence in the runoff is the result of a yearslong effort by the teachers union and adjacent forces to build political power for progressives in Chicago. Their sizable force helped push García into a runoff against Emanuel in 2015 and their support got Preckwinkle into the runoff in 2019 before losing to Lightfoot. Now they look to elect one of their own to City Hall’s top job.
Like Johnson, Vallas too was underestimated. He was not considered a heavyweight at first due in part to a string of political losses that gave him the air of a perennial candidate. Vallas unsuccessfully ran for governor in 2002, lieutenant governor in 2014 and mayor in 2019, ending that last campaign a distant ninth as he wasn’t able to generate support in a crowded field of white candidates.
As the 2023 election season got underway, many in the city’s white business community, as well as within North Side and downtown political establishments, actively searched for a candidate but never coalesced behind anyone individually. Some attempted to recruit former U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, downtown Ald. Brian Hopkins, U.S. Rep. Mike Quigley and Lakeview Ald. Tom Tunney, but all four and others declined to run.
Former Gov. Pat Quinn, who ran for reelection with Vallas as his running mate in 2014, also flirted with running but decided against it, instead throwing his support behind García.
As those efforts took place behind the scenes, Republican donors and business interests began pouring millions of dollars into Vallas’ campaign, giving him resources he lacked four years ago. Vallas also brought in veteran Democratic campaign consultant Joe Trippi, and his campaign chief, Brian Towne, worked to keep the famously loquacious candidate disciplined.
Still, Vallas faced major questions about his associations with conservatives, including 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.
He dabbled with the prospect of running for office as a Republican in 2009, which he said was solely an effort to take on what he described as the Democrat Todd Stroger’s political machine.
Vallas also came under fire last summer 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, but the organization in the midst of the mayoral race published a clip from a March 2021 rally of him saying its president, Shannon Adcock, should maybe run for governor.
Most recently, Vallas had to navigate an endorsement from the FOP, which represents most Chicago rank-and-file police officers and is helmed by Catanzara, a vocal supporter of former President Donald Trump. At first, Vallas sidestepped questions on the union’s conservative leanings, but he had to be more forceful and say the FOP “disappointed” him when it agreed to promote a speech by Republican Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, whom Vallas described as a “right-wing extremist.”
The attacks on Vallas as a Republican in a blue city are certain to continue.
Johnson too faced heavy fire in the final leg of the race as rivals — mostly Lightfoot, but also Vallas — sought to label him as too radical on policing, taxes and education.
Lightfoot frequently warned crowds at campaign stops that the county commissioner, who crafted a resolution in 2020 that called for diverting money from policing and incarceration, would defund Chicago police as well as tax families out of the city. As those aspersions piled on in the last weeks, Johnson came out against cutting the Police Department budget, but he stuck by his promises to raise levies on the rich.
Vallas, meanwhile, has directed blame at Johnson and the teachers union for which he works for the suspension of in-person schooling during the pandemic, arguing that the shutdown was responsible for children dying from gun violence, youth committing crimes and academic setbacks that will ripple for generations.
Wilson, in his third run for mayor, ran a far more professional operation than he had in years past, though he ended with roughly the same percentage of the vote.
Most well-known for handing out as much as $1 million a day to help citizens pay for gas, groceries or property taxes, Wilson was certain to draw a significant segment of support, especially among older Black voters. In the 2015 and 2019 elections, the 74-year-old Wilson won about 10% of the vote in majority Black wards.
This time, Wilson spent extensively on Polish radio and television advertisements aimed at expanding his appeal. He hurt himself, however, with remarks saying police should hunt fleeing suspects down “like rabbits.”
Sawyer, 59, whose father was mayor after Washington died, came out the gates with an abrupt and awkward announcement when he told a reporter he would get into the race while he was at the barber shop. The declaration surprised allies who had been trying to help him line up key supporters for a more powerful entry.
Throughout the campaign, Lightfoot repeatedly made an issue of gender. After Sawyer got into the race, she said, “Another day, another man who thinks he can do this job better than me.”
That changed when King, 57, entered the race. A friend of the Obama family, King’s campaign announcement raised concerns within Lightfoot’s camp that she could catch fire if she raised enough money. As a candidate, she often sought the middle of the road, but she too wasn’t able to raise enough cash to spread her message and sometimes blamed the media for her lack of support.
Buckner, 37, similarly entered the race with high hopes but those fizzled. As a legislator, Buckner has been involved with some of Springfield’s key legislation in recent years, including the controversial SAFE-T Act’s set of criminal justice reforms and Chicago’s elected school board, which was opposed by Lightfoot. Residents who saw him at debates were often impressed by his policy proposals. But he, too, lacked resources to break through and drew enmity from other progressives who wanted him to back out and help coalesce their bloc behind Johnson.
Rounding out the field was 27-year-old activist Green, who often launched blistering attacks on lifelong politicians while saying his personal experiences getting kicked out of schools and protesting police brutality helped him relate better to the city’s people. Green pushed a series of ambitious proposals, like a city bank, but struggled to raise money or generate traction.
Other politicians in the race generally ignored Green at forums but sometimes teased his youth. “I don’t respond to kids,” Wilson said once, when asked to respond to the activist’s criticism.
At the North Branch Works Mayoral Forum, Green said he was “probably the most troubled kid on the stage” and Buckner drew laughs by joking, “Still.”
In the closing hours of the election, Green’s campaign bus got stuck for hours in the circular drive outside the Truman College polling site.
For a fleeting moment, Chicagoans on social media dropped their bickering and reveled in the string of failed attempts to yank the vehicle out of the mud — some gleefully interpreting the scene as a metaphor for his campaign — until, early Tuesday morning, the bus was at last unstuck.
Chicag Tribune’s Christy Gutowski, Ray Long, Emily Hoerner, Sarah Freishtat and Jeremy Gorner contributed.
©2023 Chicago Tribune. Visit chicagotribune.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
This content is published through a licensing agreement with Acquire Media using its NewsEdge technology.