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Voters in Chicago’s mayoral race highlight the divisions among Democrats

Two candidates representing opposite ends of the Democratic Party are on the ballot Tuesday for the highly-anticipated Chicago mayoral race.

Paul Vallas, the former CEO of the Chicago school system, and Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson, a former teacher who is heavily supported by the Chicago teachers union, were the top two vote-getters in the February general election. The current mayor is Lori Lightfoot came in third placeSo he will not be on the ballot on Tuesday.

Voting will continue from 7 am to 8 pm.

“Typically, the race is too close to call,” said Dick Simpson, a former Chicago alderman and professor emeritus at the University of Illinois-Chicago. “It depends on the electorate that each candidate will be able to build their electorate… The electorate is literally torn.”

Vallas, who is white, has focused his campaign mainly on crime while Johnson, who is black, has focused on education.


Brandon Johnson, left, and Paul Vallas.

Jim Vondruska/Getty Images, Scott Olson/Getty Images

Vallas led the general election, with 32.9% of the vote, and Johnson came in second with 21.6%, but Johnson has since closed the gap. A recent poll by Northwestern University’s Center for the Study of Diversity and Democracy (CSDD) and various nonprofits found the race in a dead heat, with Vallas and Johnson both at 44% of the vote.

Although Vallas has previously described himself as “more Republican than Democrat,” he has received endorsements from several high-profile Illinois Democrats. Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin, Illinois’ senior senator, has endorsed him, as has former President Obama’s education secretary Arne Duncan. He also has the support of Republican donor Kenneth Griffin, who previously supported former Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

Johnson, meanwhile, has the support of influential national Democrats like Sen. Bernie Sanders — who held a rally with Johnson last week — and Elizabeth Warren, Jesse Jackson and Rep. Jim Clyburn. At rallies for Johnson, Sanders categorized the race as “powerful and greedy” and among the interests of “working class boys,” according to the Chicago Tribune.

Despite the national interest in the nation — Chicago, after all, is America’s third-largest city — Christopher Mooney, a political science professor at the University of Illinois-Chicago, points out the biggest problems are local issues — crime and education — and not the larger cultural issues of war.

“The issue of the culture war and the weird national polarization that we’ve got now — and Donald Trump — that culture war and Donald Trump, those things are irrelevant in the city of Chicago,” Mooney said.

According to the Chicago Tribune, candidates brought in about $17 million a month between the general election and the end of March. According to the Tribune, Vallas brought in just under $11 million and Johnson $5.8 million.

More than half of Johnson’s fundraising comes from the Chicago teachers union, where he was once an organizer. Since he announced his candidacy, he has also received support from other influential teachers unions, including the American Federation of Teachers and the Illinois Federation of Teachers.

Education has become one of the local issues in this race. While Vallas served as CEO of Chicago Public Schools under former Mayor Richard Daley from 1995-2001 and later in similar positions in other cities across the country, she was a strong proponent of charter schools.

As Mooney points out, teachers unions and charter schools have “conflicting interests,” but Vallas appeals to people who feel Johnson is too controlled by the CTU.

Although Vallas has received significant funding from charter school advocates, he has not made that an issue in the campaign. Rather, Vallas focused heavily on being tough on crime.

While Vallas has campaigned to add police officers to patrols and public transit, Johnson has taken a more progressive approach to tackling the root causes of crime.

In major cities across the country, tough-on-crime messaging has proven popular with Democrats. In New York, former cop-turned-politician — and more conservative Democrat in the race — Eric Adams won the mayoral race in 2021, and progressive District Attorney Chesa Boudin was successfully returned to San Francisco in 2022.

Vollas received important support — both financial and personal — from the Fraternal Order of Police, the police union. Chicago FOP President John Catanzara said last week that 800 to 1,000 police officers would resign if Johnson is elected, predicting that “there will be blood in the streets.”

A Controversy last weekJohnson blasted Catanzara, saying he “said a lot of disgusting, ridiculous things,” highlighting Catanzara’s comments supporting rioters in the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, criticizing Black Lives Matter and other controversial statements.

“It really speaks to the kind of candidacy my opponent is running,” Johnson said of Valas’ ties to the FOP and Catanzara. Vallas, for his part, said he would not stay with the FOP.

According to recent polls, most of the city’s black community appears to be lining up behind Johnson. Vallas has tried to reach out to more conservative black voters as well as rally a coalition of Republicans, wealthy residents and Latinos. The Latino community remains divided, which could be a huge deciding factor in the race.

Lightfoot, meanwhile, became the first incumbent Chicago mayor in more than 40 years to not endorse a candidate to lose re-election, though it’s unlikely either candidate would welcome that. His leadership style amid the COVID-19 pandemic, rising crime and clashes with teachers’ unions have left him with high unpopularity both in the city and nationally.

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