Chicago voters can choose hope over fear by electing new mayor
Chicago voters will choose between former Chicago Public Schools CEO Paul Vallas, at left, or Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson, at right, in the April 4 mayoral runoff election. Vallas represents machine politics and corporate influences that have severely damaged the quality of life in Chicago. Johnson is leading a diverse coalition that would increase empowerment of a broad range of Chicago communities. The gap between them in the latest polls is statistically insignificant with Johnson making gains day by day as undecided voters shift in his favor. | AP Photos/Nam Y. Huh [left] Paul Beaty [right]

CHICAGO – Chicago voters can choose hope over fear when they elect a new mayor in the April 4 run-off election that pits Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson and former Chicago Public Schools (CPS) CEO Paul Vallas against one another.

The two candidates are tied, according to polls and turnout will determine the victor, particularly in the predominantly African American, Mexican American, and growing Asian American communities. Only 35% of registered voters cast ballots in the first round on February 28.

The outcome could chart a new direction for the city. A Johnson victory could lead to greater unity and political empowerment of Chicago’s diverse working-class communities, progressive people-centered reforms that tax the wealthy, equitable investment in communities, and fully funded public schools, services, and affordable housing.

Or if Vallas prevails, the city could take a step back toward greater racial polarization and segregation, wider racial and economic inequality, greater privatization, unaffordable housing, increased police brutality, and open corporate looting of city resources.

Johnson, a former CPS teacher and Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) leader, appears to be gaining momentum according to the latest polls. Voters are responding to his call for multi-racial, multi-ethnic, multi-generational unity and an economically and socially progressive-oriented city.

Johnson, the son of a public worker and pastor, forged his leadership in the cauldron of labor-community grassroots activism over the past decade, including during the 2012 CTU strike that reverberated nationwide.

A growing inclusive movement

Johnson’s campaign reflects a growing, inclusive, people-first movement, a diverse coalition of crucial unions, including the CTU, SEIU, and AFSCME, a network of organizations under the Working Families Party umbrella, and reproductive rights, civil rights, LGBTQ, environmental justice, public safety reform, and other democratic movements.

Polls show Johnson receiving 72% support in the African American community, split support among Mexican Americans and other Latino communities, 40% support from whites, and a cross-section of energized young voters. To win, Johnson needs to continue expanding his multi-racial coalition.

Johnson also has support from elected officials, including Cook County Board of Commissioners President Toni Preckwinkle, Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul, Rep. Danny Davis, Rep. Jan Schakowsky, many Latino elected officials, including Rep. Chuy Garcia, D-IL, a leading voice in the Mexican American community who finished fourth in the first round of voting. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass, also support Johnson.

A center-right coalition with the city’s wealthiest real estate and finance interests backs Vallas, who lost three previous races for mayor, lieutenant governor, and governor. Eighty-three percent of his donations come from a circle of 721 people. The business forces supporting Vallas want continued privatization of public resources and subsidies for mega real estate developments to bring wealthy people to the city while draining resources from working-class communities and underfunding services.

They are determined to block Johnson, fearing his agenda and the coalition backing it will limit their clout. They will look to Vallas to curb the power of the CTU and its growing influence in education policy and city politics. Vallas’s school privatization agenda in New Orleans, where the school district converted 100% of public schools to charters, was also union-busting, gutting the power of the New Orleans teacher’s union.

His supporters include former Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner, MAGA Republicans like 2022 GOP governor candidate Darren Bailey, and the fascist-led Fraternal Order of Police.

Vallas sides with anti-abortionists and spoke at a forum sponsored by Awake Illinois, a MAGA organization advocating anti-LGBTQ and anti-multicultural curriculum policies that run candidates for local school boards.

Moderates and liberals with deep ties to center forces in the Democratic Party, like Sen. Dick Durbin, D-IL, former Democratic Secretary of State Jesse White, former Democratic Congressman Bobby Rush, and some Latino elected officials also support Vallas.

Vallas also has the support of most building trades unions. Split support within the Democratic Party and organized labor for the candidates reflects the political tensions within those organizations.

Vallas touts his long experience in government as a “fixer” who gets things done. His record of disastrous results as CEO of Chicago, New Orleans, and Philadelphia public schools belies this. Vallas is a driver of school privatization, selective enrollment schools, and high-stakes testing; all failed education policies.

As CPS CEO, Vallas saddled taxpayers with $1.5 billion in interest payments on $666 million “payday loan” bonds, which CPS is still paying off 20 years later. The enormous debt also led to massive school closings under Mayor Rahm Emanuel, although CPS later reopened many as private charters.

Vallas created massive debt

Vallas was also responsible for diverting mandated payments to teacher pension funds, leading to a massive pension debt and slashing benefits for newer teachers.

The Vallas campaign is burying this abysmal record by reinventing the candidate as a “savior” with a “tough-on-crime” agenda. Meanwhile, Vallas casts Johnson as too “radical,” someone who will “defund the police,” institute higher taxes on working-class people, and a “tool” of the CTU who will allow “union bosses” to run City Hall.

The election likely pivots on issues concerning public safety. Vallas’s “tough-on-crime” agenda, seen as a racist “dog whistle,” rests on a sweeping promise to hire more cops. Approximately 60% of whites and a narrow majority of Latino voters support Vallas, who is also using the crime issue to make inroads among African Americans.

This policy promotes the police as an occupying army in Black and Latino neighborhoods where deep animosities with the Chicago Police Department (CPD) exist. Critics say increasing the number of police substantially is unrealistic and flies in the face of national trends.

Besides, simply beefing up police presence, of which Chicago is a prime example, doesn’t reduce crime. The city ranks among the highest nationwide in the ratio of police to residents, nearly double the average, without making a dent in violent crime.

However, the strategy is a quick fix that appeals to people’s fears while preventing them from entertaining more complex solutions that get at the root cause of the crisis.

Meanwhile, Vallas saturates the airwaves with wild claims that Johnson will “defund the police,” referencing a remark Johnson made, since walked back, during the height of the George Floyd protests in 2021.

With FOP support, it’s hard to see Vallas reforming CPD culture, notorious for brutality and corruption, or finding ways to ensure the safety of officers. The CPD is under a U.S. Department of Justice consent decree from a history of brutality and civil rights violations. The city has paid out tens of millions of dollars to settle victim lawsuits.

In contrast, Johnson advocates a holistic approach to public safety. He notes that 40% of 911 calls are mental health-related, issues police have no training in. He supports hiring more social workers and counselors as part of a larger comprehensive and integrated mental health care model. This approach allows police officers to focus on violent crime.

Johnson also calls for addressing the root causes of crime and violence in extreme poverty, segregation, lack of educational opportunities, and easy availability of firearms. He advocates funding restorative justice and job creation programs for young people in economically hard-hit communities. His agenda also calls for ending the pipeline of illegal guns flowing into Chicago, outlawing assault weapons, and promoting “red flag” laws.

“These are difficult moments. Our schools have been underfunded, our transportation system has been unreliable and unsafe. It’s getting harder and harder to live here. That type of economic despair has made us all less safe and hopeful,” said Johnson at an endorsement event hosted by Latino leaders. “But thank God we’re not going to allow this moment to divide us. Safe American cities love people enough to invest in them. There are no boundaries to investing in and loving people. When Dr. Martin Luther King came to Chicago he understood if we could figure it out here, we can figure it out anywhere.”

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John Bachtell
John Bachtell

John Bachtell is president of Long View Publishing Co., the publisher of People's World. He is active in electoral, labor, environmental, and social justice struggles. He grew up in Ohio, where he attended Antioch College in Yellow Springs. He currently lives in Chicago.