While former Chicago Public Schools CEO Paul Vallas and Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson largely avoided attacking one another in the leadup to Tuesday’s nonpartisan primary for mayor of Chicago, Johnson previewed the frantic five-week sprint ahead with an election night speech declaring, “It’s about to get real.”
Vallas, who took a firm first place with 34%, used his victory address both to stress public safety and to lay out his credentials as a “lifelong Democrat” ahead of the April 4 general election. “We will make Chicago the safest city in America,” said the candidate, who picked up the support of the Chicago Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) back in January.
Vallas, who declared his support for abortion rights, went on to use an interview with ABC7 to offer his take on Johnson, who benefited from heavy spending from the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU). “People are going to examine his record and see that there's not much other than a union organizer who was on the CTU's payroll,” predicted Vallas, who is a supporter of charter schools. “I'm gonna continue to talk about the issues to offer subs, tentative solutions, particularly on the issues of crime, the issue of quality of schools, and the issue of affordability.”
Johnson, a progressive who edged out Mayor Lori Lightfoot 20-17 for the crucial second-place spot, didn’t waste any time, either, in trying to define Vallas as an ally of the far-right. “Paul Vallas is someone who is supported by the Jan. 6 insurrectionists,” Johnson said in a reference to FOP head John Catanzara, a Trump backer who played down the attack the following day. “He went as far as to say he’s more of a Republican than anything else,” the commissioner continued, adding, “He says he fundamentally opposes abortion. These are direct quotes.”
Johnson also went after his foe’s record as a school administrator, saying, “This is the truth about Paul Vallas: He has literally failed everywhere he has gone.” He told ABC7 the next day, “When I was in high school in the 90s, it was his negligence that led to the economic downturn that we are experiencing right now.”
While neither Vallas nor Johnson ran TV ads against one another before the primary, their defeated opponents made use of material that the two finalists are also likely to employ. Garcia and Lightfoot used footage of a 2009 interview where Vallas told conservative host Jeff Berkowitz, “If I run for public office, then I would be running as a Republican,” and, “Fundamentally, I oppose abortion.”
Vallas, who lost the 2002 Democratic primary for governor to a not-yet-infamous Rod Blagojevich and was Gov. Pat Quinn’s running mate when the incumbent lost re-election in 2014, argued the quotes about his party affiliation were being taken “out of context.” His team also insisted that he was speaking about his Greek Orthodox religion when he was describing his discomfort with abortion: They also released another clip from that conversation where Berkowitz asked, “You think a woman has a right to choose, abortion shouldn’t be illegal?” to which Vallas responded, “I don’t think we should legislate against a woman’s right to choose.”
Lightfoot targeted Johnson as well in the final weeks of the campaign as he superseded Garcia as the main progressive candidate, and while she didn’t act soon enough to stop the commissioner from beating her, her main line of attack will likely return in the general. The mayor aired a 2020 clip of Johnson talking about "our effort and our move to redirect and defund the amount of money that is spent in policing."
Lightfoot also made use of footage of Johnson saying, “I don’t look at it as a slogan. It’s an actual real political goal.” Lightfoot, who, like Johnson, is Black, told an African American audience before the primary that all of this meant that she was “the only viable Black candidate” in the running. (Vallas is white.)
Johnson, writes the Chicago Tribune, has avoided saying the word “defund” on the campaign trail, and he told reporters to “ask better questions” when they quizzed him about it. His mayoral campaign responded to Lightfoot’s attacks by arguing he supports “maintaining the current CPD budget while making the department more efficient and providing new investments in additional public safety initiatives outside of the police department, including new teams of non-personnel first responders for mental health crisis calls.”
A few surveys were released over the last month testing Vallas against Johnson, though until Tuesday, it was far from clear this would be the matchup that was in store for respondents. An early February poll from Mason-Dixon gave Johnson a tiny 39-38 edge, but the GOP company Victory Research two weeks later put Vallas on top by a wide 46-33. The firm 1983 Polling went into the field days before the primary and also had Vallas up 44-31.
Lightfoot herself said in January, “[F]olks, I would love to have Paul Vallas as my runoff challenger,” but on Tuesday, she instead became the first mayor to lose re-election since the legendary Harold Washington unseated Jane Byrne in the 1983 Democratic primary. (A state law went into effect 16 years later requiring all municipal races in Illinois to be officially nonpartisan affairs.) Lightfoot’s third-place finish comes four years after she won her post in the general election by defeating Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle in a 74-26 romp, a win that made her the first Black woman, as well as the first lesbian, to lead Chicago.
Lightfoot spent her tenure dealing with problems that were largely out of her control, like the city’s perennially high crime rate and the unrest from the pandemic. But her critics have argued she’s made things far worse by offending key constituencies and politicians. Lightfoot countered by arguing that as a Black woman, she’s been the victim of a double standard that didn’t apply to her most recent predecessor. She recounted to Politico, “I remember Rahm Emanuel appearing on the cover of Time magazine, the headline was basically like: ‘Tough guy for Chicago.’”
However, other Illinois politicians offered a different take. Politico writes that Gov. J.B. Pritzker has come into conflict with the mayor “so often that Pritzker has stayed out of the mayoral race so far and Lightfoot has made no attempt to repair their relationship.” Alderman Susan Sadlowski Garza was far more vocal, explaining last year that she wouldn’t back the incumbent again because "I have never met anybody who has managed to piss off every single person they come in contact with—police, fire, teachers, aldermen, businesses, manufacturing."
One problem for Lightfoot may be that, despite her landslide win four years ago as a first-time candidate, she didn’t come into office with experience—or perhaps even interest—in building the type of relationships she’d need to succeed. Lightfoot, who positioned herself as a political reformer in 2019, scored her first win by securing 18% in the primary (Vallas grabbed ninth with just 5%) after all four of the ostensible frontrunners were hurt by their connections to Ed Burke, a powerful alderman who had just been charged with corruption.
During the general election, Lightfoot was able to unite diverse groups of voters who had little in common except that they all disliked Preckwinkle for various reasons. The winner, who didn’t have much of a record to attack, was able to essentially be all things to all people: Chicago Magazine, for instance, wrote at the time that she appealed to progressives by joining them in denouncing the establishment, and that conservative voters "like her because they believe that as a former president of the Police Board, she'll be sympathetic to first responders."
However, the dynamic was very different once Lightfoot won and she, rather than Preckwinkle, was in the spotlight. Lightfoot, as the Tribune explains in its detailed piece on her travails, feuded with members of the City Council, telling the ones who voted against her budget plan, “Don’t come to me for shit.” She also accused Uber of “paying off Black ministers” to oppose her proposed congestion tax, developed a terrible relationship with the state legislature, and feuded with the CTU.
An unnamed Lightfoot aide explained after her defeat, “Lessons: You can’t run on a platform and then completely abandon it. You can’t run against the status quo, and then fill your administration with the status quo. And you can’t be mean to everyone who tries to help you.” Alderman Derrick Curtis would agree with that last bit, as he had some choice words for Lightfoot in January for failing to contact him after he was wounded when the gun he was cleaning accidentally discharged. “I felt myself being a very, very close friend and ally to her. I really was a No. 1 cheerleader,” said Curtis, “But, she never called when I shot myself … I wouldn’t treat my friends that way.”