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Chicago Mayoral Runoff Tests Democrats’ Racial and Ideological Divides

Brandon Johnson sought to echo Martin Luther King Jr. last week at the biggest rally of the Chicago mayor’s race so far, telling a crowd of thousands that the election was an opportunity to “take the progressive movement around the world.”

Johnson, the progressive Cook County commissioner, faces moderate former Chicago public schools chief Paul Vallas in the Second City mayoral runoff on Tuesday – a day that marks the 55th anniversary of King’s assassination.

At the rally Thursday, Johnson invoked King’s remarks during a 17-month campaign that began in 1965 to reverse discriminatory housing practices in Chicago.

“If we can figure it out in Chicago, we can figure it out anywhere in the world,” Johnson said alongside the late civil rights leader’s son Martin Luther King III.

His comments offered a window into the racial and ideological divides that could decide the outcome of a contest in which Black and Latino voters who supported other candidates in the February first round are the most important constituency. And the runoff result could hint at the mood of the Democratic electorate as the 2024 presidential election gets underway and shape how the party’s candidates across the political map seek to build coalitions and how they discuss crime and policing.

Nine candidates, including incumbent Mayor Lori Lightfoot, competed in the February 28 mayoral election in Chicago, with Vallas and Johnson advancing to the runoff as the top finishers.

Vallas’ early message focused almost exclusively on cracking down on crime by adding more police officers, emphasizing community policing and placing law enforcement on public transit. He is backed by the Chicago Fraternal Order of Police and has a base of support that is largely White and more moderate.

Johnson, a former teacher and Chicago Teachers Union organizer, is endorsed by the teachers’ union. A relatively unknown figure just months ago, he has since emerged as a progressive star.

The two candidates have courted Black pastors and community leaders during the runoff. Johnson, who is Black, is seeking to expand what’s seen as an advantage among Black voters, while Vallas, who is White, looks to broaden his base of support from White ethnic neighborhoods and the largely White northwestern region of the city. Latinos, who make up nearly 30% of Chicago’s population, according to the US Census Bureau, could prove to be a critical swing group in the runoff. Democratic Rep. Jesús “Chuy” García, who finished fourth in the February election, was the top vote-getter in several heavily Latino wards and has since thrown his support to Johnson.

It’s not clear whether a result will be known Tuesday night. Chicago counts mail-in ballots postmarked by Election Day, and the number of ballots left to arrive and be counted could be larger than the winning margin on election night, if the race is as close as many strategists and political observers in the city expect.

Ideological divide

The race has in many ways illustrated the broader divides within the Democratic Party.

Progressives, including Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, have championed Johnson. More moderate figures, including Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin and several well-known Chicago politicians, have aligned with Vallas.

At the Thursday night rally for Johnson at an arena at the University of Illinois Chicago, Sanders, American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten and Martin Luther King III all lit into Vallas.

Sanders described the candidate – who is backed by business figures and some Republicans and performed best in February in the city’s largely White areas – as aligned with “the speculators and billionaires.”

“And I know which side Brandon is on,” Sanders said.

Weingarten pointed to support Vallas has received from the Illinois Federation for Children PAC, which has gotten funding from the campaign arm of a conservative group founded by former Trump Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. The PAC spent more than $59,000 on digital ads backing Vallas in March, Illinois campaign finance records show. Vallas has rejected the group’s support.

“I don’t care what he says – for Betsy DeVos and her PAC to come in and support Paul Vallas tells you everything you need to know about him,” Weingarten said.

Johnson, meanwhile, has focused in recent weeks on branding Vallas as a Republican in the technically nonpartisan race. The former schools chief in Chicago, Philadelphia and New Orleans says he is a Democrat – he was the party’s 2014 nominee for Illinois lieutenant governor – but he has made critical remarks about several top Democrats as recently as 2021.

“When you take dollars from Trump supporters and try to pass yourself as a part of the progressive movement – man, sit down,” Johnson said at the Thursday rally.

Vallas, who is making his second bid for Chicago mayor, entered the runoff with a commanding advantage, having won 33% of the vote in the February election – well ahead of Johnson’s second-place finish at 22%.

But his base of support, more conservative and more White than other contenders, carried risks. Chicago is a diverse, overwhelmingly blue city, with 83% of its electorate backing the Democratic ticket in the 2020 presidential election.

Vallas, on the campaign trail and in television advertisements, has attempted to prove he is an ideological match for the Democratic city.

His closing television advertisement begins with a narrator setting the theme: “Democrats for Democrat Paul Vallas.”

The 30-second spot features Durbin, former Rep. Bobby Rush – the only politician to have defeated former President Barack Obama, in a 2000 House Democratic primary – and former longtime Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White, as well as some of Vallas’ former rivals in the mayoral election who have since endorsed him.

“Paul will invest in the South and West sides,” Rush, who is Black, says in the ad. Those regions are predominantly Black and have seen the highest rates of violent crime.

Union clout

The election is also a test of the organizing might of the police and teachers’ unions. Both have feuded with outgoing Mayor Lightfoot, who missed the runoff after finishing third – an outcome driven in part by her frayed relationships with those powerful groups.

But Vallas, while leaning into his pro-police message, has been careful to keep at bay the Fraternal Order of Police – which is unpopular in some parts of Chicago, in part due to the incendiary views of its president, John Catanzara, who wrote on his 2021 retirement paperwork: “Finally!!! Let’s go Brandon.” The phrase is used by some conservatives as a coded insult to President Joe Biden.

Ja’Mal Green, an activist and unsuccessful mayoral candidate who has since endorsed Vallas, posted a video on Twitter last month in which Vallas said he has turned down Fraternal Order of Police donations and is independent of the group.

“I’m not beholden to anybody,” Vallas said in the video.

Vallas has, however, hammered Johnson – who in the past has supported calls to defund the police but now says that while he supports funding other programs aimed at reducing crime he would not look to slash the police budget – for a policy proposal to promote hundreds of additional detectives. Vallas argues that Johnson’s plan would leave police vacancies unfilled and would not address crime on public transportation.

Vallas has said he would fill police vacancies and attempt to stanch the flow of retirements, which he argues stem from police not feeling supported.

“What I’ve basically said is let’s fill the vacancies – and one of the ways you fill the vacancies is you slow the exodus of officers,” Vallas said on “CNN This Morning” last month. “We’ve been losing 1,000 a year because of poor leadership, terrible strategy and really the mismanagement of personnel. And we can significantly solve that exodus.”

Source : CNN