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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

County commissioner and union organizer is elected mayor of Chicago

Brandon Johnson celebrates with supporters in Chicago after winning the mayoral election on Tuesday, April 4, 2023. In a largely liberal city, Chicago voters chose Johnson, a county commissioner and union organizer, over Paul Vallas, who took a hard line on crime.

By Mitch Smith

Brandon Johnson, a county commissioner and union organizer who called for a vast expansion of social programs in Chicago, as well as new taxes, was elected mayor of the country’s third-largest city on Tuesday, according to The Associated Press.

Johnson’s victory over Paul Vallas, a fellow Democrat with far more conservative views on crime and education, showed voters rejecting the tough-on-crime politics that have become a staple of municipal elections in recent years and instead embracing a decidedly progressive vision for a city still struggling to emerge from a pandemic malaise.

The mayor-elect, who will take office in May, will inherit a city in flux, with a downtown that is emptier than before the coronavirus pandemic, a Police Department that has no permanent leader and a public school system that has seen a decline in enrollment. Fewer commuters have been riding buses and L trains, and census estimates have shown a decline in population.

But this election was defined by a pandemic-era rise in crime that left Chicagoans frightened, angry and ready to chart a new course, even as they disagreed about what that should look like. In a first round of balloting in February, voters rejected the policies of Lori Lightfoot, the current mayor who survived just a single term in office before receiving just 17% of the vote and failing to qualify for the runoff.

“There’s gunshots all over,” said Jose Hinojosa, 46, a sales professional from the Northwest Side who voted for Vallas because “crime is just ridiculous.”

The election in Chicago is the latest race in a large, liberal American city where crime has been a primary issue. In New York City, Eric Adams, a Democrat and former police captain, defeated progressive candidates in his party’s 2021 mayoral primary by calling for a crackdown on crime. And in Los Angeles last year, Karen Bass, a liberal congresswoman, was elected mayor in a race in which her more conservative opponent, Rick Caruso, a billionaire real estate developer, ran on a law-and-order message.

Johnson, 47, qualified for the runoff by defeating several better-established candidates competing for the same liberal voters. A former teacher, Johnson has spent the past 12 years working for the Chicago Teachers Union, a powerful but polarizing political force whose members have engaged in three work stoppages during his tenure. Johnson promoted a plan for improving the city by investing in social programs, mental health treatment and neighborhood public schools. He also tried to distance himself from past support for defunding law enforcement even as he put forth a vision for public safety that went far beyond policing.

Vallas, 69, emerged as the consensus choice for conservative Chicagoans. He called for a harsher approach to minor crimes, more police officers and an expansion of charter schools. But in a heavily Democratic city, Vallas faced criticism for past comments that he considered himself to be more of a Republican than a Democrat, and for an endorsement from the local chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police, whose leaders frequently use brash rhetoric and support Republican politicians.

Race has often played a role in elections in Chicago, which has long been segregated but has roughly equal numbers of white, Black and Hispanic residents.

Vallas, who is white, made it to the runoff with strong support in the city’s downtown and in majority-white areas of the Northwest and Southwest sides, where many municipal workers live. Johnson, who is Black, had performed well along the city’s northern lakefront, home to many white progressives, and in predominantly Hispanic areas northwest of downtown.

Lyric Newbern, 23, a college student who lives on the South Side and is Black, said she chose Johnson because he “is from the inner city of Chicago and has been involved in the fight against racism and white supremacy.”

“It’s as simple as having the desire to have someone who represents me,” she said.

With polls suggesting a tight race, both candidates touted endorsements from Black and Hispanic politicians as they sought to win over voters who supported Lightfoot or Rep. Jesús G. García, another mayoral candidate, in the first round of balloting.

This runoff was Chicago’s second in a row with no incumbent mayor on the ballot, a major shift for a city where Richard J. Daley and Richard M. Daley each served as mayor for more than 20 years and where elections were often not competitive.

Four years ago, after Mayor Rahm Emanuel decided not to seek a third term, Lightfoot emerged from a large field of candidates to win a blowout victory, carrying all 50 wards in the runoff. She became the first Black woman and the first openly gay person to lead the city.

But her tenure was bumpy from the start. Soon after she took office, the teachers’ union went on strike. And after less than a year in office, COVID-19 upended every aspect of daily life. As the virus spread, homicides rose to generational highs and Chicago endured multiple rounds of civil unrest. Early last year, the teachers engaged in another work stoppage, that time amid a disagreement over COVID-19 protocols.

On the campaign trail this year, Lightfoot emphasized investments in long-neglected parts of the South and West Sides and noted that homicide rates, though still higher than before the pandemic, had started to decline.

But voters chose to move on, elevating one candidate running to her political left, Johnson, and another on her right, Vallas.

Johnson, who lives on Chicago’s West Side, was unknown to many voters at the start of the election cycle but ascended to the top tier of candidates through his gift for retail campaigning and significant financial support from teachers’ unions. Johnson, who earlier in his career taught social studies to middle school and high school students, put forth a progressive vision for a city that he said had consistently failed to invest in its poorest residents. He was recently elected to a second term on the Cook County Board of Commissioners.

Vallas, who grew up on the South Side, has been a familiar figure in Chicago since the 1990s, when he worked in a finance role in City Hall and served as chief executive of Chicago Public Schools when the district was facing an educational and fiscal crisis. In the years that followed, he led other struggling school districts in Philadelphia, New Orleans and Bridgeport, Connecticut, and ran unsuccessfully for office three times in Illinois.

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