On Tuesday, February 28, Chicago voters will decide whether Democratic Mayor Lori Lightfoot has earned a second shot at leading America’s third-largest city. Her most formidable challengers are Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson (who has the support of the Chicago Teachers Union), former CPS administrator Paul Vallas (backed by the Fraternal Order of Police), and businessman Willie Wilson.
Although the mayoral election is formally nonpartisan, all but one candidate running this cycle are registered with the Democratic Party, which has dominated city politics since Mayor William H. Thompson left office in 1931. The last time a Republican even came close to winning was in the 1983 Chicago mayoral election. The sole non-Democrat in this race is Willie Wilson, running as a candidate of the Willie Wilson Party.
Surveying the Field
The mayoral election will occur in two stages. Voters will first pick their top choice from a list of nine, and then the top two vote-getters will advance to an April 4 runoff.
In her quest to make it past the first round, Lightfoot faces challenges from both progressives and moderates. Recent polling suggests that Johnson, Vallas, Wilson, and Congressman Jesús “Chuy” García pose the biggest threats to her re-election. However, other candidates have set their sights on City Hall. That pack includes state Representative Kam Buckner, activist Ja’mal Green, Alderman Sophia King, and Alderman Roderick Sawyer, who will determine who makes the runoff even if they themselves are unsuccessful.
In a generally left-leaning crowd, it takes either a relative moderate or an extremist to stand out. Brandon Johnson, a former Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) organizer and avowed socialist, has clearly chosen the latter approach.
For starters, he hopes to saddle Chicago’s “rich” with more taxes and wants an additional billion dollars a year for the city’s failing government schools. A supporter of the “Treatment Not Trauma” campaign, Johnson hopes to nix Chicago’s gang database. And he seeks to extract an additional $800 million of revenue, in part by surcharging suburban Metra commuters and taxing airlines.
Paul Vallas, former chief executive officer of Chicago Public Schools and unsuccessful 2014 running mate to then-Governor Pat Quinn (D., Illinois), wants wider school choice access for disadvantaged students and more police officers. He has publicly denounced Lightfoot and Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx for their laxity on crime.
As the leading moderate candidate in the race, Vallas has the support of the Chicago Tribune’s editorial board and the Fraternal Order of Police.
Chuy García, the recently reelected U.S. representative from the state’s fourth district, has pushed for police reforms as well as other progressive policies like universal childcare, increased access to abortion, and “gender-affirming healthcare.” He previously ran for mayor in 2015, losing to then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel in the runoff.
Wilson, a medical-supplies entrepreneur, adamantly demands tax cuts and has floated the possibility of hiring four police superintendents for four segments of Chicago. A perennial candidate with a strange background, Wilson ran for mayor in 2015 and 2019 and for president in 2016, voted for former President Donald Trump in 2016, and publicly opposed the ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges, which created a national right to same-sex marriage.
Wilson, however, polls in the top four and would certainly contribute to an eventful run-off if he makes it in.
A 27-year-old acolyte of Senator Bernie Sanders (I., Vermont), Green has made mental health a key focus of his campaign. He seeks to replace mental health facilities with “healing houses,” have social workers do casework on Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) trains, and issue $1,000 monthly checks to 10,000 Chicagoans living below the poverty line.
The (Donor) Votes You Don’t See
Looking at candidates alone paints an imperfect picture of the state of the race. Campaign contributions, however, round out the story.
Different sectors of the city have taken to factionalism, dousing their preferred candidates with millions of dollars. Lightfoot boasts over $500,000 in funding from both the Laborers’ International Union of North America (LIUNA) and the Carpentry Advancement PAC. Meanwhile, Laura Ricketts of that Cubs-owning family gave the incumbent at least $250,000 between 2019 and 2022.
Chicago’s business elite supports Vallas. He enjoys several individual donations adding up to over $1 million from big-name firms across the city, including the likes of Madison Dearborn, BDGR Inc., and Citadel.
Wilson is almost entirely self-funded, pouring at least $7 million of his own fortunes into his campaign.
Clearly the favorite of the teachers’ unions, Johnson enjoys generous deposits of over $1 million from both the CTU and the Illinois and American Federation of Teachers (IFT/AFT). His campaign also has the support of public-sector labor unions like the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) and Service Employees International Union (SEIU), which have pitched in with at least five-figure donations.
A Fight Far from Over
Chicago residents have less than a week to cast their ballots, yet a recent Northwestern University poll found that over 20% of voters sampled were then uncommitted. Meanwhile, the poll suggests that no candidate will receive more than 20% of the total vote.
Regardless of whether Lightfoot continues to serve, the next mayor will have to surmount battles on all fronts. Truth in Accounting, a think tank, ranked Chicago 74th out of 75th for finances among large cities, thanks to $34 billion in unfunded pension liabilities. Additionally, the mayor will have to tackle diminishing test scores in Chicago Public Schools and the city’s persistent crime problem.
After all, Cook County—which houses Chicago—had the most murders of any U.S. county in 2020.
The University of Chicago, in partnership with TurboVote, offers early voting at Reynolds Club from February 22–24, from 10 AM to 5 PM. You can learn more at https://uchicago.turbovote.org/ or https://www.uchivotes.com/.