The 2023 Chicago mayoral runoff election was a tale of two cities: Winner Brandon Johnson and loser Paul Vallas offered starkly contrasting visions for Chicago’s future and claimed distinct political coalitions.
Mr. Vallas, the former CEO of Chicago Public Schools and 2014 Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor of Illinois, ran on a tough-on-crime, pro-school-choice platform. Mr. Johnson, a former Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) organizer who serves on the Cook County Board of Commissioners, campaigned with pro-union messaging and ardently supported “taxing the rich.” A socialist himself, Johnson boasted the support of Senator Bernie Sanders (I., Vermont).
On Tuesday night, the Associated Press called the race for Johnson as he held a 2.5-point lead over Vallas with around 91 percent of the vote counted.
Johnson’s victory comes in the midst of numerous crises, including soaring property taxes, stubbornly high crime rates since COVID, and a public school system facing dwindling enrollment levels despite increased spending. In addition, several firms such as Boeing, Caterpillar, and Citadel have already departed the Windy City, with current businesses like McDonald’s expressing concern about the city’s unfriendly regulatory environment.
In Chicago’s Turf Wars, Johnson Stakes Claim on Lightfoot’s Hyde Park Territory
Both Vallas and Johnson outperformed incumbent mayor Lori Lightfoot in February’s election, with Vallas commanding a two-to-one vote tally over her. Lightfoot, entrenched in battles from both her left and right flanks, became the first Chicago mayor to lose re-election in over forty years—despite winning approximately a quarter of the fifty wards, including both covering UChicago.
Also ousted was U.S. Representative Jesús “Chuy” García (D., IL-04), whose stronghold consisted of the wards surrounding the predominantly Hispanic Little Village neighborhood.
Worthy of attention is the remarkable uniformity in how each candidate’s supporters voted this cycle. Between the two contests, Johnson and Vallas wards largely stayed in their camps, with the exception of the West Loop and northern Lincoln Park neighborhoods switching their votes from Vallas to Johnson. Furthermore, Lightfoot’s camp (including voters in the UChicago area) by and large swung in favor of Johnson while García’s wards joined the Vallas camp in spite of his endorsement of Johnson.
Different Coalitions and Different . . . Levels of Enthusiasm
Johnson’s successful Tuesday night owed itself in part to consistent voter turnout in wards he won in February as well as successful appeals to Lightfoot’s former voter base. Heavily pro-Johnson neighborhoods like Rogers Park and Logan Square drummed up a steady army of voters (including many CTU foot soldiers) and pro-Lightfoot areas like Austin, Hyde Park, and Roseland swung his way in dramatic fashion.
For example, the three Lightfoot wards with the most turnout—4, 8, and 21—preferred him over Vallas all by over forty points, despite formerly doing so by single-digit margins. Both wards encompassing UChicago—4 and 5— eagerly jumped ship from Lightfoot to Johnson.
Claiming García’s territory proved to be insufficient for Vallas. All six wards that García won in February were in the bottom ten in terms of raw vote count and witnessed further depressed turnout Tuesday night. Moreover, none of them sided with Vallas by over twenty points.
CTU—Campaign Treasury Union?
Johnson’s wide campaigning influence was largely propped up by donations from public sector unions, primarily the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and its local affiliates (which includes the CTU). Combined, the AFT, CTU, and Illinois Federation of Teachers (IFT) bankrolled over half of Johnson’s total campaign cash with over five million dollars. The Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and its local affiliates further armed Johnson with an additional four million dollars. In total, unions funded over 90 percent of his campaign.
Vallas’s campaign pocketbook, on the other hand, was largely on the dime of business executives like Craig Duchossois and Joe Mansueto, as well as trade unions like the Chicago Land Operators.
The use of public sector money on Johnson’s campaign was a subject of recent internal scrutiny, as more moderate delegates within the CTU filed a suit, charging the union with dispensing members’ dues towards cashing in on Johnson’s election efforts. This would serve to contradict policies laid out in its own handbook about dues not being used for political purposes.
Hyde Park Voters Get What They Want: A Self-Fulfilling Prophecy?
For the broader UChicago community that largely backed Johnson, the potential impacts of the new administration are hard to predict as the area faces its own predicaments. To start, the average rent of a three-bedroom apartment in Hyde Park currently sits at around $2,650 per month. Perhaps even more concerning, business owners in the area have struggled in the past few years with persistent crime. Students have as well: Last October, following two killings the year before, a student was shot in Woodlawn.
But given Johnson’s inconsistent views on defunding the police, uncertainty about the reliability of Chicago’s businesses to foot his taxes, and promises to nix Chicago’s gang database, Hyde Park may be prudent to prepare for more dangerous streets, fewer local businesses, and more exorbitant housing costs for both off- and on-campus student residents as well as locals.
* The views expressed in this article solely represent the views of the author, not the views of the Chicago Thinker.