The contest has centered on the increase in violent crime during the COVID-19 pandemic and soaring property taxes. But it also could have implications for Democrats nationally ahead of other elections, including mayoral races in cities such as Philadelphia and Houston. For both progressives and the party’s more moderate wing, the Chicago race is seen as a test of organizing power and messaging, especially with issues salient to big cities, like crime and alignment with law enforcement unions.
Vallas has repeatedly attacked Johnson for past comments in support of defunding police, which Johnson says he wouldn’t do as mayor. Still, Vallas — who wants to hire hundreds more officers — says the biggest quality dividing the candidates is experience. The former Chicago budget director, who took over troubled schools in Chicago and elsewhere, says his background will be critical for a city emerging from the pandemic with policing and economic crises.
“This is no time for on-the-job training,” Vallas said. “This is no time for someone who has no specifics who really can’t answer questions in a substantive way.”
Johnson, in turn, has argued Vallas, who has run for office multiple times as a Democrat, is too right-wing to lead Chicago. He noted some of his major donors have also supported Republicans, including Donald Trump, and that the controversial head of the police union has defended Jan. 6 insurrectionists. During a rally late last week with Sen. Bernie Sanders, a Vermont independent and progressive standard-bearer, he described his opponent as part of the extremist right and other “greedy profiteers.”
“When you take dollars from Trump supporters and try to cast yourself as part of the progressive movement — man, sit down,” Johnson said before leading a crowd of several thousand gathered for the rally in chanting “Paul Vallas, take a seat.”
Both men have deep roots in the Democratic Party, though with vastly different backgrounds.
Johnson, who is Black, grew up poor and is now raising his children in one of Chicago’s most violent neighborhoods. After teaching middle and high school, he helped mobilize teachers, including during a historic 2012 strike, through which the Chicago Teachers Union became highly influential in city politics.
The 47-year-old says that instead of investing more in policing and incarceration, the city should focus on mental health treatment, affordable housing for all and jobs for youth. He has proposed a plan he says will raise $800 million by taxing “ultrarich” individuals and businesses, including a per-employee “head tax” on employers and an additional tax on hotel room stays. Vallas says that so-called “tax-the-rich” plan would be a disaster for the city’s recovering economy.
Vallas, who finished in first place in the February election, was the only white candidate in that nine-person field. The 69-year-old was endorsed by Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, as well as the local Chamber of Commerce. The grandson of Greek immigrants, he grew up working in family restaurants. He has two sons who have worked as police officers, one of whom is now a firefighter.
After working as budget director under then-Mayor Richard M. Daley, Vallas was appointed to take over Chicago Public Schools. He then went on to lead districts in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, and in Philadelphia and Bridgeport, Connecticut. He ran unsuccessfully for mayor in 2019.
This election, he has focused heavily on how to improve morale among officers — Vallas was a consultant for the union during its negotiations with Lightfoot’s City Hall — and said he would promote a new police superintendent from within the department’s ranks.
Associated Press journalist Teresa Crawford contributed.