Tensions are running high in the final days of Chicago’s mayoral race, in a contest that has laid bare divisions between local Democrats over some of the party’s most contentious national issues.
As Paul Vallas and Brandon Johnson vie to become the next leader of America’s third-largest city, supporters have dialed up their rhetoric, with one police union official warning of “blood in the streets” if Johnson, a progressive, wins over the moderate Vallas.
The Tuesday race, one of the most closely watched of the 2023 cycle, has highlighted disagreements over issues like policing and education, while endorsements from Democratic leaders have largely separated along ideological lines.
“I think that they do represent two, quite frankly, stark different visions of the Democratic Party,” said veteran political operative Victor Reyes, who’s supporting Vallas.
While some strategists caution against looking at municipal elections strictly through a national lens, many observers are watching the Chicago mayor’s race to gauge the mood of the electorate as Democrats prepare to face another presidential cycle.
The practical elements of city elections have also put an intense focus on candidates’ different approaches to addressing voters’ everyday concerns. Moderate Democrats argue that urban voters have started rejecting candidates who seem too far left, with some citing the election of New York City Mayor Eric Adams (D), a former police officer, as a striking example. Vallas’s backers are hoping he will have similar luck.
“I do think that some of these cities are starting to push a little bit back against a far-left agenda,” Reyes said, referencing Johnson as someone who he says fits that bill.
But progressives view him differently. They believe the Cook County commissioner is a better fit for the city, arguing he’s the more authentic Democrat. Liberals have taken issue with the fact that some of Vallas’s donors have donated to Republicans in the past, given that he’s running for an office that oversees a largely Democratic electorate. Vallas has also taken heat for an endorsement he received from the Fraternal Order of Police.
“I have more faith in his ability to do that,” said Democratic analyst Marj Halperin, who’s supporting Johnson, about the possibility of offering unity. “I don’t see how Paul Vallas can unite the city when he’s funded by conservative Republicans.”
In the weeks leading up to Election Day, they have underscored the contrast among Democrats when it comes to tackling the issue of public safety. Vallas has pushed to have more manpower for the police force, potentially restoring their presence to as many as 13,500 cops. He’s also proposed having a stronger police footprint on city transit.
Douglas Wilson, a Democratic strategist who worked on former President Obama’s 2008 and 2012 presidential campaigns, said Vallas “has to be very careful” about how he shares his plan for crime and policing with voters.
“He’ll have to say something to the effect of ‘We need police reform, but we also have to be able to recruit more good police so we can fight crime and keep these crime levels down because folks are dying out there,’” Wilson said.
Johnson has instead advocated for training and promoting some 200 more police detectives and deploying mental health professionals to respond to some crisis calls when appropriate.
But some believe that Johnson’s style could be more easily subjected to Republican attacks.
Projecting an argument that could come from the eventual GOP opponent, Wilson said that Republicans may argue: “In the city where there has been high levels of crime, progressives won and that just shows progressives are not tough on crime.”
“They’ll try and use that as fodder nationwide,” he said.
Underscoring the tensions surrounding the issue of policing, John Catanzara, a Chicago police union official, warned there would be a “mass exodus” of police officers in the streets should Johnson win, and that there would be “blood in the streets,” according to The New York Times.
The national attention to schooling is also a flashpoint in the race, with both candidates offering different visions for financing public education and tackling declining enrollment. Both have first-hand ties to the issue. Vallas was the CEO of Chicago Public Schools, the fourth largest school system in the country, while Johnson is a former teacher and organizer for the Chicago Teachers Union.
Their personal connections have sparked some disagreements over school funding, police presence on campus and school choice. Vallas is a choice advocate who’s supportive of having police in schools and has endorsed funneling money to institutions directly. Vallas has also criticized the CTU for school closures during the pandemic.
Johnson has opposed adding charter schools and rejects student-based budgeting, which relies on enrollment, instead advocating for fully funding schools.
Support for charter schools has waned in recent years, but still has some prominent supporters including former Obama Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who endorsed Vallas in the race.
Vallas has also sought to make the Chicago Teachers Union an issue, criticizing school closures during the pandemic. Johnson, however, has defended those closures, telling the Chicago Sun-Times in an interview earlier this year, “We wanted to save lives.”
“The death toll in the Black community and the Brown community was horrific. Anyone that believes that our intentions were anything other than saving lives somehow missed the entire episode of a 100-year pandemic,” he added.
Progressives believe Johnson has struck the right balance.
“Regardless of party and stature, anyone supporting Paul Vallas is supporting the destruction of public education in Chicago as we know it given his record,” Rahna Epting, executive director at MoveOn, told The Hill. “Seeing establishment Democrats play into the fear mongering of Republicans and putting our values on the back burner by lining up behind MAGA friendly Paul Vallas is deeply disappointing.”
Beyond the two most pressing policy differences, the two mayoral contenders have also attracted high-level endorsers, who they hope can boost their candidacy by drawing new eyes to the race and help inspire turnout.
Johnson’s allies are hoping that’s the case. He has seen some of the party’s biggest names get behind his bid. Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) are both supporting his campaign along with several House liberals.
Sanders hosted a rally for Johnson on Thursday evening, telling supporters that he predicts “this is going to be a close election and the deciding factor will be voter turnout.”
Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.), who typically supports the more moderate Democrat in primaries, also threw his weight behind Johnson. The influential congressman’s stamp of approval is important because of the recent weight it holds. His support of President Biden in 2020 lifted him up at a critical moment, and he has since backed other successful candidates in the Midwest.
Vallas has also amassed some prominent names, including Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), who described Vallas as a “thoughtful leader who can strengthen Chicago’s economy and create jobs.”
No matter who wins the election, strategists suggest uniting the city — including its Democrats and unions — will be a daunting task.
“If Brandon Johnson wins, how will he deal with the FOP? If Paul Vallas wins, how will he deal with CTU? For the wellbeing of Chicagoans, we need a mayor to have a functional relationship with both police and teachers,” said Tracy Mayfield, a former advisor to Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s (D) 2019 campaign.