Two weeks will decide Chicago’s future

By Thom Serafin

March 18, 2023

Chicago, it’s time to start voting!

Thanks to early voting, Chicago voters begin to cast their ballots tomorrow for their next Mayor. Paul Valla’s and Brandon Johnson, the top two vote-getters in the nine-candidate primary, offer a clear contrast on the two most important issues that face the city: crime and education. 

This election will be decided by which campaign is most successful at turning their voters out, many of them as early voters. In the February 28th election, fewer than half of the ballots were cast on election day. Early voting and mailed-in ballots accounted for more than 50 percent of the ballots cast. 

Unfortunately for Chicago, only 35 percent of eligible voters cast ballots in February’s primary. More than a million registered Chicagoans did not vote. For the future of the city, more people have to participate.

Turnout was disappointing, but both candidates are hoping to change that scenario in the runoff:  Johnson, by relying on the formidable get-out-the vote organization of municipal employee unions which put him in second place in a big field. Vallas, who came in first, is hoping to capitalize on many endorsements by local political leaders and the Chicago Tribune, as well as a more energized messaging effort.

The issue of crime concerns voters the most, according to the polls, which also show that Vallas has an advantage on that issue. He has detailed knowledge of police issues, and argues that a much improved and better staffed police department is essential to curbing crime, which has been particularly devastating on the predominantly Black south and west sides of the city. 

He is endorsed by the police officers’ union.  This past week, a half dozen African-American members of the City Council endorsed Vallas, citing crime in their neighborhoods as a big issue. 

Ald. Emma Mitts (37th) said:

“There is a myth out there that people in the Black community don’t want police in their neighborhoods, and that’s not true.” 

Ald. Walter Burnett (27th), added, “Well, I’m going to tell you, we have people in our neighborhood who are imprisoned in their homes. They cannot come out.”

Given the importance of the crime issue, I was surprised that Johnson’s campaign waited so long to address comments he made in 2020 that “defunding” the police was a political goal. He finally walked it back after Vallas went on the air with his commercial criticizing the “defund” comment this week.

“As far as my vision for public safety, I’m not going to defund the police,’’ Johnson told reporter Laura Washington this past week, “but what I am committed to doing is to make sure that we are actually investing in a smart way.” Then in the WLS debate Johnson said, “First of all, I’m not going to defund the police, never said it.” The Tribune called that a misleading statement.

But if Johnson waited too long to clarify his position on police, the same question could be asked of the Vallas campaign: why did they wait so long to challenge Johnson on his earlier comments? 

Johnson said he would cut $150 million from the Police Department budget, and use it for alternative strategies to fight crime. While there is a historically poor relationship between the police and the African- American communities, it is unclear how this approach will play in the black communities that have been devastated by crime, and where there has been an exodus of black citizens leaving Chicago to find safer neighborhoods, better schools and good job opportunities. 

Ald. Anthony Beal (9th), who endorsed Vallas, argues that debate about crime should not be about racial division. “April 4 we’re going to send a message that this race is not about race and we’re not gonna let somebody dictate that this race is about race.”

Vallas has wide experience as Chicago’s budget director and CEO of school systems in Chicago, Philadelphia and New Orleans, but commentators are asking whether he has the political skills to win an election. That remains to be seen. His longtime reputation as a policy wonk does not necessarily translate into effective campaigning. He has hired experienced Democratic campaign professionals to run his campaign. Had Vallas prevailed over Rod Blagojevich for Illinois Governor in 2002, the State would have been spared years of dysfunction, but he lost narrowly to Blagojevich, who received a boost with an unexpected Sun Times endorsement.

This weekend’s Chicago Tribune endorsed Vallas, saying, “Paul Vallas is the candidate best positioned to tackle the city’s existential problem of violent crime. As he said on the campaign trail, the right to live without fear of attack should be viewed as an inalienable human right.” In the editorial the paper acknowledges Johnson’s energy,  passion and intelligence.

Johnson is an attractive and charismatic candidate. He was elected in 2018 as Cook County Commissioner for the 1st District and was re-elected in 2022. He focused on the Just Housing Ordinance, helping those with arrest records to secure affordable housing. He joined the Chicago Teachers Union as an organizer with plenty of experience over the past 10 years, especially as a CTU leader in the 2019 strike, winning additional staffing for educators, including support for Special Education students.

Both candidates understand that the winner of this race will be the one who expands his appeal beyond his base, and both are hoping that prominent endorsements will help them do just that. 

In addition to the African-American aldermen already mentioned, Vallas is endorsed by former Secretary of State Jesse White and primary mayoral candidates Willie Wilson, Ja’Mal Green and Ald. Roderick Sawyer. Vallas is also endorsed by former mayoral candidate Gery Chico and four Hispanic aldermen, who say they’re concerned about crime in their neighborhoods.  Building trades unions, including Operating Engineers, the Plumbers Union and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers have endorsed Vallas.

Johnson has been endorsed by County Board Chairman Toni Preckwinkle and U.S. Rep. Danny Davis (D-1st), and primary mayoral candidates U.S. Rep. Jesus “Chuy” Garcia and State Rep. Kam Buckner. Johnson is also endorsed by the Rev. Jesse Jackson, and has benefited from the backing of the Teachers Union, SEIU and the United Working Families which fielded upwards of 800 volunteers for Johnson on primary election day.  As a leading voice of Chicago progressives, Johnson has attracted national attention by joining the recent civil rights memorial in Selma, Alabama, and picking up the endorsement of U.S. Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. 

Illinois’ two US Senators, and Gov. JB Pritzker, are still on the sidelines.

The recent primary was fought against a background of distrust between the African-American community and the rising Hispanic political population. Despite their growing numbers, Hispanics were shortchanged by a city ward re-map that should have given them at least one more alderman in the City Council. Johnson’s campaign knows wooing Hispanic voters is proving a challenge, and is hoping the Garcia endorsement will deliver the bulk of the Hispanic vote. 

On the issue of education, Vallas favors parental school choice and believes that Chicago schools should stay open in the evenings to offer both adult and student activities as alternatives to the gangs and to provide opportunities for improving skills. Johnson, a former elementary school teacher, and CTU organizer is opposed to parental school choice.

With two weeks to go and four more debates (WGN-3/21, FOX32-3/22, CBS2-3/28 & WBEZ/Sun Times 3/30) there should be little excuse for Chicago residents to plead ignorance as to what path they want the city to take to solve its most pressing “existential” problem.


Thom Serafin is President & CEO of Serafin & Associates, Inc., a crisis communications consulting firm which he founded in 1987. In 2015, Crain’s Chicago Business named him one of the Top 20 Insiders in Illinois politics. He appears regularly on Chicago radio and television with political analysis.