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.

Comments 22

  1. Johnson is trying to run from his record of stating he is a socialist, which is putting it mildly, and radical. He is outright lying regarding his defund the police stance. Johnson was key in transforming the CTU into a political arm rather than fighting for the kids he claims to want to help. He lacks substance and relies on clichés rather than real answers to Chicago’s problems.

    Vallas would tackle crime, budgetary issues, lower taxes, and give parents real school choice, which would not only help our kids be in safer schools but would help them actually learn to read and write. Additionally, school choice would break the hold the CTU has on Chicago. The problem for Vallas will be dealing with Preckwinkle and Pritzker.

    I assure you, if Brandon Johnson wins, he will be worse than Lori Lightfoot, and he will be a puppet of Preckwinkle and Pritzker. Vote wisely.

  2. 1. Vallas will lose to Johnson.
    2. If by some chance Vallas would win he will not be able to govern. It’s a weak mayor strong council. He will end up like Lori who capitulated to the real boss Taxwinkle.

    1. This is an unbelievably ignorant comment on a critical situation. Anyone seriously considering Johnson is a lunatic socialist. Can’t win with his record. Chicago is on the critical list due to decades of Democrat looting. Vallas will start the recovery by arresting, prosecuting, convicting, and locking up the repeat violent criminal element coddled by others. GOOD LUCK CHICAGO.

      1. Vallas is running for Mayor, not states attorney, therefore he can’t ‘arrest, prosecute, convict and lock up! ‘ That’s up to Fox and Tim Evans. Lots of luck there, huh. Did you forget? Where have you been. Another informed citizen you are.
        Chicago is dead. It doesn’t matter who wins. It will never come back as it’s old self. The middle class has left and soon will the rich. And that leaves what?

    2. I live here, do you? Or did you skulk off to Indiana or retire in Florida, at least 6 miles from the coast in order to find something affordable? I don’t want it to be ‘the way it was.’ I don’t want anything to be ‘the way it was.’ I believe in evolution, positive change. Why would I want the city to go back to the era of patronage? I for one am excited about what comes next, you on the other hand are old, bitter and cranky. We won’t miss you when you leave. Bu-bye.

  3. God forbid Johnson wins. He will be the last nail in the City of Chicago’s coffin. I have a feeling all of this early voting doesn’t forbode well for Vallas. The controversies our current elections all have one things in common: mail in voting. This has encouraged blatant ballot harvesting by the democrats. This is why we’re seeing elections seemingly swing in the opposite direction in the later hours as these ballots are counted. The controversy over current elections is fueled by these harvesting operations as the public is now smelling the rats. My apologies though!I guess I’m a “conspiracist”. The only way Vallas wins is by getting an overwhelmingly large turnout in his favor. Johnson is bombing with the Hispanics and Vallas should do well with them. Garcia will have little to do with the latino turnout. He is a non-entity to the large southeast side predominantly mexican american community. Strangely enough a recent front page headline in the Fibune, er Tribune declared the election was “all about race”.The same edition had a very prominent endorsement by Jesse White for Vallas. The same “newspaper” had Vallas at 45% and Johnson at 39%. The Fibune, er Tribune now has Johnson tied with Vallas almost overnight. I wonder who conducted the poll? Not important I guess. Hopefully people are fed up with the bullshit and decide to clean house. Completely. Vote like your life depends on it. Because it does.

  4. Johnson win will mean more taxes and increased population decline for Chicago and Illinois. As more money goes into CPS, test scores have declined. Math and reading skills are down. Fewer students and poor education results. Crime will have no where to go but up as people and their money will vote with their feet. Chicago Pension problems will dwarf the School and population decline problems.

  5. Ballot harvest season is just around the corner.
    How many early votes that are banked will determine the winner of the race.
    Long lines waiting to vote at the polling places makes a great picture for the news stations, but Election Day votes are only sprinkles when compared to the ease of dropping ballots into the mail.
    It used to be a noble profession; this voting more than once or using a dead grandma’s ID.
    Cheating no longer requires a lot of effort.
    I hate to say it, but it will all come down to who can out cheat the other.
    Remember; poll watchers and election judges work at the polling places.
    No one has their eyes on the thousands of ballots that will enter the ballot box through the postal system and the ballot harvesters.
    And don’t believe for a minute that early ballots won’t be counted early.
    You can’t win if you don’t know the magic number.
    “Winners never cheat and cheaters never win” is a myth that placates suckers and losers.
    Until REAL voting reforms are made, including very severe penalties for voter fraud; “elections” will be nothing more than playing poker with 6 aces.
    Illinois is 2nd to New Jersey for most corrupt state in the country. Illinois has been ruled for decades by the Democrats. You don’t have to make a giant leap when talking about corrupt politics in our state. Cheating has been in their playbook since the days of Capone.
    “Elections have consequences” has never been more obvious.
    Vallas for the win.

  6. Chicago’s upcoming election is a debate between the possibility of survival and the continued march of the Democrat-Criminal axis toward civic death. Several of the Commenters here believe it’s already too late, and they might be right.

    If Chicago actually does vote to put the teachers unions at the front of the Democrat-Criminal axis, those doomsday Commenters will be confirmed right. And the days will be numbered, even for the interests still getting paid by the axis. This isn’t like the late non-clan management by Emmanuel, or the phantom of reform Lightfoot represented. It’s the end.

    Elect the teachers unions Chicago’s de facto mayor, and Chicago’s Detroit-style end will be assured.

  7. We suburbanites cannot legally vote in this mayoral election, but we have a stake in its outcome. Chicago’s high crime rate and lousy schools have understandably driven many Chicago families to the suburbs in search of safer neighborhoods and better educational opportunities for their children. Unfortunately, these new suburbanites brought their Democrat votes with them, turning suburban Cook County and red collar counties blue.

    In recent years, many suburbs have witnessed growth of Chicago gangs and crime in their previously quiet neighborhoods. Smash and grab robberies have become common at suburban stores and malls. Kim Foxx is not the only lax Chicago area prosecutor to put violent thugs back on the streets. The Chicago Democrat-dominated Legislature and Pritzker have sought to put thousands of dangerous criminals statewide back on Illinois streets and in our suburban villages by eliminating cash bail for drug crimes, property crimes, and even some violent crimes.

  8. The dems are already sending out notices for mail in ballots for the 2024 election! What does that tell you? Those mail ins can – or may not – be counted, depending on what the outcome shoudl be desired by the dems. That’s how we ended up with Joe, and they’re going to try again right here in Chicago, to elect a left wing radical socialist. But miracle of miracles – the Trib actually endorsed Vallas! Maybe the tide, in fact, is turning. Stay tuned. Maybe next we can irradicate Foxx(y) and Taxwinkle and Evans in one fell swoop!

  9. It’s Vallas and here’s why; the fear due to the lawlessness in the neighborhoods has compelled “black and brown” Aldermen to endorse Paul, and not Brandon.

    The Aldermen are on the front line and are catching a ton of shit due to the fighting, robbery, car thefts, b and e that goes on daily. They want cops, not social workers. They want a response when 911 is called, they want a visible presence.

    Too many have already left. The brain drain, talent drain and loss of institutional knowledge will be hard to overcome. But to Tony’s point, there is an exciting opportunity to build a new paradigm in the city and make it work for regular people.

    Paul will reach out to the community and build infrastructure and put cops on the street. He will use the bulky pulpit and pressure Foxx.

  10. Once again, voters in Chicago are tasked with choosing the lesser of two evils.
    Vallas would be my preference of the two, but he is pandering for votes, and isn’t as far right of Johnson as people make him out to be.
    We’re in for more nonsense for another 4 years.

  11. Please enlighten me to a proven “alternative strategy to fight crime” Batman? WonderWoman? Spider-Man?
    Oh, I know one. Demand automakers take “comprehensive action” to thwart auto thieves. Please stop me before I steal again. Good luck Chicago. Last one leaving please turn out the lights.

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