This story was originally published in the TRiiBE.
In just a few months, Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson went from being a relatively unknown candidate in a crowded 2023 Chicago mayoral field to surging in the polls and cementing his place in the city’s April 4 runoff election against former Chicago Public Schools CEO Paul Vallas. Johnson and Vallas represent opposing ideological stances that could push Chicago further left or right.
The Chicago Teachers Union, Service Employees International Union, United Working Families, and community organizers are backing Johnson. He is running on a progressive platform that would invest in people and address the root causes of violence, such as employment, housing, and mental health care. Vallas, who has the endorsement of the Fraternal Order of Police, has called for hiring at least 500 more police officers and expanding charter and magnet schools. He has previously finished ninth in the 14-candidate race for Chicago mayor in 2019, and lost bids for Illinois lieutenant governor in 2014 and Illinois governor in 2002.
Nearly half of Chicago voters chose neither Vallas nor Johnson in the first round of the election on Feb. 28. On election night, Vallas secured 179,740 votes, or 33 percent of the vote, to Johnson’s 114,262 votes, or 21 percent of the vote. So both campaigns have many voters to persuade over the next month.
Black voters are a significant bloc that each candidate will need to win over on the road to the runoff. Incumbent Mayor Lori Lightfoot performed better than the seven other Black mayoral candidates in majority Black wards, but it wasn’t enough to secure her spot in the runoff. She came in third place, making her the first popularly elected mayor to lose reelection since first-term incumbent Jane Byrne lost to Harold Washington 40 years ago. Johnson and businessman Willie Wilson came in second and third place in majority Black wards.
Endorsements have begun flowing in for the runoff, but it is still unclear which candidate Black political and business leaders will overwhelmingly support. Who Black political leaders and others endorse in the runoff matters.
As of press time, some Black political leaders already have endorsed the candidates. Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, who ran for mayor in 2019, and U.S. Rep. Danny Davis have endorsed Johnson. Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul and Bishop Larry Trotter of Sweet Holy Spirit endorsed Johnson, too. Trotter initially endorsed Wilson in the general election. Raoul is the first statewide elected official to endorse Johnson. West Side faith leaders Rev. Ira Acree of Greater St. John Bible Church, Dr. Marshall Hatch of New Mount Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church, and David Cherry of the West Side–based Leaders Network have also pledged their support for Johnson. And perhaps most prominently, the Rev. Jesse Jackson endorsed Johnson late last week.
Former secretary of state Jesse White, Ald. Walter Burnett (27th Ward), and retiring Ald. Roderick Sawyer (6th Ward), who came in last in the 2023 mayoral race, have endorsed Vallas. On Tuesday, former U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush endorsed Vallas, too. Wilson, a businessman, and community activist Ja’Mal Green have also endorsed Vallas. Wilson placed fifth overall in the Feb. 28 mayoral election, and Green finished in sixth place.
For any of Chicago’s Black political and business leaders to endorse a candidate like Vallas demonstrates that some oppose progress and instead favor keeping the political establishment intact, according to two Black political experts that the TRiiBE interviewed for this story.
“It’s about the status quo. It’s about business as usual. It’s about making sure nothing changes,” said Delmarie Cobb, a veteran journalist and political consultant.
Vallas has “suddenly become the savior of the city of Chicago. How do you turn rejection into being the savior?” she asked, referring to Vallas’ unsuccessful runs for elected positions. “There’s a reason people voted against and rejected him.” She said the reason Vallas is being embraced now is about more than public safety.
Vallas, Cobb explained, is cut from the same cloth as former Chicago mayors Rahm Emanuel and Richard M. Daley. In 1995, Daley appointed Vallas as the first Chicago Public Schools CEO to lead the Chicago Board of Education after the passage of the Chicago School Reform Amendatory Act. The law led to the restructuring of the Board of Education. It also gave the mayor total control over the school district.
In the days leading up to the Feb. 28 election, a 2021 podcast episode revealed Vallas’ thoughts on critical race theory, which he called dangerous and divisive. “And for white parents, how are you going to discipline your child when your child […] has basically been told that their generation, their race, their parents, their grandparents, they have discriminated against others and they have somehow victimized another person’s race?”
He also came under fire over his Twitter account, which “liked” racist and homophobic tweets dating back to before his campaign launched. Vallas initially blamed it on an unnamed campaign worker, then later said he was hacked.
At a press conference on March 2, former Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White was the first Black politician to announce that he would endorse Vallas. He praised Vallas’ work in education and added that Vallas will “put law enforcement on the street” to improve public safety.
Asked by the TRiiBE at the press conference how he reconciles Vallas’ past comments calling critical race theory “divisive” and saying that “it does damage,” as well as his endorsements from alt-right figures such as Charlie Kirk and FOP president John Catanzara, White reiterated his support for the former CPS CEO.
“I believe that Paul Vallas is the right person for the job,” White said. “So I make no apologies for my endorsement.”
White’s move to endorse Vallas was no surprise to Cobb or Robert Starks, a professor emeritus of political science at Northeastern Illinois University.
“Jesse White is an old-line Democrat, a Daley Democrat,” Starks said. “That’s how he got into office in the first place. And that’s why he was not opposed by anybody in the Democratic Party when he ran, because he ran unopposed in primary elections.”
White, now 88, was Illinois’ longest-serving and first Black secretary of state. He was first elected to office in 1998 and has overwhelmingly won each of his elections throughout his nearly 30-year tenure. White endorsed Chicago City Council Clerk Anna Valencia to succeed him in the 2022 Democratic primary; she lost to former State Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias by nearly 20 points.
White “has never really been very enthusiastic about non-Daley Democrats. He’s always supported people who were aligned with the old-fashioned Democratic Party,” Starks added.
White was also a protégé of George Dunne, who served as president of the Cook County Board of Commissioners from 1969 to 1991 and was chairman of the Cook County Democratic Party from 1976 to 1982. Dunne was also a member of mayor Richard J. Daley’s inner circle.
Starks added that Democrats who were associated with the Daleys have not disappeared.
“They’re still operating, in some cases behind the scenes, but they’re still existing, and they still have a great deal of influence in selecting Democratic candidates,” he said.
Following White’s endorsement, a few other Black leaders rallied around Vallas: Alds. Burnett and Sawyer (6th Ward), and Siri Hibbler, the founder and CEO of the Cook County Black Chamber of Commerce, Illinois Black Chamber, and Garfield Park Chamber of Commerce. White is Burnett’s mentor.
Nearly 40 years ago, Mayor Harold Washington was elected Chicago’s first Black mayor. His grassroots campaign mobilized more than 100,000 new registered voters for the mayoral election in 1983, defeating Republican candidate Bernard Epton by a slim majority of 51.7 percent to 48 percent. Washington’s win dealt a stunning blow to Chicago’s machine politics.
Though we’re 40 years removed from that moment, Cobb said this election is reminiscent of the 1983 election.
“When Harold Washington ran, you had Black elected officials who came out for him, but then you had an equal number of Black elected officials who came out for Jane Byrne and Richard M. Daley. So this is exactly a mirror of the same thing that happened 40 years ago,” Cobb said.
Racism is also a front-and-center issue in this race—just as it was when Harold Washington ran for mayor in 1983. Then, white Democrats overwhelmingly crossed party lines to vote for Epton, a Republican. Cobb recalls widespread fear among white Chicagoans, especially the business class, that a Black mayor would “run the city into the ground.”
Vallas’ right-leaning campaign has employed racist dog whistles to stoke voters’ fears through his conservative tough-on-crime rhetoric. In addition, he was criticized by Mayor Lori Lightfoot about his messaging on the campaign trail, telling voters that his campaign is “about taking back our city,” which Lightfoot compared to 1983 mayoral candidate Bernie Epton’s racist slogan, “Before It’s Too Late.”
“I think [Vallas] is bad for Black Chicago because he is blaming the violence and crime solely on African Americans. Therefore, he wants to put more police in Black communities,” Starks said. He also pointed to Vallas’ tenure as CPS CEO, which he said opened the door for mass school closures during Emanuel’s administration.
For Hibbler, her support for Vallas is about which candidate best represents the business community’s interests.
“We don’t need any taxes on our businesses,” she said. “I don’t care if our business is small or large. We have small Black and brown businesses, some medium-sized small businesses, and so on. We can’t support a candidate that will tax our businesses.”
Johnson’s proposed city budget and revenue plan would make the suburbs, airlines, and “ultra-rich” residents pay higher taxes to generate an estimated $800 million annually, while committing to not raising property taxes on Chicago families. The proposed plan would also reinstate the big-business head tax, bringing in an estimated $20 million a year. It would apply to large companies that perform 50 percent or more of their work in Chicago. (In January the Sun-Times erroneously conflated a proposal by United Working Families, which endorsed Johnson, with the candidate’s revenue plan.)
Hibbler said she is bothered by comments made by FOP president John Catanzara, but that he is not representative of the beliefs of every member of the Chicago Police Department. Rank-and-file CPD officers reelected Catanzara to a second term as president on March 3.
Catanzara, a former Chicago police officer, was “among the most disciplined in the department,” according to a 2018 ProPublica news report. He was suspended seven times during his career for a total of 111 days. He threatened to fire a Black police officer for kneeling with protestors in 2020, and publicly defended Jan. 6 insurrectionists in 2021.
“When it comes to someone supporting your candidacy, the head of the FOP is one person. You’ve got all these police officers that are within the city of Chicago, so everyone doesn’t have [Catanzara’s] views,” Hibbler said. “So I can’t get mad at the police department and not talk or work with them because they’re part of the union.”
There’s just under a month left for Vallas and Johnson to drum up enough support to clinch a victory. Now, Johnson must concentrate on voters who didn’t vote for Vallas, Cobb said.
“If he can get Jesús ‘Chuy’ García to come on board with him since they both represent the party’s progressive wing, that would be a natural marriage,” Cobb said. García, who as alderman was an ally of Harold Washington, ran for mayor in 2015 and forced Rahm Emanuel into a runoff, which Emanuel won. On Friday, García did indeed endorse Johnson.
Cobb added that Johnson—who was endorsed by Latiné leaders such as Alds. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th Ward), Rossana Rodríguez (33rd Ward), and U.S. Rep. Delia Ramirez (IL-1)—also needs support from the Asian community and leaders such as Illinois State Rep. Theresa Mah (2nd District) and Cook County Commissioner Josina Morita (13th District).
Such endorsements would signal Johnson’s ability to build broad multiracial support.
“That would be a sign that we are back to the rainbow coalition that Harold Washington was able to cobble together in 1983,” Cobb said. “Brandon would have a good chance of cobbling that coalition and bringing it back, and then, of course, the majority of the Black vote, and he’s already got the lakefront. So if he can hold that and bring these other groups to him, he’s got a good chance of winning.”