CHICAGO (AP) — Before competing to become Chicago’s next mayor, Paul Vallas and Brandon Johnson both worked in education, though their career paths — as well as their views on the city’s future — were very different.
Vallas was CEO of Chicago Public Schools, appointed by then-mayor Richard M. Daley after Illinois legislators transferred control of the troubled district to City Hall in the 1990s. Vallas became known as a turnaround expert in Chicago and other US school districts, supporting charter schools and voucher programs.
Johnson taught middle and high school students before becoming an organizer of the Chicago Teachers Union, mobilizing thousands in a historic strike in 2012 and in actions since then aimed at strengthening public schools and the communities around them.
It is just one example, but an important one, of the contradictions between the two men now vying to run the heavily democratic city.
Johnson is a Progressive district commissioner who advanced to an April 4 runoff election last month thanks to heavy support from the teachers’ union and is now endorsed by Progressive U.S. Senators Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass. Vallas, who finished first of nine candidates in the February ballot, is a more moderate Democrat who has been backed by the Chicago police union and has focused heavily on crime reduction. Among his supporters are prominent members of the business community.
Both men defeated Mayor Lori Lightfoot, who tried to position herself between the two as a middle-class Democrat. She was the first incumbent to lose reelection in about 40 years.
April’s contest reflects a broader tension for Democrats across the country, pitting the candidates and the people and groups who support them against each other in an increasingly bitter five-week campaign that has already cost millions of dollars. So far, some party leaders — from President Joe Biden to Illinois governor JB Pritzker and the state’s two U.S. senators — have chosen not to support either candidate, possibly because of the political risk involved in choosing sides.
For Chicago voters, the two candidates offer clear distinctions on issues from education to crime and taxation, as well as very different biographies that have shaped their political lives.
Johnson, 46, is black. The son of a minister, he grew up as one of 10 children in a family that he said struggled to pay bills, sometimes having to run a power cord from the neighbor’s house to their house in order to have electricity. An older brother died homeless and addicted.
Now a married father of three, Johnson lives in one of Chicago’s most violent neighborhoods and says he needs to take his kids to another part of town to attend a school that offers orchestra.
He speaks of Chicago as a “two-city story,” where some people—largely in minority neighborhoods that have experienced decades of disinvestment—fight to make ends meet, while others have great wealth and live in areas where supermarkets, libraries, and parks .
U.S. Representative Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, who received strong support from Latino voters when he finished fourth in February, cited Johnson’s ability to unite people of color when the congressman announced his former rival last week.
Vallas, 69, is white. He was the only non-Black or Hispanic candidate in the first round, when he was the top voter with 33% to Johnson’s 22%.
The grandson of Greek immigrants, Vallas worked at his family restaurant growing up and later served as a Chicago state legislator and budget director. He emphasizes that he comes from a family of civil servants, including veterans, teachers and police officers. Two of Vallas’ sons were police officers, though one left the force to become a firefighter, he says. Vallas ran unsuccessfully several times, including for governor in 2002 and mayor of Chicago in 2019, when he finished bottom of the pack.
Vallas says he’s running for mayor “for all of Chicago,” and that the fundamental first step is to make the nation’s third-largest city a safer place — including hiring hundreds of additional police officers — and build trust between police and residents.
He has criticized Johnson for supporting a movement to “de-fund” the police force, which activists across the United States called for after the 2020 Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd.
Johnson says he will not reduce the number of police officers in the department. But as district commissioner, he supported a symbolic resolution to redirect law enforcement money to social services, such as mental health services. In a 2020 interview, Johnson said that defunding was not just a slogan, but an “actual political goal”.
Asked about the comment during a debate this month, Johnson distanced himself, saying: “I said it was a political target, I never said it was mine.”
Johnson has attacked Vallas as a Republican in disguise, noting that Vallas has made comments about being more of a Republican than a Democrat and accepted the endorsement of the Fraternal Order of Police. The group recently hosted Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who is considered one of the top GOP candidates for president in 2024, though Vallas issued a statement rebuking the Republican.
Vallas’ support for abortion rights is also questioned. Illinois is one of the few places in the central US where abortion is legal, making the state and Chicago a destination for those seeking the procedure.
On a conservative talk show in 2009, Vallas said he opposes abortion, a comment his campaign says has been taken out of context. During a recent debate, he said it is “nonsense” that he is against reproductive rights. Vallas explained that he is Greek Orthodox, a religion that opposes abortion, but that he personally is not — a position similar to top Catholic Democrats.
“I’m in the same position as Nancy Pelosi or Joe Biden,” Vallas said.
Education policy is another dividing line.
Chicago Public Schools canceled classes for five days in January 2022 after union members refused to return to face-to-face classes over concerns about COVID-19 safety measures. Vallas said Johnson was partly responsible for that and other closures that have closed “one of the poorest school systems in the country, with devastating consequences” including an increase in crime.
Johnson has criticized Vallas’ leadership of Chicago schools and subsequent jobs he held in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, in Philadelphia and Connecticut. The Vallas administration punished underperforming schools, including firing staff at Chicago schools with poor test scores, and under his leadership many New Orleans schools became independent charter schools.
Vallas wondered how Johnson could run the city independently of the Chicago Teachers Union, which has funded much of his campaign. Johnson said that if he is elected mayor, he will no longer be a member of the union, but will work with them.
Vallas’ endorsement by the Fraternal Order of Police has drawn criticism from Johnson, who notes that the union leader expressed support for the January 6 insurgents. Vallas says he has not taken any money from the union and will not be beholden to the group if elected.