On Tuesday, Lori Lightfoot officially became the first Chicago mayor in 40 years to lose a re-election campaign. In a race that was dominated by the city’s rising crime, Lightfoot’s support eroded. She came in third with 17.06 percent of the vote. The April 4th runoff will be between Paul Vallas, 69, a former Chicago Public Schools CEO who ran on a tough-on-crime platform, and Brandon Johnson, 46, a progressive county commissioner who previously worked as a Chicago Teachers Union organizer. Vallas won 33.77 percent of the vote, while Johnson came up with 20.29 percent. Lightfoot told supporters during her concession speech, “You will not be defined by how you fall. You will be defined by how hard you work and how much you do for other people.” Lightfoot will leave a legacy as Chicago’s first black woman and first openly gay mayor.
By Fran Spielman, Tom Schuba, David Struett and Emmanuel Camarillo; March 1, 2023
Lori Lightfoot, the first Black woman and the first openly gay person ever to serve as mayor of Chicago, on Tuesday became a one-term mayor.
With nearly 99% of the precincts reporting, the mayor who guided Chicago through the pandemic finished third in Tuesday’s election with 17.06% of the vote behind former Chicago Public Schools CEO Paul Vallas, who won 33.77 %, and Cook County Commissioner and Chicago Teachers Union organizer Brandon Johnson, who wound up with 20.29%.
Vallas, 69, and Johnson, 46, will face off five weeks from now in the April 4 runoff to decide who will become the 57th mayor of Chicago.
“Obviously, we didn’t win the election. But I stand here with my head held high and my heart full of thanks,” Lightfoot told supporters shortly before 9 p.m.
“You will not be defined by how you fall. You will be defined by how hard you work and how much you do for other people,” she said.
Vallas waited until Lightfoot’s concession call and speech before claiming his place in the runoff. When he did take the podium, he asked the crowd to give the outgoing mayor a round of applause for her service and courage.
“I haven’t been this happy since my son returned from Afghanistan,” Vallas told a crowd of supporters chanting his name.
Vallas then returned to the law-and-order message that carried him into the runoff.
“Public safety is the fundamental right of every American. It is a civil right, and it is the principle responsibility of government. We will have a safe Chicago. We will make Chicago the safest city in America,” he said.
“It will not only come from providing the police with the resources and the support that they need, but from building the bond between the police department and the community so we have true community policing. … I will also … have zero tolerance when it comes to violating the law or violating the Constitution. And this is coming from a family of four police officers, including my wife.”
A triumphant Johnson claimed his spot in the runoff a few minutes later — with an updated version of what former Mayor Harold Washington said on the day he became Chicago’s first Black mayor in 1983.
“Here’s Brandon,” a beaming Johnson said as his supporters chanted, “We want Brandon.”
“Well Chicago, we did it y’all. They said that this would never happen. I am so freakin’ proud because we did this. A few months ago, they said they didn’t know who I was. Well, if you didn’t know, now you know. … We have shifted the political dynamics in this city.”
He added, “Tonight is about building a Chicago that truly invests in our people. The most radical thing we can do as a city is to love the people of Chicago. Loving people and investing in people — that is the way my father raised me. The finances of this city belong to the people of the city. So, we’re gonna invest in the people of the city.”
A Vallas-Johnson runoff promises to be a generational battle between “the candidate of the Fraternal Order of Police” and the “candidate of the Chicago Teachers Union,” as veteran political strategist David Axelrod put it.
It will also offer voters the starkest of contrasts on the future of education and policing.
Lightfoot went down swinging and took U.S. Rep. Jesus “Chuy” Garcia down with her.
By blanketing the television airwaves with commercials linking Garcia to two indicted political powerhouses — former Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan and former cryptocurrency mogul Sam Bankman-Fried — Lightfoot drove up Garcia’s negatives to the point where the Southwest Side congressman finished in fourth place with 13.74% of the vote.
It didn’t save Lightfoot. But it may well have helped Johnson.
As his campaign manager predicted, Johnson appears to have claimed a large share of undecided African-American voters who were “searching” for an alternative to Lightfoot.
That and the 1,000-strong army of CTU and SEIU members who helped turn out the vote for Johnson managed to propel a relative political unknown into the finals of the mayoral sweepstakes.
Ald. Brian Hopkins (2nd), who endorsed Vallas, said there was a “show of force” for Johnson — with at least three CTU members or staffers paid by the teachers union — in every precinct he visited Tuesday in Old Town, Streeterville, Lincoln Park, Wicker Park and the Gold Coast.
“They’re everywhere. It’s a saturation ground game — even in precincts where Johnson was not expected to do well. If they have that many people to spare, that’s incredible. It’s something to see. This is the new machine,” Hopkins said, harkening back to the pre-Shakman heyday of the old Democratic machine.
With violent crime and the perception of it foremost on the minds of voters, the mayor who chose Chicago Police Supt. David Brown and stubbornly refused demands from all eight challengers to get rid of him failed to make the runoff.
Forty years ago, Jane Byrne, the first woman to serve as mayor of Chicago, was turned into a one-termer by a defeat that paved the way for another first: the election of Chicago’s first Black mayor, Washington.
Now Lightfoot follows in the footsteps of Byrne after suffering the ultimate political humiliation — an incumbent mayor not only denied a second term: She couldn’t even make it into the runoff.
Lightfoot’s first and only term was marred by the pandemic, civil unrest, a teachers strike, battles with the CTU over the reopening of schools and a seemingly endless strings of public arguments with City Council members and other elected officials.
She started the race with a public approval rating stuck in the mid-20s and was never able to overcome that low rating.
Lightfoot was counting on African-American voters to help her over the finish line and compensate for the support she lost among lakefront voters disappointed with her record on reform, transparency and crime. She has pointed to her signature Invest South/West plan as proof that no mayor — not even Washington — has done more for the African-American community.
But with six other Black candidates in the race, Lightfoot’s narrow path to victory was ultimately sealed off.
“We can never, ever allow this to happen again,” retired U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Il.), a Lightfoot supporter, told the Sun-Times shortly before the mayor conceded.
“Chicago is the most segregated city in America. It’s tribalism at its worst and at its best.”
The contrast between the two runoff opponents could not be more stark when it comes to the future of policing and public education in Chicago.
Vallas has run an uncharacteristically disciplined campaign singularly focused on this law-and-order message.
Decrying the “utter breakdown of law and order” in Chicago, he has unveiled a sweeping plan to fill 1,700 police vacancies, take the handcuffs off demoralized officers and stop “brazen” criminals from terrorizing residents.
It starts with firing Brown and his entire leadership team and ends with “pushing resources to the district level,” restoring beat integrity and using the $100 million the CTA spends each year on private security to add about 700 new officers.
Johnson won’t commit to filling the 1,700 police vacancies or fully funding the Chicago Police Department’s $1.94 billion budget. In fact, he wants to cut at least $150 million from the police budget by reducing the number of supervisors and raising the ratio between bosses and rank-and-file officers.
The cornerstone of his anti-violence strategy is his tax-the-rich plan to bankroll $1 billion in new spending on public schools, transportation, new housing, health care, mental health and job creation. He wants to train and promote 200 new detectives, launch a comprehensive efficiency audit, close CPD’s Homan Square facility, erase a “racist” gang database and end the three-year, $33 million ShotSpotter contract.
Vallas wears his opposition from the teachers union like a badge of honor.
He has further infuriated the CTU by proposing that scores of Chicago Public Schools buildings now operating more than half-empty forge partnerships with charters and parochial schools; the school day and school year be lengthened; and tax increment financing surplus be used to create a school voucher program. He prefers to call it a “scholarship” program.
Lightfoot has accused Vallas of being a closet Republican who is anti-abortion and pro-voucher — even though he ran for governor and lieutenant governor as a Democrat and has called himself a Democrat his entire life.
The mayor has condemned Johnson as a “radical” plotting to defund the police and raise taxes by $800 million, killing jobs and driving businesses out of Chicago.
Vallas and Johnson are now expected to use those same lines of attack against each other.
“Paul Vallas is someone who is supported by the Jan. 6th insurrectionists. He switched parties when … Barack Obama became the president of the United States. He went as far as to say that he is more of a Republican than anything else. He said that he fundamentally opposes abortion. As head of the Chicago Public Schools, he ran the teachers’ pension fund into the ground, closed neighborhood schools and punished students who were in need,” Johnson said Tuesday night.
“After Hurricane Katrina, Paul went to New Orleans and privatized three quarters of the city’s public schools, which caused the largest decline of Black educators. He left similar messes in Philadelphia, Connecticut and, of course, right here in Chicago. This is the truth about Paul Vallas.”
With five weeks to go until the runoff, both Vallas and Johnson will likely need to raise $5 million in short order while also debating each other and crisscrossing the city in a frenzied attempt to expand their political bases.
Vallas’ greatest opportunity for expansion lies in Hispanic wards that backed Garcia. Johnson is hoping to consolidate a divided African-American vote and resurrect the rainbow coalition that elected and re-elected Harold Washington, in part, by winning Garcia’s formidable endorsement.
Although Vallas finished 15 percentage points ahead of Johnson and goes into the runoff as the favorite, Axelrod has called Johnson a dangerous opponent.
In short order, Vallas needs to define Johnson in the same way Lightfoot has struggled to define him: as a “radical” who wants to “defund” the Chicago Police Department and whose $800 million “tax the rich” plan will drive jobs and businesses out of Chicago.
Johnson is also a “big personality” and a talented communicator who could ride a wave of national media attention into the runoff — just as Lightfoot did in 2019, Axelrod said.
“Big personalities are an advantage. … He’ll get more attention … because he’ll have started off as kind of an unknown, and he’ll have scaled the heights to get into the finals, and he’ll be treated, initially, as the story,” Axelrod said.
“It’s not … a story that Vallas made the runoff. But it will be a story if Johnson does,” Axelrod said last week. “He will be propelled by that. He will get a lot of attention, and he’s a good performer. That’s all to his advantage. He also will get more scrutiny, and it will be a very interesting battle about the direction Chicago wants to go.”
In 2019, businessman Willie Wilson captured 13 of 18 majority Black wards in round one of the mayoral sweepstakes before giving Lightfoot a pivotal endorsement in round two.
This time, he spent more than $6 million of his personal fortune. But, his oft-repeated promise to hunt criminals down “like rabbits” apparently gave voters second thoughts —even after Wilson held a string of gas and grocery giveaways.
Even so, the 9.46% that Wilson did carry helped drive the strong turnout among older voters who dominate Wilson’s church-based constituency.
That makes his runoff endorsement pivotal, just as Wilson’s endorsement of Lightfoot was in 2019.
On Tuesday, Wilson was asked whether he would endorse Vallas, whose law-and-order, take-the-handcuffs-off-the-police message was similar to his own message.
“I will not be endorsing Lori Lightfoot. I can tell you that much. … She’s not good for Chicago. Never will be good for Chicago,” said Wilson, who said he plans to visit churches and neighborhoods before deciding whether or not to make an endorsement.
“We’ve got to get Chicago right. Too many people have suffered under Lightfoot’s hands. And I don’t even know if she still thinks that crime is high. I think she feels that crime is low, to be honest with you. She just don’t get it. If a person don’t know that they’re doing something wrong, how can they fix it?”