Johnson elected mayor of Chicago, victory for progressives

CHICAGO (AP) — Brandon Johnson, a union organizer and former teacher, was elected as Chicago’s next mayor on Tuesday in a big victory for the progressive wing of the Democratic Party as the heavily blue city grapples with high crime and financial challenges.

Johnson, a Chicago Teachers Union-backed Cook County commissioner, won a close race against former Chicago schools CEO Paul Vallas, who was backed by the police union. Johnson, 47, succeeds Lori Lightfoot, the first black woman and first openly gay person to be the city’s mayor.

Lightfoot became the first Chicago mayor in 40 years to lose her re-election bid when she placed third in a crowded February contest.

Johnson’s win in the country’s third largest city capped a remarkable trajectory for a candidate who was little known when he entered the race last year. With organizational and financial help from the politically influential Chicago Teachers Union and high-profile support from progressive Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, he rose to the forefront of the field. Sanders appeared at a rally for Johnson in the closing days of the race.

On Tuesday night, a jubilant Johnson took the stage for his victory speech, thanking his supporters for helping to start “a new chapter in our city’s history.” He promised that under his stewardship, the city would take care of everyone, no matter how much money they had, who they loved, or where they were from.

“Tonight marks the beginning of a Chicago that is truly investing in all of its people,” Johnson said.

Johnson, who is black, recalled growing up in a poor family, teaching at a school in Cabrini Green, a notorious former council housing complex, and protecting his own young children from gunfire in their West Side neighborhood.

Referring to civil rights leaders Martin Luther King Jr. and Rev. Jesse Jackson, he called his victory a continuation of their legacy. He also noted that he was speaking on the anniversary of King’s assassination.

“Today the dream is alive,” Johnson said, “and so today we celebrate the revitalization and resurrection of the city of Chicago.”

It was a significant victory for progressive organizations like the teachers’ union, as Johnson won the highest office of any active teachers’ union member in recent history, leaders say. For both the progressives and the more moderate wing of the party, the Chicago race was seen as a test of organizing power and embassies.

Johnson’s victory also comes as groups like Our Revolution, a powerful progressive advocacy organization, are pushing to win more offices in local and state offices, including in the upcoming mayoral elections in Philadelphia and elsewhere.

Vallas told his own supporters Tuesday night he called Johnson and expects him to become the next mayor. Some in the crowd appeared to scoff at the news, but Vallas urged them to put differences aside and support the next mayor in “the daunting work that lies ahead.”

“This campaign that I led to bring the city together would not be a campaign that would fulfill my ambitions if this election will divide us,” Vallas said.

In a statement, Lightfoot also congratulated Johnson and said her government will work with his team during the transition.

Johnson and Vallas were the top two voters in February’s all-Democratic but officially bipartisan race, which went to a runoff because no candidate got more than 50%.

On Tuesday, Johnson captured many of the predominantly black southern and western areas where Lightfoot won in February, along with the northern neighborhoods where he was then the top voter-collecting district, according to county-level results released by election officials. Vallas has done well in the northwest and southwest areas, home to large numbers of city workers, just as it did in February.

The contest brought to light longstanding tensions among Democrats, with Johnson and his supporters blasting Vallas — who was backed by Illinois Senator Dick Durbin, the chamber’s second-ranking Democrat — as too conservative and a Republican in disguise.

Both candidates have deep roots in the Democratic Party, albeit from very different backgrounds and views.

After teaching in middle and high school, Johnson helped mobilize teachers, including during a historic 2012 strike that saw the Chicago Teachers Union increase its organizing power and influence in city politics. This included fighting for non-teaching issues like housing and mental health care.

Vallas, who took first place in February, was the only white candidate in that nine-man field. A former Chicago Treasurer, he later ran schools in Chicago, New Orleans, Philadelphia, and Bridgeport, Connecticut.

One of the biggest disputes between Johnson and Vallas was how to handle crime. Like many U.S. cities, Chicago has seen a spike in violent crime during the COVID-19 pandemic, hitting a 25-year high of 797 homicides in 2021, although the number has been declining over the past year and the city has a lower homicide rate than other midpoints west, such as St. Louis.

Vallas, 69, said he will hire hundreds more police officers, while Johnson said he has no plans to reduce the number of officers but the current policing system is not working. Johnson has been forced to defend previous statements expressing his support for “defunding” the police – something he insisted he would not do as mayor.

But Johnson argued that instead of investing more in policing and incarceration, the city should focus on mental health treatment, affordable housing for all and jobs for youth. He has proposed a plan that he says will raise $800 million by taxing “ultra-rich” individuals and companies, including a per-employee “poll tax” for employers and an additional tax on hotel room stays.

This plan is not a sure thing, as some members of the city council and the state legislature – whose support would be needed – have already expressed opposition.

Chema Fernandez, 25, voted for Johnson as an opportunity to move away from what he called “the old politics.” He said he sees Vallas in line with previous mayors like Rahm Emanuel, Lightfoot and Richard M. Daley, who haven’t done well for places like his Southwest Side neighborhood, which has seen decades of divestments.

“I think we need to allow for policies that can actually change some of our terms,” ​​Fernandez said.


Associated Press journalist Teresa Crawford in Chicago and chief election analyst Chad Day in Washington contributed. Johnson elected mayor of Chicago, victory for progressives

Sarah Y. Kim

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