In the Chicago mayoral race, two hopefuls reflect the split among Democrats

CHICAGO (AP) — Before they were rivals Chicago’s Next MayorPaul Vallas and Brandon Johnson both worked in education, although their career paths—like their views on the city’s future—were very different.

Vallas was CEO of Chicago Public Schools and was appointed by then-Mayor Richard M. Daley after the Illinois legislature turned control of the troubled borough over 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 during a historic strike in 2012, and focusing on empowering public schools and the communities around them ever since.

It’s just one example, but a significant one, of the contrasts between the two men who are now vying to run the heavily Democratic city.

Johnson is a progressive county commissioner who advanced to an April 4 runoff last month thanks to strong support from the teachers’ union and is now backed by the progressive US Sens. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., And Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass. Vallas, who came first out of nine candidates in February’s vote, is a more moderate Democrat who has had the support of, and has been heavily focused on, the Chicago Police Union reduce crime. His supporters include prominent members of the business community.

Both men defeated Mayor Lori Lightfoot, who tried to position herself between the two as a centrist Democrat. She was the first incumbent in about 40 years to lose re-election.

April’s contest reflects a broader tension for Democrats across the country as candidates and those supporting them go head-to-head in an increasingly bitter five-week campaign that has already cost millions of dollars. So far, some of the leaders of the party – from the President Joe Biden to Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker and the state’s two U.S. Senators — opting not to support either candidate, as they may see political risk in choosing sides.

For Chicago voters, the two candidates offer clear distinctions on issues ranging from education to crime and taxation, as well as vastly 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 he says struggled to pay bills and sometimes had to run a power cord from a neighbor’s house into theirs to have electricity. An older brother died homeless and dependent.

A married father of three, Johnson lives in one of Chicago’s most violent neighborhoods and says he has to drive his children to another part of the city to attend a school that offers orchestras.

He speaks of Chicago as a “story of two cities,” where some people — mostly in minority neighborhoods that have seen decades of divestment — struggle to make ends meet, while others have great wealth and live in neighborhoods that are struggling Grocery stores, libraries and parks are there.

US Rep. Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, who had 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 frontrunner with 33% versus Johnson’s 22%.

The grandson of Greek immigrants, Vallas worked in his family restaurant and later served as Chicago legislator and budget director. He emphasizes that he comes from a family of public servants, including veterans, teachers and police officers. Two of Vallas’ sons were police officers, although one left the police force to become a firefighter, he says. Vallas has unsuccessfully run for office several times, including running for governor in 2002 and mayor of Chicago in 2019, when he ended up at the bottom of the field.

Vallas says he’s running for mayor “for all of Chicago,” and that the basic first step is to make the nation’s third-largest city safer — including by hiring hundreds more police officers — and to restore trust between police and residents .

He has criticized Johnson for supporting a police “defundation” movement campaigners across the United States were calling for after the 2020 killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police.

Johnson says he would not reduce the number of police officers in the department. But as district commissioner, he sponsored a symbolic resolution to divert funds from law enforcement to social services like mental health care. In a 2020 interview, Johnson said defunding isn’t just a slogan, it’s an “actual political goal.”

When asked about the comment during a debate this month, Johnson distanced himself, saying, “I said it was a political goal, I never said it was mine.”

Johnson has attacked Vallas as a Republican in disguise, noting that Vallas has made comments about being a Republican rather than a Democrat and has accepted the endorsement of the Fraternal Order of Police. The group recently hosted Florida Gov. Ron DeSantiswas considered the GOP’s front-runner for president in 2024, though Vallas issued a statement rebuking the Republican.

Vallas’ support for abortion rights has also been questioned. Illinois is one of the few places in the central US where abortion is legal, which has made the state and Chicago a destination for people seeking the procedure.

On a conservative talk show in 2009, Vallas said he was anti-abortion, a comment his campaign said was taken out of context. During a recent debate, he said it was “nonsense” that he opposed reproductive rights. Vallas said he is Greek Orthodox, a religion that opposes abortion, but he personally is not – a stance similar to that of top Catholic Democrats.

“I’m in the same position as Nancy Pelosi or Joe Biden,” Vallas said.

Another dividing line is education policy.

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 these and other closures that crippled “one of the poorest school systems in the country with devastating results” including an increase in crime.

Johnson has criticized Vallas’ school leadership in Chicago and subsequent post-Hurricane Katrina jobs in New Orleans, Philadelphia and Connecticut. Vallas’ administration punished underperforming schools, including by firing staff at Chicago schools with poor test scores, and under his leadership, many New Orleans schools became independently run charter schools.

Vallas asked how Johnson would be able to run the city independently of the Chicago Teachers Union, which has funded much of his campaign. Johnson said 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 has expressed his support for the January 6 insurgents. Vallas says he took no money from the union and will have no obligation to the group if an election is held.

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