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Chicago May Elect a Sensible Mayor

Chicago May Elect a Sensible Mayor

Paul Vallas and Brandon Johnson are Democrats, but that’s where the similarity ends.

Jason L. Riley, WSJ

March 28, 2023 6:21 pm ET

Democratic mayors have run Chicago exclusively since 1931. That streak will continue no matter who wins the runoff election on April 4 because the candidates, Paul Vallas and Brandon Johnson, are both Democrats.

The good news for voters in the nation’s third-largest city is that they nevertheless have two clear choices on the ballot. Party affiliation is about the only thing the candidates have in common. Mr. Vallas is a white moderate backed by the police union. Mr. Johnson is a black progressive backed by the teachers union. Mr. Vallas has run hard on restoring public safety in a city that saw crime continue to rise in 2022 and that has long been the poster child for big-city mayhem. He also wants to expand school choice for low-income families. Mr. Johnson opposes the creation of additional charter schools and has called for cutting the police budget.

Theoretically, Mr. Vallas ought to win the race handily. But we elect candidates for office based not on theories but on how many votes they can muster. And in Chicago, where white (33%), black (29%) and Hispanic (29%) representation in the population is remarkably balanced, politics are about as tribal as they come.

In the first round of voting, which featured nine candidates, all but two of whom were black, Mr. Vallas led with 32.9% of the votes, and Mr. Johnson placed a distant second with 21.6%. The lone Hispanic candidate, Jesús García, won just 13.7% of the vote. Matt Rosenberg, a local journalist and author of a book about the city’s multi-decade decline, “What Next, Chicago?,” told me that Mr. García’s voters may well determine who prevails in the runoff race next week.

“In the six wards that García won”—all of which are heavily Hispanic—“Vallas took second place in five of them, but Johnson in just one of them,” Mr. Rosenberg said. In other words, even without significant black support, Mr. Vallas could run up his numbers among whites and Hispanics and still win. Nevertheless, Mr. Rosenberg predicted that Mr. Vallas would perform well among blacks. “Blacks, like Hispanics and whites, are very concerned about crime. About 80% of murder victims in Chicago are black even though they are just 30% of the population.”

Surveys that ask voters about the issues would seem to give Mr. Vallas the edge. Polling conducted by Echelon Insights for the Illinois Policy Institute, a state think tank, found that the top issue for Chicago voters was crime and that two-thirds of parents support school choice. Mr. Vallas wants to fill 1,600 vacancies on the police force and add 700 new officers. When it comes to public education, he says that “the money needs to follow the kids.”

Chicago spends just under $30,000 a student annually, nearly double the state average and up from $20,000 in 2017. According to the Illinois State Board of Education, only 11% of blacks and 17% of Hispanics in Chicago public schools could read at grade level in 2021, the same year that 100% of Chicago public school teachers somehow were rated “excellent” or “proficient.” In 2022, 80% of 11th-graders of any race or ethnicity could not read or perform math at grade level.

“Public safety is the overriding issue,” Mr. Vallas said in a speech earlier this month. “But we will not have true public safety in this city until the schools become part of the public-safety solution.” Give Mr. Vallas credit for connecting the dots. He understands that people who get a decent education are less likely to become violent criminals.

Mr. Johnson, meanwhile, has given Second City residents little reason to believe that his priorities would differ much from those of the progressive incumbent mayor, Lori Lightfoot, whose re-election bid ended when she failed to finish in one of the top two slots in the first round of voting. In a 2020 radio interview, Mr. Johnson approvingly said that defunding the police is “an actual, real political goal.” He’s since distanced himself from that language, but as a commissioner for Cook County, which includes Chicago, he sponsored a resolution to reduce resources. On the campaign trail, he’s said that he would cut the police budget by at least $150 million.

Polling shows that the race is tight, and it’s not due to Mr. Johnson’s skillful messaging. Mr. Johnson currently works as an organizer for the Chicago Teachers Union, which has spent millions of dollars supporting his candidacy. With the CTU in his corner, he can’t be counted out. Teachers unions know how to get people to the polls on Election Day like no other special interest group in politics. Even with public sentiment largely on his side, Mr. Vallas has his work cut out.

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