5 Things to Know About The Mayor Race in Chicago: Is It As Simple as Black and White?

5 Things to Know About The Mayor Race in Chicago: Is It As Simple as Black and White?


Chicago mayoral candidates Brandon Johnson, left, and Paul Vallas in downtown Chicago, March 16, 2023. (Chris Sweda/Chicago Tribune via AP, Pool)

The race for mayor of Chicago will come to a head today, April 4. The 2023 Chicago mayoral election was held on Feb. 28, but no candidate received a majority of votes in the initial round of the election. So now a runoff election will determine things.

Incumbent mayor Lori Lightfoot ran for a second term in office but conceded after she finished in third place. The runoff will be between former CEO of Chicago Public Schools Paul Vallas, who is white, and Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson, who is Black American.

Nine candidates, including incumbent Mayor Lori Lightfoot, competed in the February mayoral election in Chicago, with Vallas and Johnson advancing to the runoff as the top finishers.

Interestingly, the election is taking place on the 55th anniversary of King’s assassination.

Here are five things to know about the mayoral race in Chicago: Is it as simple as Black and White?

1. Chicago race: Brandon Johnson

Johnson, the progressive Cook County commissioner, has been attracting thousands to his rallies. In one of his most recent rallies, he said the election was an opportunity to “take the progressive movement around the world,” CNN reported.

He evoked the memory of Martin Luther King Jr.

“If we can figure it out in Chicago, we can figure it out anywhere in the world,” Johnson said alongside the late civil rights leader’s son Martin Luther King III.

Johnson is also a former teacher and Chicago Teachers Union organizer. He is endorsed by the teachers’ union.

2. Chicago race: Paul Vallas

Vallas is a moderate former Chicago public schools chief. Vallas’ early on focused almost exclusively on combating Chicago’s rising crime by adding more police officers. He has been emphasizing community policing and placing law enforcement on public transit.

He is supported by the Chicago Fraternal Order of Police. Vallas’ base of support is mainly white and moderate.

Johnson has called out Vallas over donations. Vallas received funding from the Illinois Federation for Children PAC, which has gotten funding from the campaign arm of a conservative group founded by former Trump Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, CNN reported.

While the PAC spent more than $59,000 on digital ads promoting Vallas, according to Illinois campaign finance records, Vallas has rejected the group’s support.

Vallas, who is making his second bid for Chicago mayor, does have support from Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin and, surprisingly, former Black Panther Bobby Rush, who served as the U.S. representative for Illinois’ 1st congressional district for three decades.

Rush even appeared in a campaign ad for Vallas.

“Paul will invest in the South and West sides,” Rush says in the ad. Both regions are predominantly Black and have seen the highest rates of violent crime.

3. In Black and white

Johnson is using his campaign to expand what’s seen as an advantage among Black voters. Vallas seeks to broaden his base of support from white ethnic neighborhoods and the largely white northwestern region of the city, CNN reported.

Latinos could become a swing group as they make up nearly 30% of Chicago’s population. Democratic Rep. Jesús “Chuy” García, who finished fourth in the February election, has been helping Johnson attract Latino voters by throwing his endorsement to Johnson.

4. Chicago race: Progressives versus moderates

Progressives such as Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren have supported Johnson.  

Johnson has been trying to illustrate the differences between himself and Vallas by branding the moderate Democrat Vallas as a Republican in the technically nonpartisan race.

“When you take dollars from Trump supporters and try to pass yourself as a part of the progressive movement – man, sit down,” Johnson said at a rally.

5. Union clout

The election is pitting the power of the police and teachers’ unions. Both had ongoing issues with outgoing Mayor Lightfoot, but in this race they have chosen sides. The teachers’ union is behind Johnson. The police union has opted to back Vallas, though he has been careful to keep distance between himself and the Fraternal Order of Police. The Fraternal Order of Police, a fraternal organization consisting of sworn law enforcement officers, is unpopular in areas of Chicago due mostly to the incendiary and what some consider racist views of its president, John Catanzara.

Both unions offer considerable clout. The teachers union, for example, has put $1.2 million behind Johnson, with a further $1 million coming from the national and Illinois federations of teachers, The New York Times reported.

Chicago mayoral candidates Brandon Johnson, left, and Paul Vallas wait for the start of a debate at ABC7 studios in downtown Chicago, March 16, 2023. (Chris Sweda/Chicago Tribune via AP, Pool)