CHICAGO (AP) – Before they were rivals to be Chicago’s next mayor, Paul Vallas and Brandon Johnson both worked in education, although their careers – like their visions of the city’s future – were very different.
Vallas was CEO of the Chicago Public Schools, appointed by then-Mayor Richard M. Daley after Illinois legislators in the 1990s gave City Hall control of the troubled district. Vallas became known as an expert on turnarounds in Chicago and other school districts across the United States, supporting charter schools and voucher programs.
Johnson taught middle and high school students before becoming an organizer for the Chicago Teachers Union, mobilizing thousands during a historic 2012 strike and in actions since focused on strengthening public schools and the communities around them.
It’s just one example, but a telling one, of the contrasts between the two men now vying to lead the staunchly Democratic city.
Johnson is a progressive county commissioner who last month advanced to a runoff on April 4 thanks to strong support from the teachers’ union and who is now endorsed by progressive U.S. Senators Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Elizabeth Warren, I-Vt. D-Mass. Vallas, who finished first out of nine candidates in the February poll, is a more moderate Democrat who has been endorsed by the Chicago police union and has focused heavily on reducing crime. Among his supporters are prominent members of the business community.
Both defeated Mayor Lori Lightfoot, who tried to position herself between the two as a middle-of-the-road Democrat. She was the first incumbent to lose re-election in nearly 40 years.
The April race reflects broader tensions for Democrats across the country, pitting candidates and the people and groups who support them against each other in an increasingly acrimonious five-week campaign that has already cost millions of dollars. So far, some of the party’s leaders – from President Joe Biden to Illinois Governor JB Pritzker and the state’s two senators – are choosing not to endorse either candidate, possibly seeing political risk in choosing a side.
For Chicago voters, the two candidates offer clear distinctions on issues ranging from education to crime and taxes, as well as very different biographies that shaped their political lives.
Johnson, 46, is black. The son of a minister, he grew up one of 10 children in a family he said struggled to pay the bills, sometimes having to plug in a power cord from a neighbor’s house to get electricity. An older brother died homeless and addicted.
Now married with three children, Johnson lives in one of Chicago’s toughest neighborhoods and says he has to drive his kids to another part of town to attend a school that offers orchestra.
He speaks of Chicago as a “tale of two cities,” where some people — particularly in minority neighborhoods that have experienced decades of disinvestment — struggle to make ends meet, while others have great wealth and live in areas with grocery stores, libraries and parks. .
US Representative Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, who enjoyed 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 most voted with 33% to Johnson’s 22%.
The grandson of Greek immigrants, Vallas worked in his family’s restaurant growing up and later was a state legislator and Chicago budget director. He points out 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 force to become a firefighter, he says. Vallas ran unsuccessfully for office several times, including for governor in 2002 and mayor of Chicago in 2019, when he finished at the bottom of the platoon.
Vallas says he’s running for mayor “for all of Chicago” and that the key first step is making the nation’s third-largest city safer — including hiring hundreds more police officers — and rebuilding trust between the police department and residents.
He criticized Johnson for supporting a movement to “defund” the police, which activists across the United States called for in the wake of the 2020 killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police.
Johnson says he would not cut the number of officers in the department. But as county commissioner, he sponsored a symbolic resolution to redirect law enforcement money towards social services such as mental health care. In a 2020 interview, Johnson said defunding was not just a slogan but a “real political objective”.
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 attacked Vallas as a Republican in disguise, noting that Vallas made comments about being more Republican than Democrat and accepted the Fraternal Order of Police’s endorsement. The group recently hosted Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, considered one of the top GOP candidates for the 2024 presidency, although Vallas issued a statement chastising 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 opposed to abortion, a comment his campaign says was taken out of context. During a recent debate, he said it was “absurd” for him to oppose reproductive rights. Vallas explained that he is Greek Orthodox, a religion that opposes abortion, but that he personally does not — a stance similar to that of leading Democrats who are Catholic.
“I’m in the same position as Nancy Pelosi or Joe Biden,” Vallas said.
Education policy is another dividing line.
The Chicago Public Schools canceled classes for five days in January 2022 after union members refused to return to in-person classes due to concerns over COVID-19 safety measures. Vallas said Johnson was partly responsible for this and other closures that closed “one of the poorest school systems in the country, with devastating consequences,” including increased crime.
Johnson was critical of Vallas’s leadership of schools in Chicago and subsequent jobs he held in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, in Philadelphia and in Connecticut. Vallas’s administration punished underperforming schools, including firing employees at Chicago schools with poor test scores, and under his leadership, many New Orleans schools became independently run charter schools.
Vallas questioned how Johnson would be able to lead the city independently of the Chicago Teachers Union, which funded much of his campaign. Johnson said that if he is elected mayor, he will no longer be a member of the union, but will work collaboratively with them.
Vallas’ endorsement by the Fraternal Order of Police has drawn criticism from Johnson, who notes that the union leader has voiced support for the January 6 rebels. Vallas says he has not received any money from the union and will not be beholden to the group if he is elected.