In a city where crime and public safety were viewed in a union poll as the leading issues, how could Democrat Brandon Johnson, who was perceived as wanting to defund the police, a stance he denies, defeat Democrat Paul Vallas, an experienced candidate with the backing of the police union?
It seemed like the Chicago mayoral election, held on Tuesday of this week, would be a cinch for Vallas, who grew up on Chicago’s South Side and was the grandson of Greek immigrants who once owned a restaurant. Vallas had served as CEO of Chicago Public Schools and as budget director of Chicago under Mayor Richard M. Daley. He had the professional credentials that could address the problems of the city — violent crime, poor-quality schools, budget deficits, and a $34 billion unfunded pension liability. Versed in public policy, Vallas was at one time the head of the Illinois Economic and Fiscal Commission.
Indeed, violent crime and carjackings have seemed out of control in Chicago, and Vallas was a high-visibility law and order candidate. As I have written in The American Spectator, according to the University of Chicago Crime Lab, homicides and shootings are still higher in Chicago than they were pre-COVID. Further, vehicle theft doubled in 2022 — to about 50 per day. The 800 homicides in Chicago in 2021 compare unfavorably with the New York City figure of 485 for the same year — and the population of New York City is over three times that of Chicago.
As I have also written in these pages, according to the Illinois Policy Institute, a nonpartisan research institution, the Illinois State Board of Education reports that nearly 80 percent of CPS students are unable to read at their appropriate grade level, with only 15 percent of students meeting the proper mathematics level.
Vallas also had a pro-business mentality in a city that of late has for various reasons lost major corporate headquarters, including Caterpillar, Boeing, and the hedge fund Citadel. Some elements of the business community were uneasy with the previous mayor, Lori Lightfoot — who also blamed local retailing firms for not doing enough against smash-and-grab gang theft.
Against this tapestry of bad news, how could a progressive union organizer and Cook Country commissioner who, according to the Chicago Tribune, polled at only 3 percent in December defeat the highly credentialed Vallas?
It may be weeks or months until we have complete demographic and voting data from Chicago’s 50 wards, which are legislative districts that elect the aldermen who comprise the Chicago City Council. However, at this writing, it appears that Vallas lacked the ability to emote and inspire the electorate. His presentations were professional — measured and factual, demonstrating his command of the subject matter from years of experience as a technocrat. However, he did not seem to connect with people — and the more emotional Johnson was able to do so. As a telegenic underdog, Johnson’s personality was in direct contrast to the more reserved Vallas, and Johnson was able to project compelling optimism and personal energy to the electorate. Growing up in a three-bedroom house in Elgin with nine other children, Johnson could probably connect better with some of Chicago’s isolated neighborhoods.
Another factor that may have hurt the conservative Vallas was the perception that he was a Republican in disguise in a city that has not had a Republican mayor since 1931.
Voter turnout was disappointing in this election and in the Feb. 28 election that resulted in the runoff between Vallas and Johnson. In both elections, the turnout was just over 32 percent, according to the Chicago Board of Elections. This high level of apathy is hard to explain given the distinct differences between the two candidates and what is at stake — public safety, schools, finances, and the business environment. Cook County, home of Chicago, also leads the nation in population decline over a recent 10-year period.
Johnson denies wanting to defund the police. That impression was created, however, by his interpreted position to reallocate some resources from law enforcement to support community investments that address the underlying causes of crime in a holistic way.
With Johnson winning 51 percent of the vote compared with 49 percent for Vallas, Chicago is polarized. The progressive Johnson does not have a strong mandate for change, and he should expect headwinds for his agenda, which includes raising taxes to support social initiatives such as mental health programs, benefits and opportunities for students, job trainings, summer employment for youth, and housing for low-income families.
It will take a more united Chicago to address the momentous challenges America’s third-largest city faces.
Frank Schell is a business strategy consultant and former senior vice president of the First National Bank of Chicago. He was a Lecturer at the Harris School of Public Policy, University of Chicago. and is a contributor of opinion pieces to various journals.