In Chicago’s mayoral race, the 2 candidates reflect the Democratic divide

CHICAGO – They used to be competitors The next mayor of ChicagoPaul Vallas and Brendan Johnson both worked in education, although their career paths were very different, as were their views on the city’s future.

Wallace was the CEO of Chicago Public Schools, appointed by then-Mayor Richard M. Daley after Illinois lawmakers in the 1990s transferred control of the troubled district to City Hall. Wallace 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 for the Chicago teachers union, mobilizing thousands during the historic 2012 strike and beyond in actions to strengthen public schools and the communities around them.

It’s just one example, but a significant one, of the contrasts between the two men now vying for leadership in a Democratic-dominated city.

Johnson is a progressive county commissioner who advanced to the April 4 runoff last month with strong support from the teachers union and is now backed by progressive U.S. Sens. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass. Wallace, who finished first out of nine candidates on the February ballot, 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 well-known representatives of the business community.

Both defeated the mayor Laurie Lightfoot, which tried to position itself between them as a middle-level Democrat. She was the first president to lose re-election in about 40 years.

The April contest reflects broader tensions for Democrats across the country, pitting candidates against the people and groups who support them in an increasingly bitter five-week campaign that has already cost millions of dollars. While some party leaders are from the president Joe Biden to the governor of the state of Illinois J. B. Pritzker and two American state senators — decided not to support any of the candidates, perhaps seeing the political risk in choosing the other side.

For Chicago voters, the two candidates offer stark differences on issues ranging from education to crime and taxes, as well as vastly different biographies that have shaped their political lives.

Johnson, 46, is black. The son of a minister, he grew up one of 10 children in a family that he said struggled to pay the bills, sometimes having to run an electrical cord into the house from a neighboring house to have electricity. The older brother died homeless and addicted.

Now a married father of three, Johnson lives in one of Chicago’s roughest neighborhoods and says he has to drive his children to another part of the city to attend band school.

He speaks of Chicago as a “tale of two cities,” where some people—mostly in minority neighborhoods that have endured decades of disinvestment—struggle to get by, while others have great wealth and live in neighborhoods that have grocery stores, libraries and parks. .

U.S. Rep. Jesus “Chewy” Garcia, who won strong Latino support by finishing fourth in February, pointed to Johnson’s ability to unite people of color when the congressman announced his former opponent last week.

Hair, 69, white. He was the only non-black or Hispanic candidate in the first round, when he received the most votes with 33% to Johnson’s 22%.

The grandson of Greek immigrants, Wallace worked in his family’s restaurant before serving as a state legislator and Chicago’s 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, though one left the service to become a firefighter, he says. Wallace ran unsuccessfully for governor in 2002 and for mayor of Chicago in 2019, when he came in last place.

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

He criticized Johnson for supporting the movement to “defund” the police, which activists across the US have called for following the 2020 killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis.

Johnson says he won’t cut the number of police officers in the department. But as a county commissioner, he supported a token resolution to redirect money from law enforcement to social services, such as mental health. In a 2020 interview, Johnson said divestment was not just a slogan but “an actual political goal.”

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 has expressed himself as more of a Republican than a Democrat and accepted the endorsement of the Fraternal Order of Police. The group recently hosted the governor of Florida. Ron DeSantiswho is considered the Republican Party’s front-runner for president in 2024, although Wallace issued a statement rebuking the Republican.

Wallace’s support for abortion rights has also been called into question. Illinois is one of the few places in the central US where abortion is legal, making the state and Chicago a destination for people seeking the procedure.

On a conservative talk show in 2009, Wallace said he was against 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. Wallace explained that he is of the Greek Orthodox faith, which opposes abortion, but that he is not personally opposed to abortion, a position similar to that of top Democrats who are Catholic.

“I have the same position as Nancy Pelosi or Joe Biden,” Wallace said.

Education policy is another dividing line.

Chicago Public Schools canceled classes for five days in January 2022 after union members refused to return to in-person classes due to concerns about COVID-19 safety measures. Wallace said Johnson is partly responsible for that and other closings that have shuttered “one of the poorest school systems in the country with devastating consequences,” including an increase in crime.

Johnson criticized Wallace’s leadership of schools in Chicago and in subsequent posts he held in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, Philadelphia and Connecticut. The Vallas administration punished low-performing schools, including firing staff at Chicago schools with poor test scores, and under his leadership many New Orleans schools became independent charter schools.

Vallas questioned how Johnson would be able to run 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 cooperatively with them.

Wallace’s endorsement by the Fraternal Order of Police drew criticism from Johnson, who noted that the union leader had expressed support for the rebels on Jan. 6. Wallace says he has not taken money from the union and will not owe the group if elected.

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