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Race dominates final days of the mayoral election in deeply segregated Chicago

Paul Vallas, a white moderate with a tough-on-crime-agenda, faces Brandon Johnson, a Black progressive with the support of the Chicago Teachers Union.
Chicago mayoral candidates Brandon Johnson and Paul Vallas.
Chicago mayoral candidates Brandon Johnson and Paul Vallas are facing off in the April 4 election.Mustafa Hussain for NBC News

CHICAGO — They wore black T-shirts bearing his image, carried “Women for Brandon Johnson” signs and steadied their phones to get ready.

And when Brandon Johnson walked offstage at a community center after a campaign event here on March 18, they mobbed him.

Johnson, a mayoral candidate, navigated the throng to exit into a stairwell, and an aide pressed her back against the door behind him to block the flow of traffic. Those locked out competed to snatch a glance of the rising star through a small window.

“Take a picture with me!” a woman called out. 

The scene was typical of the jubilance Johnson is eliciting in some parts of the city’s Black community, where he is rapidly ascending into an almost mystical status in the fierce closing days of the Chicago mayoral race.

“It’s real for people now,” Alderwoman Jeanette Taylor said as she left the event. Taylor said she sees momentum in the Black community for Johnson in his bid against the former schools CEO Paul Vallas. “My heart has finally dropped back to where it belongs since Chuy [Rep. Jesús Garcia, D-Ill.] has endorsed Brandon. So our Black and brown coalition is back together again.” 

People hold signs and cheer during a "Women for Brandon" event in Chicago
People cheer during a "Women for Brandon" event in Chicago on Mar. 18. Mustafa Hussain for NBC News

Johnson needs that coalition if he’s to compete with Vallas, who has outraised him and blanketed the airwaves with anti-Johnson ads, hitting him over his past statements about police funding and casting him as a tax-and-spend liberal. 

Vallas and Johnson emerged as the top two vote-getters, respectively, in February's nine-person mayoral primary. Incumbent Lori Lightfoot lost her bid for re-election, becoming the first Chicago mayor to do so in 40 years.

In the closing days of the April 4 runoff contest, it’s the issue of race that’s defining the election. It’s playing out in one of the most segregated cities in the country, where a Black progressive is competing against a white moderate and where the course of the city’s next four years, including the safety of its residents, may very well turn on the coveted Black vote — a vote neither Johnson nor Vallas won in the first round.  

And the fact that the election is on the 55th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. imbues the day with extra meaning, as many Chicagoans have pointed out.

Johnson has leaned into race at public events; at one point in a mayoral forum before a mostly Black crowd, he told Vallas, “When Black men tell you the truth, believe us.” It was in response to Vallas’ charge that Johnson wants a city income tax. (United Working Families, a left-leaning group supporting Johnson, has backed the proposal, but Johnson has said he doesn't.) 

Johnson, 46, a Cook County commissioner supported by the powerful Chicago Teachers Union, has won the endorsement of the Rev. Jesse Jackson, the Chicago civil rights icon, and progressive Sens. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass. Johnson’s faith outreach coordinator said the campaign has already reserved 80 buses for a massive “souls to the polls” early voting effort that typically targets people of color.

And Johnson's lining up the endorsements of prominent pastors in the Black community, not to mention benefiting from a get-out-the-vote rally by the Rev. Al Sharpton, the MSNBC host, on Sunday. That’s all on top of the deep organizational strength that comes from the teachers union, which has spent millions of dollars on Johnson’s candidacy. 

Brandon Johnson at a "Women for Brandon" event in Chicago
Brandon Johnson.Mustafa Hussain for NBC News

Vallas, meanwhile, is drawing his biggest support from the city’s white ethnic neighborhoods and its northwest side. But he is working to gain a foothold with the same Black electorate that makes up nearly a third of the city’s population, battling for endorsements among Black community leaders, pastors and politicians.    

Vallas, backed by the Fraternal Order of Police and the business community and best known for his tough-on-crime agenda, is having some success. The day after the women’s event scrum over Johnson, Vallas stood in a South Side church as Black ministers fanned out on either side of him. They placed their hands above his head and bowed in prayer. 

“In this room, there’s no Black, there’s no white. There’s just people,” said the Rev. Marvin B. Jenkins. “God, we ask you to let this be the beginning of what the city would look like. That it be the beginning of what it would look like in law enforcement, in education — the merger of people.” 

Vallas, 69, who has made failed bids for governor and lieutenant governor and previously ran for mayor landing in ninth place four years ago — vaulted to lead the pack in the first round of the mayoral election. 

“Suddenly now [Vallas] is being perceived as the savior of Chicago. Whether it’s public safety, whether it’s the budget, he’s suddenly all-knowing. How did that happen? What changed? Well, what changed is the last two people standing: One is white, and one is Black,” said Delmarie Cobb, a veteran political analyst in Chicago. “To pretend that race would not play a factor in Chicago’s mayoral contest would be to suspend reality.”

Paul Vallas at Kenwood Academy in Chicago
Paul Vallas.Mustafa Hussain for NBC News

Asked about the issue of race, Vallas said in an interview, “It’s him trying to make it about that,” referring to Johnson. “And what have they done for the community? What has the CTU done for the community? Except punish poor kids?”  

Vallas carries a singularly focused message on crime, which propelled him at a moment when the city is struggling with rampant gun violence and public safety overall.

Lightfoot was ousted in her re-election bid on Feb. 28 largely because of a failure to curb violence that spiked on her watch; in 2021, Chicago recorded more murders than it had in 25 years. Lightfoot had repeatedly noted that crime dropped year-over-year in 2022.

Still, there’s no question Vallas is moving to bolster his position with Black voters. That begins with a premise that such communities, despite deep-seated distrust of Chicago police, will support his plan to fill more than 1,500 police vacancies, including pushing resources to the beat level in neighborhoods and around mass transit.

Chicagoans in an auditorium listen to a mayoral debate between Paul Vallas and Brandon Johnson at Kenwood Academy
Chicagoans listen to a mayoral debate between Paul Vallas and Brandon Johnson at Kenwood Academy in Chicago, on Mar. 18.Mustafa Hussain for NBC News

This week, Vallas’ campaign celebrated the backing of Bobby Rush, a former Black Panther who served three decades in Congress and has long held influence in the Black community. Vallas also notched an endorsement from Willie Wilson, another Black leader, who ran in the first leg of the mayoral race and is known for handing out cash at his campaign events.

“I’m asked a lot: Why do I support a white man over a Black man?” Wilson said at a South Side church as he formally endorsed Vallas. “My answer is simple: Paul and I have been on the same wavelength,” in opposition to “defunding the police” and keeping a hold on taxes, he said. 

“We should not look at color in this situation,” Wilson continued to applause from the mostly Black audience. “We have to look out for our best interests.”

Each candidate has his Achilles' heel. For Vallas, it’s the perception that he’s playing footsie with the right. He has sat with conservative hosts for radio shows on which he has even taken shots at Democratic Gov. JB Pritzker (and Pritzker recently hit back). He’s a proponent of school choice, namely charter schools, which he expanded in school systems in Philadelphia and New Orleans, for which he has received mixed reviews. He’s backed by Republicans, including the Fraternal Order of Police chair, who is a Donald Trump enthusiast, and billionaire GOP megadonor Ken Griffin.  

Weighing down Johnson are his past remarks about defunding the police, which he once called “an actual political goal.” At a recent forum, Johnson said, “I did say it, and I’m not going to defund the police.” Johnson has talked about a wealth tax to help boost social services across Chicago, including to invest in affordable housing, mental health services and economic development in poor communities. 

Brandon Johnson and Paul Vallas debate at Kenwood Academy in Chicago
Brandon Johnson and Paul Vallas debate at Kenwood Academy in Chicago, on Mar. 18, 2023.Mustafa Hussain for NBC News

In policy, in experience and in style the two are a study in contrasts. 

At a recent debate, Vallas arrived early, sitting at the table alone, feverishly sequencing his notes in front of him. He's the numbers guy who sometimes gets lost in the details, worked as Mayor Richard M. Daley’s budget director and has negotiated a Chicago police contract pro bono.

Johnson, often noted as a talented orator, stayed outside the room doing a TV interview until just before starting time. 

While Vallas has outraised Johnson, Johnson has a leg up on organizational strength stemming from the Chicago Teachers Union and other public unions, including the Service Employees International Union, which also had a strong presence in the city.  

In a combustible moment over school closings at a recent forum, Vallas linked the closings of schools even after the worst months of the coronavirus pandemic to a jump in crime.

“You got to answer for yourself why you would shut down one of the poorest school systems in the country after the surrounding schools in the area and other states have reopened,” Vallas said, his voice rising. Vallas laid the blame on Johnson as a paid staffer of the teachers union, which had threatened to strike to keep the schools closed until certain safety measures were put into place.

Vallas later explained in an interview that he would have shuttered schools in 2020 but that in 2021, as private schools reopened, he would have urged the same with Chicago Public Schools.   

Chicagoans listen to a mayoral debate between Paul Vallas and Brandon Johnson
Chicagoans listen to a mayoral debate between Paul Vallas and Brandon Johnson at Kenwood Academy in Chicago, on Mar. 18.Mustafa Hussain for NBC News

Asked about Vallas’ argument, Johnson said he was standing up for people of color during a pandemic that disproportionately affected them. 

“A lot of Black people and brown people died,” Johnson said in an interview. “We wanted to make sure that Black and brown people in particular did not continue to die. That was my role as a Cook County commissioner.” 

After having sat through a two-hour forum between Vallas and Johnson, Chicago resident Lin Wilson was still undecided. She didn’t think either quite addressed the crux of the problems for the Black community, which, she said, start with safety but go beyond.

She complained of living in a deteriorating neighborhood of which she once was proud, of the absence of good-paying jobs and of a city so divided that her kids have left the state and have no interest in returning. 

“The opportunities are not here in Chicago — they’re just not here. We’re such a segregated city,” she said. “If someone can just do something to bring us more together as a community — I mean, we’re gonna always see race, always … but I think when we can live amongst each other, I think it’s gonna make a difference."