Posted on March 28, 2023

Race Dominates Final Days of the Mayoral Election in Deeply Segregated Chicago

Natasha Korecki, NBC News, March 26, 2023

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.


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.”

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.


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.


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. {snip}

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.

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. {snip}


“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.”


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.

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. {snip}

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.