Earlier this week, Brandon Johnson, a progressive candidate endorsed by Bernie Sanders, was elected to Chicago’s top office, defeating conservative opponent Paul Vallas. Throughout his campaign, Johnson ideated a new Chicago that would invest in youth, tackle the root causes of crime, and address disinvestment in communities, among other things. Conversely, Vallas took a “tough-on-crime” approach, calling for police officers on trains to address public safety concerns. He also talked about bringing retired police officers back to the workforce to fulfill job vacancies caused by COVID-19. These two candidates represented two different ends of the political spectrum, and Johnson’s win is historic.
As the country leans further right, banning books and criminalizing queerness, electing a progressive candidate in a major city solidifies a new era for the city. Prior to Johnson, Mayors Rahm Emanuel, Lori Lightfoot and Richard M. Daley were democratic conservatives who ushered in an era of neoliberal politics for the city. Had Vallas been elected, he likely would have continued this legacy, as his stances aligned with machine politics. However, Vallas was unique in that he was more openly conservative than the aforementioned mayors.
He stated that he “opposed” abortion, which outgoing Mayor Lightfoot grilled him on. Additionally, he earned the backing of the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP), whose president claimed that there would be consequences to a Johnson election. According to Slate, John Catanzara told the New York Times, “If this guy [Brandon Johnson] gets in we’re going to see an exodus like we’ve never seen before.” Catanzara also warned about “blood on the streets” in this same interview.
His hyperbolic language echoes other right-leaning entities that have attempted to infiltrate local politics. Last year, during the gubernatorial election, candidate Darren Bailey was accused of voter suppression when he began placing signs in Black Chicago neighborhoods that read out warnings such as “Pritzker lying, Black kids dying.” This was a dig at incumbent governor J.B. Pritzker, who Bailey’s camp accused of mistreating the Black community. Bailey’s tactic, according to the Chicago Sun times, was an act of voter suppression.
They wrote, “[S]ince the fear-mongering flyers and signs do not push Bailey’s candidacy, the strategy appears to be to depress Black voter turnout for Pritzker, political operatives said.” That is, Bailey never campaigned in these South Side communities that were predominantly Black but instead put up these signs to sway voters from voting for Pritzker, which in turn would have secured him the governor’s seat.
Yet, like Vallas, Bailey lost his election. However, looking at a map, Bailey had significant support outside of Chicago. At first glance, it would appear as though he had more support. With Chicago being a longtime blue city and deciding factor in Illinois’s status as a Blue state, it makes sense that Pritzker won Illinois by winning Chicago. Nonetheless, Bailey and Vallas were not accidental candidates.
Instead, they are puppets of the right as Republicans try to gain control of major political offices, such as Governor and Mayor. Ahead of 2024, this is strategic. In putting out these candidates, the right is sending a message that they are getting stronger. After all, Vallas and Bailey lost by very close margins. Like Donald Trump in 2016, they pander to a rightwing conservative base that is desperate for things to get back to the way they never were.
It is all strategic, and the media plays a role. During this election season, the veteran newspaper Chicago Tribune endorsed Vallas despite his controversial past and refusal to even discuss race as a part of his platform. The Huffington Post and other outlets called him a centrist, although his political stances typically aligned to the right. To deem that centricity is complicity.
This is why Johnson’s win is so significant. He was able to unify Chicago in a way we have not seen since the days of Harold Washington. Although some dubbed Lori Lightfoot the second coming of the late mayor, Johnson has demonstrated early on a commitment to the ideals of Chicago’s first Black mayor. As the third Black person to lead the city, Johnson has his work cut out for him, and he knows that. In his acceptance speech, he too acknowledged that hatred is at an all-time high when he said, “The most radical thing we can ever do, you all, is to actually love people.”
Despite the hurdles and the dog whistles and the doubts placed on him, Johnson stepped up to the plate and proved himself to be the best candidate on the ticket. It will be interesting to see what legacy he will leave on the city.