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Chicago Picks Progressive to Take On School Privatizer in Mayoral Runoff

Brandon Johnson’s grassroots campaign centers on expanding resources for Chicago's public schools and taxing the rich.

Chicago mayoral candidate Brandon Johnson is introduced at a fundraiser and rally at the Honeycomb Network in Chicago, Illinois, on February 25, 2023.

Chicago voters rejected Democratic Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s bid for a second term on Tuesday, elevating progressive Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson to face conservative candidate Paul Vallas — an ardent school privatization advocate — in an April 4 runoff.

Johnson, a longtime educator and organizer, advanced to the runoff with roughly 20% of the vote after a grassroots campaign centered on expanding resources for Chicago’s public schools and taxing the rich to boost affordable housing, public transportation, healthcare, and other priorities.

“Today, we are on the verge of creating a new Chicago,” Stacy Davis Gates, president of the Chicago Teachers Union, said in a statement applauding Johnson’s campaign. “It’s a Chicago for the many, not the few — a city where the unhoused can access affordable and sustainable housing, where our public schools are fully funded and provide the support students need, and where our young people can play in safe, welcoming, and thriving communities.”

Vallas, though, is seen as the frontrunner, having received 34% of the vote on Tuesday in his second bid for mayor.

U.S. Rep. Chuy Garcia (D-Ill.) received less than 14% of the vote in Tuesday’s contest, under Lightfoot’s 17%.

The former CEO of Chicago Public Schools, Vallas is a longtime proponent of school privatization, having expanded charter schools and other privatization schemes in his home city as well as in Philadelphia and post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans.

Far from shying away from his record — which has drawn vocal criticism from lawmakers and officials from the areas where he’s attacked public schools — Vallas has pledged to build on it if elected mayor of Chicago.

Maurice Mitchell, national director of the Working Families Party — which is backing Johnson — said late Tuesday that “the contrast in this runoff could not be clearer.”

“In one corner, we have a classroom teacher and union organizer with deep community roots,” said Mitchell. “In the other corner, we have conservative Paul Vallas, who is backed by the Trump-supporting Fraternal Order of Police and has never come across a public school he didn’t want to gut.”

Following Tuesday’s vote, Johnson — who has described his opponent’s approach to education as “morally bankrupt” — tweeted that “if tonight is proof of anything, it’s proof that anything is possible.”

“It’s proof that we can build a Chicago as big and generous as its promise,” he continued. “And it’s proof that City Hall can truly belong to the people. Tonight is just the beginning. Thank you, Chicago.”

To defeat Vallas, Johnson will have to overcome a likely torrent of opposition spending from dark money organizations that have taken an interest in the race to lead the United States’ third-largest city.

As the Chicago Tribune reported last month, groups spent “hundreds of thousands of dollars in the final weeks of the race for mayor” while “hiding where that money is coming from.”

One dark money organization, the Chicago Leadership Committee, has “spent more than $165,000 on TV and digital ads for Vallas’ mayoral bid,” the Tribune reported.

“There’s no question even more dark money will flood this election in the coming weeks,” Mitchell warned. “The right wing sees our movement gaining momentum and will do everything possible to stop us. But tonight is more proof that organized people can beat organized money. Brandon Johnson has always had the backs of working families, and in April, we’ll have his.”

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