In last month’s primary, [Mayor Lori] Lightfoot came in third behind two men who could not be more diametrically opposed. Paul Vallas, with 33 percent of the vote, is the onetime head of Chicago Public Schools and a perennial also-ran who came in ninth in the last mayoral race. During that campaign, he carried around a push broom as a visual manifestation of his promise to “sweep up City Hall.” This cycle, he pushed a tough-on-crime platform, capitalizing on fears of gun violence and escalating numbers of carjackings and property crimes—and came out on top. Brandon Johnson, with 22 percent, is a CPS teacher turned union organizer and, now, Cook County commissioner with, like Lightfoot before him, little public record to stand on. He’s running on a progressive platform that centers on a holistic approach to crime that addresses the root causes of violence through investments in mental health services, education, housing, and jobs—funds to be raised by taxing the rich.
Vallas, who is white, is backed by the Fraternal Order of Police and the city’s business and real estate elite. Johnson, who is Black, is supported by the powerful Chicago Teachers Union, which has poured just over $2.2 million into his war chest. Vallas pulled in voters from the city’s whitest enclaves on the northwest and far southwest sides—historic strongholds of cops, firefighters, and other municipal workers. Johnson’s support came largely from the so-called lakefront liberals who swung for Lightfoot four years ago. The vote across the rest of the city—meaning the overwhelmingly Black and Latinx South and West sides—fractured, with Lightfoot eking out a victory in many wards but not always by a meaningful margin.
At the first televised debate in this six-week runoff sprint, the first question out of the gate from moderator Mary Ann Ahern addressed the disconnect head-on: “You both have been labeled extreme. . . . How will you appeal to the vast majority of Chicagoans who did not vote for you?” Neither candidate had a good answer.
It’s undeniable that gun violence is an ongoing crisis in Chicago, as it is across the country, but while the city’s per capita murder rate is higher than in New York or Los Angeles, it is lower than that of Milwaukee or Detroit, and homicides city-wide actually dropped from 2021 to 2022. It’s also undeniable that violent crime is concentrated in majority-Black neighborhoods on the West Side that are the most segregated and economically disadvantaged. The threat street violence poses to widespread public safety has been whipped up by opportunistic politicians seeking to capitalize on white voters’ fears. In centering his campaign on policing, Vallas is taking a page from the conservative playbook that last year pushed former cop Eric Adams into the mayor’s office in New York—and progressive lawyer Chesa Boudin out of the district attorney’s office in San Francisco.
But to truly understand this race you need to turn away from the current crime panic and look to the 1990s, when Paul Vallas was CEO of Chicago Public Schools. Appointed in 1995 by then-mayor Richard M. Daley to oversee a district that had been dubbed the worst in the nation, Vallas spent the next six years making it worse: he championed charter schools, cut staff, and slashed special-ed budgets. He skipped payments into the teachers’ pension fund, instead redirecting property tax monies that would have funded pensions into the operating budget to cover costs. The effects of this “pension holiday”—and another that followed under subsequent leadership—have left the teachers’ pensions underfunded by more than 50 percent. Vallas put underperforming schools on probation, then fired almost two hundred teachers en masse. He opened military and first responder high schools in low-income neighborhoods and promoted ROTC programs that created a pipeline of Black and brown students into the armed forces. He instituted harsh standardized testing requirements that sent thousands of kids to summer school—which resulted in meager improvements in test scores and higher dropout rates.
His leadership began the process of dismantling a robust system of neighborhood schools that, while often underfunded and struggling to serve their communities, had been supported by Washington-era progressive policies that saw them as integral to civic life. The wave of school closures, consolidations, and charters that rocked the city over the two decades that followed—including Rahm Emanuel’s decision to close forty-nine schools and one high school program in 2013—began after his watch but were the logical outcome of decisions Vallas began making based on a conviction that school systems were bloated, particularly urban ones. Vallas would export these reforms to Philadelphia, where he left the district with a $73 million deficit before heading to New Orleans, where he oversaw sweeping privatization that effectively destroyed the public education system.
In Chicago, the school closures disproportionately impacted communities of color, mapping cleanly onto the map of segregation that was established by federal Home Owners’ Loan Corporation red-lining practices in the 1930s and continues to this day. Students and families in schools that closed lost their community hubs, leaving kids traumatized and neighborhoods in disarray. Students were forced to travel across town or simply across gang lines to get to school, which fundamentally altered the nature of the divide between Black and white and Black and brown communities across the city. Worse, these reforms didn’t work: CPS continues to face a stark enrollment decline and current schools CEO Pedro Martinez predicts the system will be operating at more than a $600 million deficit by the 2025–2026 school year.