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Paul Vallas and Brandon Johnson head to Chicago mayoral runoff

Former Chicago schools CEO Paul Vallas and Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson advanced to an April runoff Tuesday in the nine-way Chicago mayoral contest.

CHICAGO – Former Chicago schools CEO Paul Vallas and Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson advanced to an April runoff Tuesday in the nine-way Chicago mayoral contest, bringing to a close the historic and tumultuous reign of Mayor Lori Lightfoot.

It was a stunning reversal from four years ago when Lightfoot won every ward in her 2019 mayoral election and the first time in 40 years that an elected Chicago mayor lost reelection.

“Obviously, we didn’t win the election today, but I stand here with my head held high and a heart filled with gratitude,” Lightfoot said in delivering her concession speech at about 8:45 p.m.

“Regardless of tonight’s outcome, we fought the right fight and put this city on a better path, no doubt about it,” she said in a speech interrupted by cries of “we love you” and “thank you” from supporters. “Now as we all know in life, you don’t always win every battle. But you never regret taking on the powerful and bringing in the light.”

The first-term Chicago mayor trailed Vallas and Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson in a contest where — absent any candidate topping 50% — only the top two finishers move onto the next round of voting.

The Associated Press called it for Vallas less than an hour after polls closed and for Johnson about an hour after that.

With 91% of precincts reporting city-wide in what appeared to be a low-turnout election, Vallas had 35% of the vote, with Johnson at 20% and Lightfoot at 16%. U.S. Rep. Jesus “Chuy” Garcia stood in fourth place with 14% of the vote.

Four years ago, Vallas stumbled his way to a ninth-place finish in the 14-way mayoral election that Lightfoot won. That disappointing result followed his defeat in 2014 as Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn’s running mate and his 2002 loss in the Democratic gubernatorial primary.

But this go-around, Vallas reinvented himself politically, emphasizing what happened to be one of Lightfoot’s Achilles heels: crime.

Buoyed by an aggressive television advertising campaign, Vallas zeroed in on her failure to curb violent attacks throughout the city, mining an issue that came to define her four years on City Hall’s 5th floor as much as her response to the pandemic and the stabilization of city finances.

He adopted the campaign slogan, “Public Safety First,” vowed to fire police Supt. David Brown, criticized Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx and pledged to hire more police officers.

At Vallas’ party at the West Loop venue, The City Hall, Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” and Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” played over the speakers.

Vallas’ law-and-order message, promising to increase the number of police on Chicago’s streets, resonated with supporters there.

“I live up north in a bungalow district with relatively low crime and it’s getting closer to home every single day,” Keith Forshaw, age 49, said. “Paul has a plan with the police. I like his plan. I think he can execute on it. “

As Vallas gained momentum, Lightfoot in recent weeks settled into the role of underdog despite her incumbency. She accused Vallas of being a shadow Republican, belittled his acceptance of the Chicago FOP endorsement and, of late, hit him for a series of “likes” of racially questionable tweets.

Johnson, a former educator and union organizer who is not a well-known political name in the city, gained momentum by being the favored candidate of the Chicago Teachers Union, which helped underwrite his political advertising.

He has advocated for increased school funding, new investments in housing and mental health and additional police reforms. But Lightfoot hit him in campaign advertising with claims that Johnson wanted to defund police.

At Johnson’s West Side party, the crowd included David Hernandez, a high school computer science teacher in Little Village and a Chicago Teachers Union delegate.

“Brandon is better for so many reasons,” Hernandez said. “I like his phrasing, Investor in Chief. I think that’s what his campaign is all about. Making sure that we deal with root cause issues, and I think that’s what caused a surge in the polling. People that live and reside in Chicago can relate to that.”

Hernandez said he thought a runoff between Johnson and former Chicago Public Schools CEO Paul Vallas would be an interesting match-up, noting the different approaches these two Democrats would take to city government.

Lightfoot’s defeat marks the first time in 40 years that an elected Chicago mayor lost to a challenger. The last time that happened was in 1983, when then U.S. Rep. Harold Washington unseated incumbent Chicago Mayor Jane Byrne.

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot pauses during her concession speech during an election night party for the mayoral election Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2023, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast) AP

For Lightfoot, the first openly gay and Black female mayor in city history, suffering the same humiliation at the polls that Byrne did a generation ago may be a particularly stinging result, but it wasn’t entirely surprising.

Lightfoot clashed with the politically influential Chicago Teachers Union through the entirety of term, prompting the union to front its own candidate in Johnson to run against her. Lightfoot went into the election with lagging support from voters, whom polls showed were dissatisfied with her leadership.

And her frayed or distant relationships with other Democrats contributed to her struggles. Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker, who captured 83% of the vote in Chicago during his successful re-election last fall, stayed out of the race.

Vallas capitalized on big turnouts in largely white Southwest and Northwest wards, home to large concentrations of city cops. The Chicago chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police backed his candidacy as crime surged on Lightfoot’s watch.

Since 2019, murders were up by nearly 40% across the city, and robberies and theft jumped by double-digit percentage increase. Carjackings during the past four years increased by an alarming 139% during Lightfoot’s term.

Lightfoot made history when she won all 50 wards during the runoff election against Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle in 2019 – becoming the first Black woman and openly gay mayor of Chicago.

A political newcomer, she emerged from a crowded field of 14 candidates and vowed to bring a new era of transparency to reform City Hall. But her tenure has been marked by challenges. Lightfoot’s opponents have attacked her over reneged campaign promises, the direction the city has taken during the pandemic and at times her tough negotiating style.

But it’s that approach that has also helped her achieve some of her major accomplishments, such as securing the city’s first casino and financing a long-awaited expansion of the Red Line to the South Side.

WBEZ reporters Shannon Heffernan and Kristen Schorsch contributed.

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