THE STRETCH RUN
Johnson, Vallas map different routes to victory in final sprint to mayor’s office
“IF PAUL MAKES THOSE INROADS INTO THE HISPANIC COMMUNITY, GETS 20-TO-25% OF THE BLACK VOTE AND HOLDS HIS [NORTHWEST AND SOUTHWEST SIDE] BASE, THEN HE’S GOT A NICE, CLEAR PATH TO A WIN IN APRIL.” VICTOR REYES, political operative, on Paul Vallas
Paul Vallas’ road to the mayor’s office is shorter and smoother.
Brandon Johnson’s path is longer and rockier.
But, Johnson’s relatively weak showing in the African American community gives him tremendous room for growth. So does the possibility of reuniting the progressive family that was divided between Johnson and U.S. Rep Jesus “Chuy” Garcia.
The newly chosen combatants in Round Two of the mayoral sweepstakes are off and running in a five-week sprint to the April 4 finish line.
And finishing first with 34.1% of the vote, Vallas is clearly the front-runner on that track to City Hall.
“His path is getting 50-to-55% of the Latino vote, which is very do-able for him. He won a few Latino wards,” said veteran political operative Victor Reyes, who supported, but did not work for, Garcia.
“He beat Chuy in 10 and 30,” Reyes said, referring to the Southeast Side’s 10th and Northwest Side’s 30th wards. “In a few key Latino wards, he did very well or came in a close second. So he has a very clear path to get to 55, maybe higher with Latinos — especially in those areas where they’re a little more law and order and receptive to his message. That’s an automatic growth spot for him.”
“If Paul makes those inroads into the Hispanic community, gets 20-to-25% of the Black vote and holds his [Northwest and Southwest Side] base, then he’s got a nice, clear path to a win in April.”
Johnson punched his ticket to the runoff by winning nine progressive wards on the North and Northwest Sides and along the lakefront: the 1st, 26th, 33rd, 35th, 40th, 46th, 47th, 48th and 49th.
The Cook County commissioner won three Northwest Side Hispanic wards — the 33rd, 35th and 26th. But he did not win a single African American ward.
Johnson finished third behind Lightfoot and Vallas in the West Side’s 29th, was a close second in a handful of other Black wards, including the 3rd, 4th, 5th and 20th on the South Side, and was a distant second in a bunch of others, including the 6th, 7th, 8th, 9th, 16th, 17th, 18th, 21st, 24th, 28th and 37th, scattered across the South and West Sides.
That means Johnson has a long way to go to claim the 80% share of the African
American vote that Reyes believes he needs to defeat Vallas.
And other political experts agree.
‘He should be on the phone now’
“He has to really introduce himself. People didn’t know Lori [Lightfoot], and people didn’t know him. And they might be like, ‘Once burned, twice shot.’ They may think, ‘We did this once before with somebody. I don’t know that we should do that again.’ And they do know Vallas,” said political strategist Delmarie Cobb.
But Johnson needs to get to work, she said.
“He needs to get all of these aldermen who did support him to become surrogates. Pat Dowell. She needs to be a surrogate. Matt Martin. He needs to be a surrogate. Maria Hadden. Same with the South Side. He should be on the phone now calling the Black aldermen saying, ‘I need your help to win this race.’ If they’ve got any bad blood
between them, put all of that behind you and let’s win this thing.”
Cobb advised Johnson to “draw a straight line between Vallas’ policies” as Chicago Public Schools CEO and former Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s notorious decision to close 50 schools in one fell swoop.
“The schools weren’t closed under Paul, but they began to be starved under Paul. He embraced small schools. He created contract schools. And he expanded charter schools. And that starved neighborhood schools,” Cobb said.
Johnson’s campaign manager Jason Lee believes his candidate can win the mayor’s office by “consolidating the majority of the vote that wasn’t with Vallas” in both the Black and Hispanic communities and by “building on our strength in the Milwaukee Avenue corridor.”
That starts with reuniting the fractured family of progressives, in part, by winning Garcia’s endorsement, he said.
“The progressive wing of the city has fought for a long time for a more just Chicago. Congressman Garcia … has fought for a more just Chicago [and] a multi-racial coalition for over 40 years. They’re not gonna just turn their back on that due to politics and political conflict. Paul Vallas’ set of politics goes against everything they’ve been fighting for,” Lee said.
“I believe when folks look at that, they’re gonna do what they’ve always done. Which is, fight for what they believe in and the values they hold. And that means us coming together. … We would love to have Congressman Garcia, because he is a beloved figure within that community, and he has a lot of credibility there. So, we’re gonna work hard to have those conversations.”
‘Some of that could backfire’
Veteran political consultant Joe Trippi, who continues to advise the Vallas campaign, said the impact of a Garcia endorsement of Johnson would be minimal, even if the two progressives do bury the hatchet.
“What’s he got? 14%? We did very well in the Hispanic community,” Trippi said.
He added, “I’m not sure that coalitions forged in the past are aligning in the same way.”
If Johnson’s election-night speech was any indication, it’ll be a bitter campaign with the Cook County commissioner and Chicago Teachers Union organizer attempting to portray Vallas as, what CTU President Stacy Davis Gates has called an “existential threat” to public education and government workers.
Reyes sees a downside to that line of attack or trying or portray him as a Republican supporter of former President Donald Trump, as Garcia, Johnson and others did during the campaign.
“He can’t compete with Paul’s experience. Paul is a government nerd. So, he’s got to use attacks. He’s got to color Paul as a Trumper and a Republican. But, some of that could backfire. The progressive base could say, ‘We’ve done that with Lightfoot. We need somebody more collaborative. Paul is more collaborative than a bombthrower,’” Reyes said.
Trippi warned Johnson to proceed with caution before slinging mud.
“He used his entire speech for coming in second to go on the attack. I don’t know that that’s going to wear well. He’s in a glass house when it comes to taxes and statements he’s made” about defunding the Chicago Police Department, Trippi said.
“He’s not gonna get a free ride on any of that.”
Vallas raised $5.9 million for Round One of the mayoral sweepstakes. He’s expected to have at least that much, if not more, for Round Two as institutional and big business interests loosen up after sitting on the sidelines for fear of alienating an incumbent mayor with a reputation for vindictiveness.
He might just need every penny of it. “The question is, how high will the temperature get? You have to hope that both of them resist that,” said veteran political operative David Axelrod, who helped re-elect Mayor Harold Washington in 1987 and has helped to elect mayors, senators and the nation’s first Black president.
“Brandon is a committed progressive. He believes that there should be much higher taxes on the wealthy and on corporations to fund social programs, particularly programs that will lift up people who are living in poverty.
“He believes that there are better policing strategies than adding more police officers. The question is whether he can put together a majority of Chicagoans who agree with him.”
Assuming Johnson gets “90%” of the Black vote, Axelrod said, “That immediately propels him into the same category as Paul. And then, as always is the case in Chicago elections, Hispanic voters and lakefront voters are the tie-breakers.
“That’s who they’ll be competing for.”
“HE BELIEVES THAT THERE ARE BETTER POLICING STRATEGIES THAN ADDING MORE POLICE OFFICERS. THE QUESTION IS WHETHER HE CAN PUT TOGETHER A MAJORITY OF CHICAGOANS WHO AGREE WITH HIM.”
DAVID AXELROD, on Brandon Johnson