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Bernie Sanders visits Chicago in support of progressive mayoral candidate

With the Chicago mayoral election scheduled for next Tuesday, progressive candidate Brandon Johnson hopes Sanders' visit will give him an edge over his more conservative opponent Paul Vallas.

CHICAGO (CN) — Bernie Sanders spoke at a rally at the University of Illinois Chicago Thursday night in support of Cook County Commissioner and progressive mayoral candidate Brandon Johnson.

Johnson is facing the more conservative Paul Vallas in a runoff mayoral election set for April 4.

"I have absolute confidence that if we stand together ... we can create the kind of city the people of Chicago deserve," Sanders said after the rally began around 7 p.m.

The 81-year-old independent Vermont senator and two-time presidential hopeful — self-described as a democratic socialist —has become a figurehead for many in the U.S. whose politics run to the left of the Democratic mainstream. His appearance at Thursday's rally comes as the Johnson campaign prepares for an uncertain election day.

Johnson and Vallas were the top two choices in a Feb. 28 primary election that saw centrist liberal incumbent Lori Lightfoot dethroned. She was the first Chicago mayor in 40 years to lose reelection after serving a full first term. Though Johnson may have handily made the runoff, recent polling puts him either in a dead heat with Vallas or trailing by several points.

"This is going to be a close election," Sanders acknowledged Thursday.

The rally's venue at the University of Illinois Chicago was no coincidence, as Johnson will likely need solid youth turnout to win on Tuesday. A survey published earlier this week by Chicago's Northwestern University shows he leads with voters aged 18–29, contrasting with Vallas' 30-plus point lead among elderly voters.

"I've never been so excited to vote for a mayor," Chicago musician Tasha said on stage as she opened the event, urging the mostly under-40 crowd to go vote.

The runoff has also pitted many of the city's Black neighborhoods and progressive labor unions, who are behind Johnson, against the wealthier white communities, police and businesses behind Vallas. Johnson enjoys endorsements from a number of national progressive figures — Democratic Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, Reverend Al Sharpton, hip-hop artist Common and Sanders himself — but Vallas has support from longstanding local politicians including Democratic Illinois Senator Dick Durbin and former Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White.

Vallas has also won endorsements from 19 of Chicago's 50 city councilors, compared to Johnson's ten.

Endorsements and coalition-building are major electoral factors in Chicago, a city composed of 77 politically and culturally distinct neighborhoods. Johnson's hope is to counter the quantity of Vallas' endorsements with the quality of his own, such as that recently offered by his defeated mayoral rival and Chicago Democratic heavyweight, Illinois 4th District Congressman Jesus "Chuy" Garcia.

But not even Garcia, who has been a mainstay of Chicago politics since the 1980s, can bring the energy of a Bernie Sanders appearance. The Vermont senator took the stage to thunderous applause and chants of "Bernie!"

"What this campaign is about is bringing the working class together," Sanders said toward the end of his speech, before introducing Johnson.

Bernies Sanders took the stage at Brandon Johnson's March 30, 2023 rally to thunderous applause. The 81-year-old democratic socialist has become a figurehead for much of the young socialist movement. (Dave Byrnes / Courthouse News)

"The enemy of labor is the enemy of the people," Johnson called back to Sanders after his introduction, in a nod to both men's pro-union politics.

Democratic Illinois Congresswoman Delia Ramirez and Martin Luther King III, son of Martin Luther King Jr., also spoke in support of Johnson at the rally. Both urged the crowd to vote, canvass and otherwise work to make a Johnson mayorship a reality. MLK III invoked his father several times over the course of his speech, saying Johnson's candidacy reflected MLK Jr.'s work during the civil rights movement.

"He's going to be looking down on Chicago on Tuesday," MLK III said of his father.

Despite leaning on his speakers' progressive bonafides, Johnson has tracked to the center since his unexpected win in February on the issue of crime and policing. He said in 2020 that defunding the police was "a real actual political goal," and prior to Feb. 28 maintained that Chicago's ever-increasing police budget, currently about $1.9 billion, had not made the city or its people safer. In the weeks since the primary election, he has publicly said multiple times that he would not move to defund the police as mayor, and that he supports qualified immunity — the controversial protections against criminal and civil accusations police enjoy while on the job.

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This has brought Johnson closer in line with Vallas, a blue dog Democrat who considered running for Cook County Board President in 2010 as a Republican, and who earned the endorsement of Chicago's conservative Fraternal Order of Police in January as the law-and-order candidate. Vallas has publicly voiced support for increasing the police budget and the number of active beat cops, saying in December 2022 that the city has seen an "utter breakdown of law and order" over the last several years.

It has also left Johnson with a two-pronged problem heading into election day: On the one hand, the conservative interests who believe he intends to defund the police regardless of what he says on the campaign trail, and on the other, left-leaning voters who feel betrayed by his reversal on a key policy issue. Many in Chicago's growing socialist bloc have argued since before 2020 that the city's large police budget takes funding from other city departments that desperately need it.

Several attendees at Thursday's rally expressed their frustration with Johnson's pivot to the center on policing, even if they still supported him.

"It still comes down to, we have to imagine a legal system that isn't purely punitive," attendee Dion McGill said. "Adding 1000 police is not going to solve the issue."

Others, though, said that Johnson's campaign rhetoric should be taken with a grain of salt.

"It's a campaign strategy. 'Defund the Police' is a buzzword," attendee Lukas Skucas said. "If Brandon wants the moderate vote he has to tone down the rhetoric."

Sanders also supported Johnson's position on policing, saying a Johnson mayorship would handle crime in a "smart, effective way" by addressing root causes of crime including poverty, housing insecurity, lack of jobs and poor mental health services.

Johnson also remains the progressive choice on the issue of education. He is a public school teacher by trade and a former member of the proudly left and militant Chicago Teachers Union. He supports many of the same initiatives as the union and opposes further privatization of the school district. Vallas, by contrast, is a long-time school administrator who favors privatization, or, as he calls it, "school choice."

Vallas worked as the first CEO of Chicago Public Schools from 1995–2001, as CEO of Philadelphia's public school district from 2002–2007, and as superintendent of New Orleans' public school district from 2007–2011. He oversaw extensive privatization of all three districts, a legacy that has earned him the support of the school choice political action committee Illinois Federation For Children. The PAC's umbrella organization American Federation for Children was chaired by former Trump Education Secretary Betsy DeVos for over seven years.

"When you take dollars from Trump supporters and say you're part of the progressive movement — man, sit down," Johnson said on stage in a message to Vallas.

Vallas' history may have earned him friends among school choice advocates, but it has not endeared him to many in Chicago's Black neighborhoods on the South and West Sides. The memory of former mayor Rahm Emanuel overseeing the closure of 50 majority-Black and brown schools in 2013 is still fresh, and it's one more shot that Johnson, Sanders and others took at Vallas on Thursday.

For the assembled crowd, it landed its mark.

"Look at New Orleans ... that man hasn't done shit for that city," attendee Lisa Montgomery, whose family lives in New Orleans, said of Vallas. "My niece called me up and said, 'Aunt Lisa, [Vallas] ripped up our schools.'"

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