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Progressive Brandon Johnson wins Chicago mayoral election

Chicago has elected a progressive public school teacher as its next mayor.

CHICAGO (CN) — After months of campaign drama and electoral upset, the Windy City's mayoral race is finally over.

When the polls closed at 7 p.m., conservative mayoral candidate Paul Vallas was in a dead heat with his progressive opponent Brandon Johnson. By 9:47 p.m. he had conceded. At the time, Johnson led by about 16,000 votes with 99% of the vote total counted.

"Tonight ... I called Brandon Johnson and told him that I expect him to be the next mayor of Chicago," Vallas said in his concession speech. "I look forward to working with him and giving him all the support he needs to be successful."

"To the Chicagoans who did not vote for me, here's what I want you know: I care about you, I value you ... I want to work with you, and I'll be the mayor for you too," Johnson said in in his own victory speech. Johnson's victory comes 55 years to the day after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., something Johnson nodded to in his speech.

"The civil rights movements and the labor rights movement have finally come together," Johnson said.

The contest between Vallas and Johnson began in earnest on Feb. 28, when they emerged as the top two picks from a crowded first-round election. Voters rejected seven other mayoral candidates that night, including incumbent mayor Lori Lightfoot and Democratic Illinois Congressman Jesus "Chuy" Garcia. Pundits who spoke to Courthouse News in February favored Lightfoot and Garcia as finalists for the April runoff. 

Instead, Chicagoans chose the two candidates representing the furthest left and right ideologies in the race. Since February, that race has divided the city along lines of race, class and age.

Johnson, a Cook County commissioner and former public school teacher, had the city's progressive movement, young people, Black neighborhoods and several powerful labor unions in his corner. The left-leaning Chicago Teachers Union, of which Johnson is a former member, marshaled its members and over $2 million in support of his candidacy.

Vallas, the only white candidate to run, a longtime public school administrator and former CEO of Chicago Public Schools, meanwhile enjoyed consistent support from the city's white neighborhoods, business sector, police and elderly voters. The largest of Chicago's police unions, the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 7, endorsed him in January.

He also had several Republican backers. Citadel founder and billionaire Ken Griffin said earlier this month that he hoped Vallas would win the mayoral race, and Gerald Beeson, Citadel's chief operating officer, made three separate $100,000 donations to his campaign. The Illinois Federation for Children, a private school advocacy PAC with ties to Donald Trump's education secretary Betsy DeVos, also made a $59,000 donation to Vallas' campaign in March.

The city's Latino vote remained divided in the run-up to the election, with 46% favoring Vallas and 35% behind Johnson, according to recent polling from Chicago's Northwestern University.

The two men symbolized very different visions for Chicago's future, despite both serving as Democrats.

Johnson has politics aligned with independent Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, who visited Chicago last week to stump for him. In the past, he supported defunding the Chicago Police Department's $1.9 billion budget to redistribute the funds to other city services. Since his campaign began, though, he has slowly tracked to the center on the issue. 

Following the Feb. 28 primary election, Johnson repeatedly vowed not to defund the police. But he also said he wants to target the root causes of crime, including poverty, housing insecurity, youth unemployment and a lack of city services. 

"The heart of this movement has always been about investing in people ... because I've seen what disinvestment looks like," Johnson said on Tuesday night, citing his upbringing in a Black working class Chicago home.

Vallas, running since 2022 as the law and order candidate, didn't have to soften his stance on policing. He earned the support of the FOP and the city's conservative voters by highlighting Chicago's rising economic crime rate and shrinking number of beat cops, and by criticizing Mayor Lightfoot's response to both issues. On the campaign trail, he repeatedly said he wanted to grow the police department by upwards of 1,000 officers, and supported walking back recent reforms meant to address police misconduct. This includes a ban on foot pursuits over minor offenses implemented after the police shooting of 13-year-old Adam Toledo.

"I put on a public safety focus in this campaign because public safety is a right," Vallas said in his concession speech.

The pair also diverged on the issue of education. Johnson supports universal childcare in Illinois, expanding multilingual education and making public transit free for all Chicago public school students, while opposing the expansion of the city's network of private charter schools.

Vallas took the opposite approach. He advocated for extended school hours, dismantling the Chicago Public Schools' central administration and establishing elected local school councils in its place, and expanding the number of "alternative" schools across the city.

Both men milked each other's positions through March, declaring the other too radical for the mayor's office. 

Johnson pointed to Vallas' extensive history of privatizing school districts in Chicago, Philadelphia and New Orleans, as well as his stated ideological opposition to abortion, his consideration of running as a Republican for Cook County board president in 2010, the FOP's ties to GOP Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and several occasions where Vallas' social media pages "liked" racist content. 

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

Vallas denied he made those "likes" and tried to distance himself from the FOP's connections, while also firing back that Johnson would make the city less safe by defunding the police once in office.

"Brandon Johnson’s entire outlook on public safety is informed by his support for defunding the police. That’s why he’s the wrong choice to make our city safer, because we need a leader who believes that better trained, better deployed police can make a difference," Vallas said in a tweet on Monday.

Per the election results on Tuesday, Chicago voters narrowly preferred Johnson's progressive vision for Chicago over Vallas' law and order strategy.

"Today is just the beginning. With our voices and our votes, we have ushered in a new era in the history of Chicago," Johnson said in his speech around 10:30 p.m. "Now Chicago will begin to work for its people. All the people."

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