Chicago Mayoral: The Choices Weren’t Good

By Mike Koetting April 11, 2023

Maybe it’s an exaggeration to say the Chicago mayoral election run-off was one of the worst political choices I have ever faced. But this is only the second time in my life that I went to the poll to cast a blank ballot.

The national news story of progressive Brandon Johnson against moderate Paul Vallas isn’t wrong, but it doesn’t convey the choice with sufficient texture.

Vallas was “moderate” because it wasn’t clear what else to call him. He has a long record of administrative experience and an ability to discuss issues specifically and compellingly. However, opinions differ widely on whether his actual past performances have been major successes or complete disasters. He does not seem to engender nuanced assessments. Mostly he has run school systems and has a distinctive pro-charter school, anti-teachers union bias. My own position on charter schools is all over the place, but I am for sure extremely wary of walking away from a communally shared structure for public education.

My even bigger problem with Vallas was that some of the things he said—particularly prior to the first round of voting—were far to the right of “moderate’. It wasn’t just an isolated word or phrase. Several things he said suggested a specific world view that is frankly incompatible with creating a viable course for a multi-racial America. I didn’t see how a person who said some of those things could ever have sufficient respect for all the people of Chicago, regardless of his administrative experience.

So why not Johnson? For openers, he had absolutely no administrative experience and very little political experience. (He had served one-term as a member of the County Board, which is more concerned with County functions than the City of Chicago per se.) And I was uncomfortable with the fact that he was so closely aligned with, and bankrolled by, the Chicago Teachers Union. I am generally supportive of unions—but I have spent my career as management in union shops. There needs to be a healthy give and take. I am not sure this arrangement fosters such.

But what really bothered me about Johnson was that as soon as he made it into the run-offs, he stopped saying anything of tractionable substance. It was wall to wall platitudes. As Sun Times columnist Neil Steinberg put it, Johnson’s position was that if you simply fixed everything—housing, education, welfare and transportation—crime would disappear. About the road from here to there: not much to say.

I guess I prefer that approach to the Paul Vallas position that you solve crime by hiring more policemen and let them do their job (whatever that means). But it sheds no light on how one would actually be mayor of Chicago. I can usually live with the lesser of two evils, but Johnson’s refusal to participate meaningfully was too much of an insult to involved voters.

In short, more than offering a choice between opposing views of the future, this election seemed to me to illustrate the reduced circumstances of our political lives.

Turnout & Race

Consistent with the last several Chicago elections, turnout was low, somewhat over one-third of the voters. This suggests an unfortunate lack of engagement in self-government. Turnout among young voters was particularly anemic, an omen of even worse to come.

On its surface, the issues around race were unsurprising. Johnson overwhelmingly won the Black vote. Valla won the White vote by equally large margins in the Wards where there are a large number of White voters middle-age or older. But Johnson was very competitive in the wards with younger and more liberal White voters. Likewise, he was able to get a respectable percentage of the Latino vote, although Hispanic turnout was particularly low. Altogether, it was enough for him to put together a two percent win.

I don’t think Johnson’s overwhelming victory in the Black wards necessarily points to an emerging commitment to progressive politics in those communities. Johnson did not get much support there in the first round, with incumbent Lori Lightfoot getting most of the Black vote. Johnson’s showing in the runoff is more likely a reflection that Blacks—like other groups—tend to vote for people from their community.

It is not entirely clear to me what to make of the fact that so many of the “established” Black leaders endorsed Vallas.  I don’t know whether they thought the Black community was more conservative than to want an outspoken progressive or they were thinking that Vallas’ focus on crime would play particularly well in the Black communities where crime is in fact a bigger problem, or they were worried about the Chicago Teachers’ Union getting too much power. But Johnson’s win certainly creates some potential for a new wave of Black leaders. It may also create some changes in the relationship between South and West Side Blacks, which does not always go smoothly. (Johnson is from the West Side.)

Vallas’ emphasis on more policeman to address crime didn’t play very well in the minority communities, even though those are places with greatest crime problems.  Not that these communities have historically shown much interest in “defunding the police”, a position Johnson bandied about a couple years ago and since walked back. In fact, Black communities have generally favored more policemen. But there was skepticism that more policemen as prescribed by Paul Vallas was really going to improve responses to their problems and treat their community with respect. Vallas had been endorsed by the Fraternal Order of the Police, the police union that had endorsed Trump and is headed by a troglodyte. It is hard to imagine a brighter flashing light for Black voters.

More About Policing

One spot for optimism is that Johnson has some latitude to make changes in how Chicago is policed that might have been harder for Vallas to make. In any event, he’ll need to give this his immediate attention because Chicago is currently without a permanent police chief and, even beyond Paul Vallas, crime was the biggest issue in the election, often, it seemed, to the exclusion of all else. Johnson needs to get this choice right; dissatisfaction from all sides with Lori Lightfoot’s police chief was a significant factor in her loss.

But, as Henry Grabar noted in Slate, the perception of crime may be more complicated than the reality. He cites a WBEZ/Sun-Times poll from last month, in which Black Chicagoans were almost twice as likely to feel unsafe (84 percent) as their White neighbors (49 percent) but that didn’t lead them to vote for Vallas. Moreover, White Chicagoans were twice as likely (61 percent) as their Black neighbors (30 percent) to say that crime was the top issue affecting the city.

Grabar argues that, while there has been an uptick in some violent crimes, it is not as widespread as the perception that society is falling apart. He suggests that considerable fuel is being added to the fire by the amount of visible “disorder”—homeless encampments, smoking on the CTA, rampantly rude driving, public drug use, and so forth. He raises the possibility that thinking separately, and clearly, about disorder and violence will allow smarter solutions in both areas. Since Johnson hasn’t painted himself into a corner by megaphone promises of more police officers, he could have opportunities to approach these problems in new ways.

Structure of Elections and the Office

One other thought from this election is how the structure of the elections themselves contribute to the outcome. Vallas was probably the most conservative candidate and Johnson was the second most progressive. To some extent these candidates ended up facing each other because the ends squeezed out the middle. I am not sure if some alternative voting procedure (e.g. ranked choice) would have led to a different outcome. But it is something that should definitely be considered.

Frankly, I think the bigger problem is that the job has become so difficult that it does not attract the kind of candidates who could both administer the city and also create some kind of coalescing vision. If, indeed, there is such a candidate. More than any other level of government, city administration requires actual delivery of services in a visible and tangible level–but is enormously constrained by forces beyond the mayor’s control, including radically incompatible desires among constituents.

Still, it’s done now and Brandon Johnson is the mayor-elect of Chicago. He will have his hands more than full—policing, massive transportation problems, lack of affordable housing and the need for a new contract for Public School teachers. He got elected, in part, by not saying too much. Whether that, along with the team that brought him, are enough to navigate the rapids ahead remains to be seen. I certainly wish him the best of luck. And, to be sure, the entire city.

Author: mkbhhw

Mike Koetting’s career has been in health care policy and administration. But it has always been on the fringes of politics. His first job out of graduate school was conducting an evaluation of the Illinois Medicaid program for the Illinois Legislative Budget Office. In the following 40 years, he has been a health care provider, a researcher, a teacher, a regulator, a consultant and a payor. The biggest part of his career was 24 years as Vice President of Planning for the University of Chicago Medical Center. He retired from there in 2008, but in 2010 was asked to implement the ACA Medicaid expansion in Illinois, which kept him busy for another 5 years.

One thought on “Chicago Mayoral: The Choices Weren’t Good”

  1. More to be depressed about…

    As a non-Chicagoan, I appreciate your perspective. I was sort of rooting for Johnson. I thought the fact that the teachers weren’t supporting Vallas was telling, but your perspective rounded out the story for me.

    Be well.

    Ira Kawaller

    (718) 938-7812



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