A tale of two cities, told in Chicago’s mayoral election

Mayoral candidates Paul Vallas and Brandon Johnson prepare for a mayoral forum at NBC 5 studios on March 8.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times

My 11-year-old self is reflecting on the Chicago mayoral race.

 When Harold Washington ran to become the first Black mayor in 1983, his white opponent Bernie Epton urged voters to elect him before “it’s too late,” a tacit racial plea. Washington battled hostile white City Council members and won reelection in 1987, besting more white candidates.

Back then, the sheer audacity of a Black man as mayor rocked the city. So much so that columnist Mike Royko famously wrote, “Uncle Chester: Don’t worry, Harold Washington doesn’t want to marry your sister.”

I attended elementary school in the 19th Ward back then, and I recall the intercom announcement of Washington’s death right before Thanksgiving in 1987. A few of the white students cheered in the library. We were in sixth grade.

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I hold those memories close because we must remember history, no matter how ugly. But I must admit, the race between Paul Vallas and Brandon Johnson frightens me more because their campaigns are stark representations of the tale of two cities.

As Vallas and Johnson barnstorm in churches and parades before the April 4 runoff, policing and public education are front and center as policy issues. This election also touches on power, identity, and of course, race. And that’s expected. We live in Chicago, a segregated city that takes political bruising to the chin.

But in this campaign cycle, I worry how the city will emerge even after the winner takes the 5th Floor of City Hall. So many of the social justice issues — and pushback — this nation faces has trickled down to Chicago, the quintessential American city.

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Voters in those same Northwest and Southwest Side enclaves that rejected Washington largely cast their ballots for Vallas during the primary. Vallas, endorsed by the Fraternal Order of Police, is running on a law-and-order platform that says “take back our city.” Sounds a bit like what Epton said 40 years ago.  

Vallas seems to have evolved from a city budget technocrat to a politician flirting with right-wing talking points. His social media is under scrutiny for ‘liking’ comments that called Chicago a “hellhole,” called for defunding Chicago Public Schools and were racist toward incumbent Mayor Lori Lightfoot. His campaign has distanced Vallas from those tweets.

Public statements from Vallas include saying in 2021 that critical race theory is “giving people an excuse for bad behavior.” He waxed on about how teaching African American history in public school can be a distraction, and some curricula are divisive. Erstwhile Chicagoan Ken Griffin, a billionaire hedge fund Republican supporter, has endorsed Vallas.

We may not know what’s in Vallas’ heart when he makes appearances on right-wing radio shows. When Johnson brings up past comments to point out what kind of leader Vallas would be, Vallas swats racial accusations away. He points to several established Black political leaders who are boosting him. Curiously, the Vallas strategy this time around has gotten him far. He lost previous races for Illinois governor and Chicago mayor. Now Vallas was the top vote getter. 

 Meanwhile, Johnson, who advocates for investment to tamp down on crime, has had to distance himself from previous language around defunding the Chicago Police Department. If he wins, the pushback against prioritizing budgets outside of public safety could make the 1980s Council Wars or Beirut by the Lake look like “Mary Poppins.”  

Over the decades, Chicagoans have weathered racist housing policies, torture from late former police commander Jon Burge, the aftermath of the LaQuan McDonald video, schools segregated on purpose and a host of other policies that have allowed inequity to bloom like the city’s motto: “urbs in horto,” city in a garden.

 A number of myths are perpetuated about Democratic cities. True, a city like Chicago reliably votes for a Democratic president and governor. But if you drill down, what does a so-called blue city look like in local politics? It’s not a blue sea of wokeness, a term that is now co-opted into a slur as a backlash to social justice. Vallas and Johnson identify as Democrats ,but the distance between them is longer than a Chicago winter. 

The racial fears in 2023 are less about the audacity of a Black man as mayor; the election is a proxy for myriad national issues around race, justice — and loss. The undercurrent is that shifting priorities in one direction means another group may lose out.

We live in a diverse, messy, beautiful and segregated city. But racial resentment dwells here and could shake the future of Chicago.  

Natalie Y. Moore is a reporter on race, class and communities for WBEZ.

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