CHICAGO – Before they were rivals to be Chicago’s next mayor, Paul Vallas and Brandon Johnson both worked in education, though their career paths — like their views on the city's future — were very different.
Vallas was CEO of Chicago Public Schools, appointed by then-Mayor Richard M. Daley after Illinois lawmakers in the 1990s gave control of the troubled district to City Hall. Vallas came to be known as a turnaround expert in Chicago and in other U.S. school districts, supporting charter schools and voucher programs.
Johnson taught middle and high schoolers before becoming an organizer for the Chicago Teachers Union, mobilizing thousands during a historic 2012 strike and in actions since that focused on strengthening public schools and the communities around them.
It is just one example, but a significant one, of the contrasts between the two men now vying to lead the heavily Democratic city.
Johnson is a progressive county commissioner who last month advanced to an April 4 runoff thanks to heavy support from the teachers union and who is now endorsed by progressive U.S. Sens. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass. Vallas, who finished first out of nine candidates in the February vote, is a more moderate Democrat who was endorsed by the Chicago police union and has focused strongly on reducing crime. Among his supporters are prominent members of the business community.
Both men defeated Mayor Lori Lightfoot, who tried positioning herself between the two as a middle-of-the-road Democrat. She was the first incumbent to lose reelection in roughly 40 years.
The April contest reflects a broader tension for Democrats nationwide, pitting the candidates and the people and groups supporting them against each other in an increasingly bitter five-week campaign that already has cost millions of dollars. So far, some of the party’s leaders — from President Joe Biden to Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker and the state’s two U.S. senators — are opting not to endorse either candidate, possibly seeing political risk in picking a side.
For voters in Chicago, the two candidates offer clear distinctions on issues from education to crime and taxes, as well as very different biographies that have shaped their political lives.
Johnson, 46, is Black. The son of a minister, he grew up one of 10 kids in a family he says struggled to pay bills, sometimes having to run a power cord into their home from a neighbor's house to have electricity. An older brother died homeless and addicted.
Now a married father of three, Johnson lives in one of Chicago's most violent neighborhoods and says he has to drive his children to another part of the city to attend a school that offers orchestra.
He speaks of Chicago as a “tale of two cities,” where some people — largely in minority neighborhoods that have seen decades of disinvestment — fight to get by, while others have great wealth and live in areas where with grocery stores, libraries and parks.
U.S. Rep. Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, who had strong support from Latino voters as he finished fourth in February, cited Johnson's ability to unite people of color as the congressman announced his former rival last week.
Vallas, 69, is white. He was the only non-Black or Hispanic candidate in the first round, when he was the top vote-getter with 33% to Johnson's 22%.
The grandson of Greek immigrants, Vallas worked in his family restaurant growing up and later was a state legislator and Chicago budget director. He stresses that he comes from a family of public servants, including veterans, teachers and police officers. Two of Vallas’ sons were police officers, though one left the force to become a firefighter, he says. Vallas has run for office unsuccessfully several times, including for governor in 2002 and Chicago mayor in 2019, when he finished toward the bottom of the pack.
Vallas says he is running to be mayor “for all of Chicago,” and that the fundamental first step is to make the country's third-largest city safer — including by hiring hundreds more police officers — and rebuilding trust between the police department and residents.
He has criticized Johnson as supporting a movement to “defund” the police, which activists across the United States called for after the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police in 2020.
Johnson says he would not cut the number of police officers in the department. But as a county commissioner, he sponsored a symbolic resolution to redirect money from law enforcement to social services, such as mental health care. In a 2020 interview, Johnson said defunding was not just a slogan but an “actual political goal.”
Asked about the comment during a debate this month, Johnson distanced himself, saying, “I said it was a political goal, I never said it was mine.”
Johnson has attacked Vallas as a Republican in disguise, noting that Vallas has made comments about being more of a Republican than a Democrat and accepted the endorsement of the Fraternal Order of Police. The group recently hosted Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, considered a top GOP candidate for president in 2024, though Vallas issued a statement rebuking the Republican.
Vallas' support for abortion rights also has been called into question. Illinois is one of the few places in the central U.S. where abortion is legal, which has made the state, and Chicago, a destination for people seeking the procedure.
On a conservative talk show in 2009, Vallas said he is opposed to abortion, a comment his campaign says was taken out of context. During a recent debate he said it’s “nonsense” that he opposes reproductive rights. Vallas explained he is Greek Orthodox, a religion that opposes abortion, but that he personally does not — a stance similar to top Democrats who are Catholic.
“I have the same position as Nancy Pelosi or Joe Biden,” Vallas said.
Education policy is another dividing line.
Chicago Public Schools canceled classes for five days in January 2022 after union members refused to return to in-person classes due to concerns about COVID-19 safety measures. Vallas said Johnson was partly responsible for that and other closures that shut down “one of the poorest school systems in the country, with devastating consequences,” including an increase in crime.
Johnson has criticized Vallas' leadership of schools in Chicago and in subsequent jobs he held in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, in Philadelphia and Connecticut. Vallas' administration punished low-performing schools, including by firing staff in Chicago schools with poor test scores, and under his leadership, many New Orleans schools became independently run charter schools.
Vallas questioned how Johnson would be able to lead the city independently from the Chicago Teachers Union, which has bankrolled much of his campaign. Johnson said that if he is elected mayor, he will no longer be a member of the union, but he will work collaboratively with them.
Vallas' endorsement by the Fraternal Order of Police has drawn criticism from Johnson, who notes the union's leader voiced support for the Jan. 6 insurrectionists. Vallas says he has not taken any money from the union and will not be beholden to the group if elected.