Ortiz: Previewing four frontrunners in Chicago’s mayoral race

Sterling Kossuth Ortiz, Senior Staffer

Chicago is kicking off the new year with crucial elections for the mayoralty, city council and alderpeople of all 50 wards. On Feb. 28, nine candidates will be subject to the will of the Chicago voter in the municipal elections. Four stand out as frontrunners: Lori Lightfoot, Jesús “Chuy” García, Paul Vallas and Brandon Johnson.

To understand any race, you have to understand the current leadership. The people of Chicago elected incumbent Lightfoot in 2019. She rose in the polls in the final few weeks of the primaries because voters believed she would be a fighter against corruption and the “Chicago Machine.”

Lightfoot portrayed a stark contrast from her opponent, Cook County Board of Commissioners President Toni Preckwinkle, painting her as another arm of the “Chicago Machine” while Lightfoot would “Bring In The Light.” This message was good enough to win Lightfoot nearly 74% of the vote and all 50 wards.

Today, few support Lightfoot, with her public approval ratings dipping below 30%. Many see her as a fickle and ineffective leader. One of the most glaring examples of Lightfoot’s poor performance was her widely criticized move to defend Chicago Police Superintendent David Brown in his decision not to dismiss a cop affiliated with the Proud Boys. Despite her contradicting actions, Lightfoot disregards that a man who affiliates with an antisemitic and anti-gay far-right group which was central in the Jan. 6 insurrection. Other voters, however, are still mad that, in the summer of 2020, she threatened to fire a cop for flipping the middle finger at a protester. Lightfoot’s decision to keep the Proud Boy doesn’t move the needle for them.

The latest poll from M3 Strategies has Lightfoot in third place. She hasn’t led in a poll since October, and most show her losing a runoff to any other candidate. According to a November poll conducted by Impact Research, which was paid for by the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 150, García leads among White and Latine voters by 52 and 40 points, respectively, and ties with Lightfoot among Black voters.

The front-runner, García, has been an influential figure in Chicago politics since the 1980s. García currently serves Illinois’ 4th Congressional district, which encompasses numerous  Hispanic and predominantly Mexican neighborhoods on the southwest side and suburbs of Chicago.

In Congress, García is one of the most progressive Democrats. During his mayoral campaign, García has been relatively quiet about potential political positions he might face later down the road, should he be elected Chicago’s mayor as is currently anticipated by the majority of polls. Even so, it is implausible that he will win the majority vote necessary to avoid a runoff on Feb. 28.

Paul Vallas, a former Chicago Public School system CEO and a political veteran, ran for governor in 2002, lieutenant governor in 2014, Chicago mayor in 2019 and is again running for mayor this year. While Vallas is genial and well-dressed, he is divisive and blames Lightfoot for leading a city with “out of control” crime. He hews to standard Democratic Party principles on abortion and education equality while simultaneously supporting increasing the number of police.

Vallas is playing a familiar role. He is a moderate white man who will focus on giving tax dollars to fund police salaries and obligations. Vallas’ record as the CEO of Chicago Public Schools is negligible, as a portion of Chicago voters are interested in voting for a white man whose sentences are built like “noun, verb, ‘crime’” and “…before it’s too late.” Vallas hopes his political position will win over non-Hispanic whites in the 19th and 41st wards on the Southwest and Northwest sides of the city, respectively. Any potential success relies on strong support from these communities.

The final candidate I’m looking at this February is Brandon Johnson, the Cook County Commissioner from the 1st District. Before becoming a politician, Johnson was a teacher who was active in the Chicago Teachers Union at the Edward Jenner School in Near North Side and George Westinghouse College Prep in East Garfield Park on the West Side. He won a contentious primary for commissioner in 2018, beating incumbent Richard Boykin, and still kept his zeal for the CTU as a paid organizer.

Johnson endorsed Elizabeth Warren for president in 2020, which gives him credibility as a leftist candidate and contrasts with García’s endorsement of Bernie Sanders that same year. His campaign hinges on establishing community-based solutions to public safety and mental health, as well as car-free zones and fully funded Chicago Public Schools. In addition, he has maintained necessary union support, including the Chicago Teachers Union and the American Federation of Teachers. These endorsements of Johnson’s viability provide him with key public support and funding. With nearly $2 million raised, Johnson has put that money to good use, airing television ads in the Chicago media market with a muscular campaign staff.

I’ll hold off on firm predictions until we get closer to election day. For now, know that Chuy García is in the lead, with Paul Vallas, incumbent Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Brandon Johnson in hot pursuit of the second runoff slot.

Sterling Ortiz is a SESP fifth year. You can contact him at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.