How Brandon Johnson Won the Chicago Mayor’s Race on a Progressive Platform
On election night, as the votes began to be tabulated in the conclusion of a heated campaign for Chicago mayor that pitted Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson against former Chicago schools CEO Paul Vallas, some Johnson supporters were more than a little nervous.
Black voters weren’t exactly stampeding to the polls.
“When I voted at 11 a.m., I was number 64 at my precinct,” said political consultant Delmaire Cobb, a South Side resident. “During a runoff there’s typically a drop off in the turnout, especially in the Black community. Older Black people, who are the most dedicated voters; they don’t understand runoffs. We’ve gone to older Black voters and told them they needed to vote and they’re like, ‘No. No. I voted already. I voted for him.’ And we’re like, you’ve got to vote again! I was worried because I told myself if there’s the usual runoff drop off and we don’t turn out, we’re going to be in trouble.”
Indeed, Black voter turnout was quite low. Just 34 percent in the South Side’s politically active, middle class 8th Ward. Only 26 percent in the West Side’s impoverished 24th Ward. Compare that to the 58 percent turnout in the Southwest Side’s powerhouse 19th Ward, a Vallas stronghold.
But Brandon Johnson dominated the Black vote that was cast, winning 80 per cent or more in eight Black wards and scoring his highest percentage, 84 percent, in the 24th Ward. At the same time, Johnson thwarted Vallas’ hopes of peeling off as much as 30 percent of the ballots in black neighborhoods.
“If you look at his percentage in the Black wards, 80 percent is kind of a magic number, that’s what a Democrat is supposed to get,” said political consultant Thomas Bowen who advised Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s campaign. “The turnout level being lower there says to me the crime attacks on Johnson did do some damage. Probably some Black moderate voters that weren’t juiced up for Brandon stayed home. But they didn’t come out and vote for Vallas. That’s the big thing about painting Vallas as a Republican. They didn’t see Johnson as such a problem that they had no choice but to do something else.”
Moreover, Johnson’s strength along the so-called “liberal lakefront” may have been the real difference in the race. For example, Johnson won almost 60 percent of the vote in the affluent 40th Ward, a majority white ward that includes parts of Andersonville, Lincoln Square, Ravenswood, Edgewater, Rogers Park, and Ravenswood Manor.
Indeed, Johnson scored a string of impressive victories in wards along Lake Michigan’s edge, winning the 44th, 46th, 48th and 49th Wards. Johnson won by a landslide in the 49th Ward on the far North Side, with 72 percent, and notched sizable majorities of more than 60 percent in the 46th and 48th Wards.
“Look at the 44th Ward. Johnson got half the vote there when Vallas did pretty well there in the first round with the support of Ald. Tom Tunney,” said Bowen. “But we saw the gay community respond very strongly to the AWAKE Illinois association with Vallas. And it’s a moment when there’s a lot of attacks on the trans community."
Citywide, Johnson won 40 percent of the vote in white-majority precincts, areas where Vallas believed his tough on crime message would provide him lopsided majorities.
Johnson also did well along the Milwaukee Avenue corridor, the so-called “hipster highway” and won six Hispanic majority wards to Vallas’ nine.
In the end, Johnson fended off his association with “defund the police” rhetoric and his tax-the-rich proposals better than Vallas was able to shed the “Republican” tag and flirtations with fringe right-wingers.
Even in the 19th Ward, which Vallas hoped to be a solid bulwark for him, Johnson won 27 per cent of the vote, just the kind of incursion Vallas was hoping for in black wards but didn’t receive.
Johnson also defied the traditional political playbook of never advocating to raise taxes during a campaign. He proposed $800 million in new taxes on the wealthy and big businesses and didn’t seem to suffer for it even in those well-to-do lakefront areas.
“For those of us who are progressives, that’s what we think is the problem. It’s people who can pay are not paying their fair share,” said Cobb. “Even though these are people who are well off, it’s not about their income, it’s about their values. You might have to contribute a little more, but if it means we don’t have crime because people are getting a good education and the resources they need, that’s a net positive. It’s about their values. And we saw the opposite with Vallas and the business community. Their values are: we want to keep every penny we’ve got and we’ll throw millions at you in order to make sure to make sure you don’t touch anything we have.’’
Thomas Bowen doesn’t think Johnson’s victory is a signal to progressives that the tax-increase bugaboo has been wiped out. “I think it probably cost Brandon some votes,” said Bowen. “The circumstances here are special and people shouldn’t ignore them. His opponent was a flawed opponent. Paul Vallas hasn’t been successful in a bid for elected public office ever. It’s one thing if you’re running against Paul Vallas or somebody who has Republican affiliations and it's very easy to discredit him. If you’re running against another Democrat with plenty of Democratic credentials and folks can focus more on tax issues, that’s different.”
Brandon Johnson’s roadmap to victory has roots that go back to Harold Washington. “Brandon ran the traditional Chicago Democratic playbook,” said Bowen. “He got support from Black voters and lakefront liberals, the most enduring consistent political coalition in Chicago. That’s how Harold Washington won. It’s how Barack Obama won. It’s how Carol Moseley Braun won. It’s how J.B. Pritzker won.”
Viewed another way, Johnson held his own voters from the first-round voting while adding 80 percent of first-round supporters of Mayor Lightfoot and Willie Wilson, and roughly splitting votes in precincts that had gone for Congressman Jesus “Chuy” Garcia. That was good enough to provide a narrow victory in a sharply-divided city.
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