When Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot lost her reelection bid in the first round of voting in February, onlookers prepared for the end of an era. Lightfoot was close to the police and the city’s moderate Democratic political establishment, so when she lost, progressives in Chicago saw an opening to elect a candidate who would advocate for the city’s public schools and address economic inequality, police brutality, and public safety.
Former Chicago Public Schools teacher and Chicago Teachers Union organizer Brandon Johnson came in second place in the February election and will face former Chicago Public Schools Chief Executive Officer Paul Vallas in a runoff election on Tuesday.
Vallas has positioned himself as a moderate Democrat, but his campaign support from several major Republican donors, a recent endorsement from the Chicago Republican Party, and exploration of a Republican campaign in 2009 have raised questions about his political leanings. Vallas and his supporters, including major donors to President Donald Trump, as well as Trump Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, are outspending Johnson 2-to-1.
“Paul Vallas’s campaign is emboldening and legitimizing far-right extremists in Chicago, including Trump supporters.”
“Paul Vallas has really activated and emboldened what kind of Republican base exists in Chicago,” said Emma Tai, executive director of United Working Families, the Chicago chapter of the Working Families Party, which is backing Johnson. “Paul Vallas’s campaign is emboldening and legitimizing far-right extremists in Chicago, including Trump supporters, including people like John Catanzara” — the head of the Chicago Fraternal Order of Police — “who said there would be ‘blood in the streets’ if Johnson was elected.”
Vallas’s campaign spokesperson said he is a lifelong Democrat with support from many Democratic leaders and that he was proud to have support from outside the party.
“Our campaign has drawn support from a broad, diverse coalition from across the ideological spectrum,” campaign spokesperson Philip Swibinski said in a statement to The Intercept. Swibinski cited union and industry support for Vallas’s public safety program. “The truth is that Paul Vallas and Brandon Johnson agree on many Democratic values issues, from protecting abortion rights to standing up for the LGBTQ community, but Johnson has mischaracterized Paul’s record in order to distract attention away from his embrace of the defund the police movement and his plan to increase taxes by $800 million.”
Johnson has said he would not “defund” police and supports investing city dollars in a way that actually increases public safety. He has also said he would promote at least 200 detectives to try to solve more crimes. In February remarks to the Chicago Tribune, Vallas said Republicans were donating to his campaign because “crime is out of control.”
The election is nonpartisan, which means that people who vote in Republican primaries can vote for the mayor of a predominantly Democratic city, Tai said. While you can’t win an election in Chicago by counting on support from Republicans alone, Democrats backing Vallas have decided that while they might find the politics of some of Vallas’s supporters distasteful, like DeVos or the Fraternal Order of Police, “they’re nonetheless endorsing and legitimizing Paul Vallas and his agenda.”
“What’s the point of calling yourself a Democrat if you endorse someone who is about as closely aligned as you can be with the Fraternal Order of Police and Trump donors?” Tai said. “It’s a real indictment of both parties that someone like Paul Vallas, who has decimated public education systems across the country and even in other countries like Haiti and Chile, can be seen by the political establishment as a legitimate contender for mayor. And not only a legitimate contender, but better than someone who has dedicated his life to serving working people.”
Though Vallas has distanced himself from the Chicago GOP in this race, he has in the past toyed with the idea of running for office as a Republican and garnered support from the Chicago GOP in past political efforts. In 2009, Vallas publicly stated that he planned to leave the Democratic Party and run as a Republican in the 2010 election for Cook County Board president, though he did not end up running in the race. A spokesperson for Vallas’s campaign said Vallas discussed running for county office as a Republican that year “because he opposed the corrupt political machine that the incumbent ran at the time, but he did not run and he has never changed his party affiliation.”
The Chicago Republican Party voted to endorse Vallas in his 2019 bid for mayor. This cycle, he and the Chicago GOP have distanced themselves from one another in response to ads from Johnson’s campaign claiming that the Chicago GOP had endorsed him.
Vallas has also gotten support this cycle from former Illinois Republican Senate candidate and extremist election denier Darren Bailey, who posted a Facebook Live video, since removed, touting his support for Vallas and warning against electing Johnson. Several major GOP donors have also given to Vallas’s campaign, including people who contributed to Trump and other Republicans across the state, the Chicago Tribune reported last week. A PAC founded by DeVos has spent at least $60,000 on ads backing Vallas, the Chicago Sun-Times reported last week.
Vallas’s top campaign supporters include major Republican donors and Trump supporters. Ronald Gidwitz, who Trump appointed as ambassador to Belgium in 2018, and members of his family have given at least $66,200 to Vallas’s campaign. Republican donors Craig Duchossois and Michael and Rosalind Keiser have given at least $1.6 million so far. Employees of Citadel, the hedge fund run by Republican megadonor and former Trump supporter Ken Griffin, have given at least $812,000 for Vallas’s campaign.
On top of individual support from wealthy donors, super PACs have spent more than $1 million backing Vallas or opposing Johnson, who has no super PAC support. Johnson’s campaign has been endorsed by teachers’ and workers’ unions, including the Chicago Teachers Union and the American Federation of Teachers COPE, as well as United Working Families. Those groups have spent at least $9 million backing his campaign.