In recent years Chicago’s social order of capitalist profiteering and racist oppression has been repeatedly challenged by upsurges of struggle from below. The Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) has gone on strike a number of times, fighting to win not just improvements for teachers but also increased funding of public education to reduce class sizes and deliver greater resources to students and their families. Black Lives Matter protests have filled the streets to demand an end to police racism and brutality. And now, in Tuesday’s run-off election to choose the city’s next mayor, voters face a stark choice between two candidates who have stood on opposite sides of those struggles.
On one side is the racist, pro-police and anti-union former CEO of Chicago’s public schools, Paul Vallas. Running a campaign centered on his vow to “take the city back” for the rich and powerful, Vallas has united behind him all those ruling-class forces, from the outrageously-racist police union to the city’s Chamber of Commerce, who want to put an end to the strikes and mass protests.
In a city where Republicans have no chance of controlling City Hall, Vallas is an example of a right-wing career-bureaucrat who has presented himself as a Democrat in order to advance his career. The truth is that as he once admitted: “I’m more of a Republican than a Democrat,” offering as evidence that “fundamentally, I oppose abortion.”
But Vallas’s right-wing views go far beyond his support for attacks on women’s reproductive rights. The Chicago Tribune, despite the fact that it has endorsed him, recently exposed his years of promoting far-right and racist content on social media, and while he attempted to deny responsibility by first claiming that his accounts were hacked and then by blaming a staffer, he has continued to promote the views and organizations of far-right MAGA Republicans during his campaign.
Vallas is especially close to one particular far-right group, Awake Illinois, which essentially acts as an activist front for his views. Financed by Republican billionaire Richard Uihlein, who was also the biggest funder of far right’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election – including their participation in the January 6 putsch – Awake Illinois promotes school privatization, opposes COVID safety measures, campaigns against Critical Race Theory (CRT), whips-up Q-Anon-style hysteria against sex education in schools by denouncing it as liberal pedophilic “grooming” and has launched campaigns against the LGBTQ community that have led to violent attacks.
While Vallas has recently tried to re-style himself as a moderate in an effort that outgoing mayor Lightfoot compared to an episode of the tv show ‘Extreme Makeover,’ no one should doubt his commitment to Awake Illinois’s MAGA views. For example, in line with its racist campaign against CRT, Vallas said in an interview that he believes educating children about systemic racism encourages Black children to become criminals and threatens white families by undermining their kids’ respect for their parents! And speaking at an Awake Illinois rally, Vallas went so far as to urge the group’s founder, far-right Republican Shannon Adcock, to run for governor to unseat the Democratic incumbent.
At the same time, however, it must be recognized that the austerity and privatization policies that Vallas has pushed as an “education reformer” have long been those of the leadership of the Democratic Party, both in Chicago and nationally. It was former Democratic mayor Richard M. Daley who first put Vallas in charge of cutting city budgets and then installed him as head of the city’s public schools, where he enacted cutbacks and privatization that delivered more than $1.5 billion dollars from the education budget to private investors in the form of additional interest payments. And it was the continuation of such disastrous policies under subsequent Democratic mayors, backed by Democratic administrations in Washington from Clinton’s to Obama’s, that triggered the radicalization of Chicago’s teachers and led to the CTU’s strikes.
While struggles like the CTU’s have forced much of the mainstream leadership of the Democratic party to cool their enthusiasm for Vallas’s austerity and privatization policies, powerful figures in the party continue to favor them. Illinois Senator Dick Durbin has even endorsed Vallas. While Chicago’s notorious Democratic “machine” has been greatly weakened over the years, its ability to use the prospect of future patronage has secured Vallas endorsements from some local Democrats including the utterly corrupt former Black Panther Bobby Rush.
Running against Vallas is Brandon Johnson, a Black man who worked as a middle-school teacher and then as an organizer for the CTU before becoming a candidate of the union’s United Working Families electoral organization, winning election to the position of Cook County Commissioner in 2018.
Johnson’s history of participating in the CTU’s strikes and the mass protests of the Black Lives Matter movement mean that he is widely viewed as the representative of those struggles and of the left generally. And in his campaign to be mayor Johnson has promised to continue his work for social justice, highlighting his pledge to raise taxes on financial speculators in order to fund improved social services for working-class and poor people.
But while Johnson has been happy to gather support from unions and Black Lives Matter protesters, he has made clear that they can’t expect him to govern on their behalf. Challenged in a recent debate to explain how he would govern as an independent and not as a representative of the unions, Johnson could have responded that he won’t turn his back on his supporters and will remain the same champion of their struggles that he was before turning to electoral politics. Instead, he bragged about how as Cook County Commissioner, he has already stood up to unions that have supported him:
“I have a fiduciary responsibility to the people of the city of Chicago, and once I’m mayor of the city of Chicago, I will no longer be a member of the Chicago Teachers Union … [and] it’s not just the CTU. As a member of the Cook County Board of Commissioners, there was an ally [SEIU 73] that supported me to become a Cook County Commissioner. They had a job action and I stood with Cook County government [against them]. An arbiter decided county government was right. I had to deliver, you know, that news to people who were friends of mine.”
Johnson has similarly distanced himself from some of the Black Lives Matter movement’s principal demands to address racist police injustice. At the time of the uprising following the cop murder of George Floyd, Johnson spoke out in favor of “defund the police” as a “real political goal.” As Cook County Commissioner, he introduced a purely symbolic but nonetheless important resolution calling for the county to “redirect funds from policing and incarceration to public services not administered by law enforcement.” Speaking in favor of the resolution, he declared:
“A hundred years from now … the question will be, did we do everything in our power to stand up to systemic racism? Or did we flinch? This will give the county commissioners a road map for taking millions of waste spent on incarceration and policing and reinvesting it.”
Since getting into the race to be mayor, however, Johnson has indeed flinched when it comes to racist policing. He now claims, ridiculously, to have never supported the demand to defund the police and has promised that he will not cut the cops’ massive yearly budget of almost $2 billion. Instead, he now proposes only minor changes, such as the positive but very limited reform of hiring social workers and medical specialists to respond to nonviolent mental-health crisis calls, and allocating 2% of the cops’ budget to violence prevention initiatives not connected to law enforcement and incarceration. At the same time, he also proposes hiring 200 new detectives in an attempt to raise the abysmally low number of homicide cases that the police solve each year.
Johnson’s campaign is thus an expression of the mass union and anti-racist struggles that have rocked Chicago in recent years, as well as of their limitations. Those struggles put the issues of fighting austerity, expanding social services and combating racist policing at the center of political debate and they did much to undermine the establishment leadership of the Democratic party in the city. At the same time, they failed to break the ruling class’s resistance, leading to a situation in which individuals seeking to build careers out of the movement have turned to dirty back-room deals rather than relying on rallying the power of working-class and poor people. Thus the CTU’s United Working Families electoral organization has gone from initially aiming to challenge the Democratic party leadership to seeking a partnership with it, as was most scandalously exemplified by its lavish praise and campaign donations for former Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan – before he was forced to resign in disgrace and face criminal charges over corruption.
If Johnson becomes mayor, therefore, he clearly threatens to become another example of left-talking candidates who have won office riding waves of support generated by mass struggles, only to turn around and betray those struggles. In the last round of elections, for example, six members of the Democratic Socialists of America in Chicago were elected to the city council, only to see four of them turn around and provide key votes to pass an anti-working-class budget. DSA’s Chicago chapter described the budget as one that “preserves the white supremacist power of the Chicago Police Department and further burdens working class people with regressive taxes and fines, which in a time of pandemic will lead to more displacement, debt, and death.”  And while many in the DSA were outraged by their Council members’ budget votes, the Chicago chapter ultimately excused the betrayal as par-for-the-course when it comes to haggling for reforms, opining that “the Democratic Socialist Caucus not voting as a bloc is a reflection of such compromises inherent to a budget crafted by capitalist forces, as well as the realities of acting in coalition while maintaining independent opinions and being responsive to one’s constituents.”
So how should genuine socialists respond to this political crisis? Some maintain that the fight for working-class political independence means never voting for “lesser evil” Democrats, arguing that doing so always leads to the greater evil winning in the end. But this is neither logical nor true as a matter of history. There is no reason why defeating a “greater evil” can’t leave the masses in a better position to confront those “lesser evil” figures that follow, especially when those that follow will be in a weaker position to resist the masses’ demands. And that is exactly the possibility with this election.
If Vallas wins he will claim to have received a democratic mandate to unleash new waves of austerity on the city’s working class and new waves of “tough on crime” police terror targeting Blacks, Latinos and immigrants. A Johnson victory, on the other hand, will be understood as a popular vote in favor of addressing the problems that have continued to push working-class Chicagoans to strike and protest. Johnson will thus be in the much weaker position of acknowledging the validity of the masses’ demands while trying to limit them to what Chicago’s ruling class will accept. He has already previewed the role he expects to play as the bearer of bad news that the masses are more likely to accept from a “friend” like him rather than an enemy like Vallas. But if and when Johnson tries to argue that the city can’t afford to accommodate the masses’ demands, he will be vulnerable to the pressure of mass action demanding that the ruling class sacrifice, not the workers and the poor.
It would be vastly preferable for working-class voters to find electoral candidates who can be trusted not to sell out and instead to fight for their demands against the ruling class’s resistance. But in circumstances like today, when the working class and left are only haltingly emerging from a long period of defeats and retreats, it is virtually inevitable that the masses will have to be educated by the experience of betrayals in order to learn that they need a political party of their own, with candidates they can hold accountable. Over time, we believe the most politically conscious and militant workers and young people will have to conclude that their needs cannot be met without challenging the capitalist system as a whole, and that the party they need will have to be one dedicated to the system’s overthrow: a revolutionary socialist party of the working class.
Right now, huge numbers of working-class Chicagoans – especially Blacks, Latinos and immigrants – recognize that Vallas represents their most threatening enemy; they will pay little heed to socialists who remain indifferent as to who wins this election. By showing that we understand the danger that Vallas represents and are committed to seeing him defeated, socialists can win an audience for our warnings not to trust Johnson, and thus place ourselves in the best possible position to play a leading role in the struggles that follow.
1. Yin, Alice and Pratt, Gregory. ‘Mayor Lori Lightfoot accuses rival Paul Vallas of ‘dog whistle’ over ‘take our city back’ comments,’ Chicago Tribune, February 20, 2023, https://chicagotribune.com/politics/elections/ct-chicago-mayor-election-lightfoot-vallas-take-back-city-20230220-xv4rbt3zs5fplpycpjd3dravyq-story.html.
2. Pratt, Gregory and Yin, Alice. ‘Mayoral candidate Paul Vallas insists he’s a lifelong Democrat. But he’s backed by conservative donors and the FOP.’ Chicago Tribune, February 13, 2023, chicagotribune.com/politics/elections/ct-paul-vallas-mayor-republican-20230213-rjl6fmiri5ftbjheqxehovkop4-story.html.
3. Pratt, Gregory and Yin, Alice and Pearson, Rick. ‘Paul Vallas Facebook account liked posts that called Chicago “hell hole,” attacked Democrats, said “defund CPS”; he again denies involvement,’ Chicago Tribune, March 9, 2023, https://chicagotribune.com/politics/elections/ct-paul-vallas-facebook-likes-chicago-mayor-race-20230310-zyab6ksazrb3vnwzajnp6oujcu-story.html.
4. See: Accountable.US, ‘The Ed Uihlein Family Foundation Gave Over $5 Million To Groups Tied To Efforts To Overturn the 2020 Election Throughout 2021–Including Over $2 Million Within A Week Of January 6th,’ https://accountable.us/wp-content/uploads/2023/01/01-24-23-The-Ed-Uihlein-Family-Foundation-Gave-Over-5-Million-To-Groups-Tied-To-Efforts-To-Overturn-the-2020-Election-Throughout-2021%E2%80%93Including-Over-2-Million-Within-A-Week-Of-January-6th.pdf and Hinz, Greg. ‘Richard Uihlein spent heavily around Jan. 6, report finds,’ Crain’s Chicago Business, January 30, 2023, https://www.chicagobusiness.com/politics/richard-uihlein-contributed-much-jan-6-groups-report.
5. See: Garcia, Kelly. ‘Paul Vallas rubs shoulders with the far right,’ Chicago Reader, July 29, 2022, https://chicagoreader.com/news-politics/paul-vallas-rubs-shoulders-with-the-far-right/ and Sarkauskas, Susan. ‘Drag show open to children will go on at Lake in the Hills cafe despite threats, potential protests,’ Daily Herald, July 19, 2022, https://www.dailyherald.com/news/20220719/drag-show-open-to-children-will-go-on-at-lake-in-the-hills-cafe-despite-threats-potential-protests.
6. https://twitter.com/peoplesfabric/status/1628407795203690500; ‘Former Head of CPS Paul Vallas on Illinois’ Path to School Choice – The Dialogue: Episode 10,’ Wirepoints, November 12, 2021, https://wirepoints.org/wirepoints-podcast-the-dialogue-episode-10-former-head-of-cps-paul-vallas-on-illinois-path-to-school-choice/.
7. Garcia, Kelly. ‘Paul Vallas rubs shoulders with the far right,’ Chicago Reader, July 29, 2022, https://chicagoreader.com/news-politics/paul-vallas-rubs-shoulders-with-the-far-right/.
8. Cunningham-Cook, Matthew. ‘How Vallas Helped Wall Street Loot Chicago’s Schools,’ The Lever, March 23, 2023, https://www.levernews.com/how-vallas-helped-wall-street-loot-chicagos-schools/
9. WGN News, Vallas, Johnson debate for first time before runoff election, March 8, 2023, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5uMOGQEITbw.
10. Yin, Alice. ‘Cook County Board passes symbolic resolution to shift money from police, jails in wake of ‘defund’ movements,’ Chicago Tribune, July 30, 2022, chicagotribune.com/news/breaking/ct-cook-county-board-police-funding-resolution-20200730-g6ceoshirvblbdujcswv6sjdya-story.html.
11. Yin, Alice. ‘Brandon Johnson once said it was a ‘political goal’ to defund police. He’s been less precise running for mayor.’ Chicago Tribune, February 23, 2023, chicagotribune.com/politics/elections/ct-brandon-johnson-defund-police-justice-for-black-lives-20230223-lrapyjp5xzcilfmvkys3bajcki-story.html.
12. Yin, Alice and Pratt, Gregory. ‘Crime is a top issue for Chicago voters. Paul Vallas and Brandon Johnson offer sharp contrasts on public safety.’ Chicago Tribune, March 13, 2023, https://chicagotribune.com/politics/elections/ct-mayors-race-crime-public-safety-policing-20230313-qsqq6wx54bbhpn2ffdu2mkzzsu-story.html.
13. See, for example, ‘Chicago Unions’ Statement on Partnering with Speaker Madigan to Strengthen Worker Power in Illinois,’ November 11, 2020, https://twitter.com/rrhinton/status/1326542102918881280.
14. Bloom, Will. ‘A Socialist Wave in Chicago,’ Jacobin, March 4, 2019, https://jacobin.com/2019/04/democratic-socialists-america-chicago-rossana-rodriguez-carlos-rosa-chicago-teachers-union.
15. Laurence, Justin. ‘Democratic Socialists Move To Kick Out Alderman Who Voted For Lightfoot’s Budget — But “In Order To Win, You Have To Negotiate,” He Says,’ Block Club Chicago, November 25, 2020, https://blockclubchicago.org/2020/11/25/democratic-socialists-move-to-kick-out-alderman-who-voted-for-lightfoots-budget-but-in-order-to-win-you-have-to-negotiate-he-says/.
16. Chicago DSA, ‘Chicago DSA Statement on the 2022 City of Chicago Budget,’ October 27, 2021, https://midwestsocialist.com/2021/10/27/chicago-dsa-statement-on-the-2022-city-of-chicago-budget/.