Chicago Prepares for Mayor Brandon Johnson
What Chicago can do to avoid going further down the path to destruction
In less than one month, Brandon Johnson will be inaugurated as the 57th mayor of Chicago. Although Mr. Johnson’s victory in Chicago’s mayoral runoff over Paul Vallas was celebrated by some, his elevation to the mayor’s office has fueled a fear among some residents his policies will lead the Windy City further down a dead-end street.
To hear supporters of Mr. Johnson tell it, the mayor-elect is the secular reincarnation of the Lord who will redress injustice, uplift the city from the depths of suffering and need, and provide common comforts through a wonderful menu of community services. A paid Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) lobbyist, Johnson’s election as mayor was never supposed to occur. Though Mr. Johnson had some name recognition prior to his entry into the mayoral race — Johnson was never a complete unknown — the thought the first-term commissioner with the Cook County Board would win a term in City Hall was nearly unimaginable in November 2022.
Always presenting himself as the underdog who was supported exclusively by “working people, there are several explanations for Johnson’s rise, some of which are plainly obvious. Nonetheless, several of the reasons Johnson is preparing to be sworn in as Chicago mayor are rooted in an assortment of errors of judgment and tactical and strategic errors committed by the Vallas campaign.
While the success of Johnson’s campaign is owed largely to the CTU’s clever strategy of agitating voters into casting ballots, Johnson won the election primarily by demonstrating he is a truly gifted politician. Always projecting warmth, personality, indomitable discipline, and energy while campaigning, Johnson successfully depicted himself as the avatar of liberalism and the right man to usher the sort of Obama-esque "hope and change" desperately needed for a course correction in Chicago. Paul Vallas, in contrast, projected little personality on the campaign trail. A man with the manner and appearance of an elderly, amiable Anglican minister, though Vallas ran on a platform imploring for reform, put forth serious policy proposals, and consistently outclassed Johnson by demonstrating a mastery of policy details, Johnson’s pose as a charismatic savior was more appealing than Vallas’ bookishness, honesty, and stiffness.
Aside from the striking differences of personality between candidates Johnson and Vallas, the single, greatest advantage Mr. Johnson enjoyed over Mr. Vallas is found in the structure and coordination between a coalition of unions, the CTU, the Service Employees International Union, and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. Chicago’s modish political machine, this engine was a decade in the works. A political mechanism which spreads its messages with the subtly of a jackhammer, swarms of union operatives relentlessly canvassed Chicago neighborhoods to promulgate the promise of Johnson and socialism.
The practice of chumming the waters in low-income communities and assuring voters Brandon Johnson would part the sea and lead the powerless to prosperity, their unsettling methods are all socialist in orientation and are often ripped from the handbook of radical activists such as Saul Alinsky. The Grand Poobah of radical organizers, Alinsky’s 1971 seminal work, Rules for Radicals: A Pragmatic Primer for Realistic Radicals, is the bible for community organizers. Inside its pages, activists find a roadmap to power through protest and disruption of their own local governments and then ruling more as outsiders even after winning office. While part of the CTU’s strategy to keep Vallas off balance was common fare for a political campaign — the attempt to depict Vallas as a MAGA fanatic, for example — the CTU also resorted to gutter character assassination on social media carried out by an online brigade of CTU insurgents to undermine Vallas. Though the CTU’s strategy consisted largely of race-baiting, a dirty ground game, and old fashioned mudslinging, the plan worked marvelously for Johnson and the unions in the 2023 mayoral race.
Though Vallas survived some of the CTU’s rough and tumble maneuvering, his campaign had its strengths. With discipline and determination, Vallas demonstrated he could stay on message and consistently reminded residents of the need to restore order to the streets and fiscal sanity to Chicago’s budgets. Though his massage gained traction, the fault for Vallas’ loss must be placed with his campaign.
Despite its advantages over Johnson and the CTU, particularly having raised over $18 million, the Vallas campaign committed its share of errors. While the hire of Joe Trippi — whose contributions to the campaign are said to be meager — or the common campaign error of misspent money were slip-ups the campaign could have withstood, other mistakes cost Vallas the election.
According to accounts from inside Vallas’ camp, the former CPS CEO sacrificed the upper hand after the February 28 primary. In a mind-numbingly ignorant move, Vallas failed to develop or maximize on urgent requests from allies for outreach to Chicago’s Hispanic community. As told by sources with knowledge of the interworkings of the Vallas’ campaign, canvassing material such as palm cards and lawn signs were slow to be distributed in largely Hispanic communities, if at all. Equally troubling, when Hispanic groups attempted to connect with the Vallas campaign with the offer of establishing phone banks, the campaign temporized.
Just one of the grievous miscalculations the campaign committed, a further mistake for which Vallas should shoulder blame is his failure to intercede and halt the break down of discipline among officials in his campaign. Following the primary, new figures arrived to join the campaign to assist with field operations. Some of the new personnel had an enlightened perspective on the modern Chicago political terrain. In the same span of time in which these newcomers joined Vallas, an assortment of Daley-era political operators also came on the scene; they were accompanied by some union political operatives. It is said the arrival of these strategists threw the Vallas campaign off balance and factions clashed over the direction of the campaign. A dynamic which temporarily caused the campaign to become a hothouse of frenetic, undisciplined, and unproductive chaos, the refusal of uppermost campaign officials to impose icy discipline amid discord left the campaign rudderless and with insufficient time to return to course.
Vallas followed this self-inflicted wound with another: The Vallas campaign viewed the Chicago mayoral race through a Daley-era prism. Though Richard M. Daley is still as familiar in our collective historical consciousness as he was over 70 years ago, the political structures which insulated Daley have been largely pushed to the sidelines. Though a fistful of characters or symbols connected to the Daley dynasty linger, some deluded Vallas officials were convinced the vestige of the Machine would miraculously return to life and sweep Vallas into office. Only four years ago, Bill Daley, member of the political dynasty, was knocked out of the preliminary race for mayor. Compelling evidence the Daley organization had been driven to extinction, that the Vallas campaign disregarded Bill Daley’s loss was a grave blunder and revealed Vallas’ campaign was either too arrogant or willfully blind to the strategic reality the CTU had supplanted the Daley Machine’s hallowed patrimony.
Despite team Vallas’ misjudgments and the bloc of unions successfully eroding at Vallas’ support, not all the damage exacted on the Vallas campaign was inflicted by opponents or campaign officials. Days before the election, in an interview with the New York Times, Fraternal Order of Police President John Catanzara warned of the consequences of electing Brandon Johnson. Speaking to Jonathan Weisman, Catanzara foretold of a "mass exodus" of officers and estimated between 800-1,000 officers would leave the Chicago Police Department. Catanzara continued to remark Chicago’s streets would be awash in blood if Johnson were to be victorious. Indelicate remarks, the Johnson campaign and the CTU seized on the FOP president’s words, using them as a cudgel to bludgeon both Catanzara and Vallas. Though Vallas disavowed Catanzara’s comments, the FOP president's remarks came too late for the Vallas campaign to recover.
Moreover, aldermen and state lawmakers were slow to embrace Vallas’ campaign. Though endorsements tend to be a game, Johnson’s vision attracted droves of young supporters, some celebrity backing, and the endorsement of other figures of the global socialist movement, with high-profile senators and representatives. While Vallas did secure the backing of Senator Dick Durbin and Secretary of State Jesse White, some aldermen delayed throwing support behind the former CPS CEO prior to the February election over fear they would pay a price at the voting booth. The fact some officials whose views were more closely aligned with Vallas’ message deferred an endorsement pending the outcome of their campaigns, particularly aldermen, did cripple Vallas’ momentum.
Despite Vallas’ loss, there is some room for optimism in Chicago
Paul Vallas’ loss at the polls on April 4 was avoidable and it hurt, but it does not mean Chicago has suffered a fatal blow. Although Brandon Johnson’s election portends a grim future for the Windy City, the election of 2023 did not give mayor-elect Brandon Johnson a mandate, nor did it signal the electorate fully embracing Johnson’s fringe-left policies.
Johnson’s mayoral win does present the first moment of serious potential change in Chicago politics: voters are disenfranchised. A city ruled by Democrats for an astonishing 90 years, the consequences have been staggering: Chicago’s streets have crumbled into lawlessness, students are emerging half-ignorant from public schools, and the city’s economy is being suffocated by burdensome taxes.
Chicago, of course, can reverse course and throw off the yoke of nearly a century of Democratic governance. To do so, it will require political talent, effort, and ambition among Chicago’s moribund conservative base. Though the odds appear to be against the growth of a conservative movement in Chicago, it is possible to rebuild a GOP presence in Chicago if the city’s alienated conservative voters commit themselves to the goal of saving Chicago.
First, to liberate Chicago from the claws of the Democratic Party, Chicago’s conservative voters must convince residents the Democrats are profoundly harming Chicago and alternatives to progressivism are available.
Second, Chicago’s conservatives must reconcile with the fact no assistance will come from either the national or state GOP, and a GOP resurgence in Chicago will come only as are sult of a grassroots movement. This endeavor is not without demands: Volunteers willing to devote time to canvass, seek office, and develop relationships with high-dollar donors is essential. Fortunately, there is a glimmer of hope: Conservative groups have mushroomed around Chicago. Today, GOP groups exist on the North, South and West sides.
Though their numbers are small, Republicans have challenged Democrats for elected office in races which the GOP had not fielded candidates in decades. For conservatives to return to Chicago, they must build on the fledgling GOP groups citywide. To present itself as a party of ideas over progressive dependence on government, Chicago’s GOP must cooperate with groups such as the Illinois Policy Institute and the Illinois Opportunity Project for guidance on policy matters.
Last, though it may be distasteful to some, any grassroots GOP movement must create a union with Chicago’s moderate Democrats. Moderate Democratic lawmakers are an oddity in a city overrun with progressives, but they do exist. While a GOP alliance with moderate Democrats may not be an easy or natural alliance, they do share a concern with a progressive takeover of Chicago and their views on taxes, crime, the law, and education are more closely aligned with conservatives than with fringe progressives.
Chicago’s progressives have wrecked Chicago. The case for conservatism should begin with not merely arguments about fiscal sanity and public order, but progressive politicians undermining public virtue in Chicago. For the city to be saved, disenfranchised conservatives need to start reaching deep into Chicago and connecting with demoralized voters. They then need to preach a belief in the rule of law, limited government, and low taxes, while honing in on the failures of Democrats.