Chicago mayoral race underscores city’s racial divisions

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Chicago’s closely watched mayoral race is shining a spotlight on the racial divisions that have long characterized the city.

Brandon Johnson, a progressive Black man, and Paul Vallas, a moderate white man, have largely seen their support fall along racial lines.

Johnson, former Cook County commissioner, has managed to secure support from predominantly Black neighborhoods, running on an agenda of education and police reform. Vallas, the former CEO of Chicago Public Schools, has espoused tough-on-crime policies and called for middle-class and wealthier Chicagoans to take “back” the city.

Vallas was the only white candidate in this year’s election, and he drew the support of many voters in the north and southwest neighborhoods, predominantly white areas home to wealthy families and police officers and firefighters.

“Chicago has always been a city that has been very explicitly divided by racial politics,” explained Twyla Blackmond Larnell, associate professor of political science at Loyola University Chicago and faculty affiliate for the school’s Institute for Racial Justice.

“Race is definitely one of the major cornerstones of how politics gets done in the city,” she continued. “Power is divvied up according to racial groups, but also you have to account for who in those groups has access to the social, economic and political resources that are needed to win elections as well.”

Despite Black Chicagoans making up a large population of the city since the 1960s, they remain underrepresented when it comes to the city’s electoral politics, Blackmond Larnell told The Hill. The consequence is a lack of policies that speak to the issues most important to Black voters: equitable housing; educational reform and better schools; and safer neighborhoods.

Because the city’s politics are so closely linked with racial inequities, Blackmond Larnell added, it’s been nearly impossible for either candidate to run a deracialized campaign.

But the way race is addressed by the two candidates have differed greatly.

“While Johnson may use the words Black and Latino or equity and things like that, Paul Vallas isn’t using those words, per se, but he is definitely alluding to racial concepts,” said Blackmond Larnell. “He’s using that coded language that white conservatives use, like when he talked about bringing schools back to the neighborhoods and bringing schools back to the parents.”

Vallas also won the support of Chicago’s Fraternal Order of Police, the city’s most powerful police union and an organization that has consistently had a tumultuous relationship with Black and brown residents, and made comments implying that teaching Black history or critical race theory in schools could justify criminal behavior.

Though neither of these things will sit well with the Black voters Vallas now needs to win over to secure the mayoral seat next month, Blackmond Larnell said, the real question will be how progressive white voters respond.

“Middle-class and higher-income whites in the city of Chicago are really going to have to kind of determine how far to the right they will want to go in this election,” she said. “They’re going to have to prioritize their more liberal values with the kind of agenda that Paul Vallas is promoting and this is an agenda that is kind of focused on ‘taking back the city.’ ”

In addition to advocating for community investments and social strategies as a way to address crime, Johnson’s strategy thus far has been to compare Vallas to former President Trump in the hopes of gaining support from liberal white voters at the same time he’s continued to play up his own identity as the son of a pastor who grew up poor in a family of 10 children.

Identity politics in the Chicago mayoral race isn’t unheard of, said Dick Simpson, professor emeritus at the University of Illinois Chicago and a former city alderman, because winning a multicultural vote is the key to winning the race.

So far during the runoff, the two candidates have focused on gaining support among Latino voters in order to create their multicultural alliance.

Vallas, Simpson said, will win some Latino voters over with his focus on crime policies, while Johnson hopes endorsements from Latino political leaders will push more his way.

Turnout among Latino voters will be vital in the runoff — only around 35 percent of eligible voters in the entire city cast their ballots on Feb. 28, with Latino voters having the least turnout among the top three racial groups.

“Many of the aldermen and state legislators that are part of the progressive Latino bloc with [Rep. Jesus “Chuy” Garcia (D-Ill.)] are out trying to increase the Latino vote for Johnson enough to swing the election,” Simpson said.

Despite this, it feels as if neither candidate has spent quite enough time reaching out to Latino voters, said Victor Reyes, who was the director of Intergovernmental Affairs under former Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley (D). But he does expect that to change as April 4 gets closer.

“In the past, Latinos have been that swing vote, and I think that’s going to happen here,” said Reyes, now a partner at an Illinois law firm. “You’ll see way more attention being paid to the Latino vote in the last two weeks of the election.”

Even though racial pattern voting has been a long standing tradition in Chicago elections, Reyes added, it didn’t play as big a part in 2019 because that election was between two Black women.

If Vallas secures 20 percent of the Black vote, Reyes said, he could have a winning chance this election.

When it comes to Black leaders, support appears somewhat divided.

Johnson has secured the endorsements of Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.), civil rights icon the Rev. Jesse Jackson and Alderman Jason Ervin, chair of the City Council’s Black Caucus.

Meanwhile, a host of Black alderpeople have thrown their support behind Vallas, and after their own runs for mayor, activist Ja’Mal Green and businessman Willie Wilson endorsed him, too. And on Tuesday, former Rep. Bobby Rush, founder of the Illinois Black Panther Party, also announced his support for Vallas. Lori Lightfoot (D), the current mayor, hasn’t made her endorsement yet.

But at the end of the day, Simpson said, the election may just come down to the candidate’s own racial identity and how it connects to voters’ own race.

“If they have no other cue, then race is a reasonably reliable one,” Simpson said.

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