After tight race for mayor, Black political establishment may face a ‘reckoning’

What will it mean if ward-level data show Black voters cast ballots for Johnson, while their City Council representatives backed Vallas?

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A voter feeds her ballot into a voting machine on Election Day at Isabelle C. O’Keeffe School in Chicago’s South Shore neighborhood, April 4.

A voter feeds her ballot into a voting machine on Election Day at Isabelle C. O’Keeffe School in South Shore on April 4.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Chicago chose progress over moderation on the anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s death.

The race for mayor was called in Brandon Johnson’s favor late Tuesday after a long evening when it remained too close to call, an apt metaphor for the political winds of Chicago voters.

Johnson and his opponent Paul Vallas had presented mayoral visions that couldn’t differ more. One focused on investing in people rather than police, the other focused on abating the fear of crime by hiring more officers. One prioritized a future that eschews moderation in favor of progressive politics, while the other could be viewed as protecting the status quo.

Let’s go back four years. A lot changed since then. In the 2019 mayoral race, the candidates openly addressed equity and social justice. Segregation was no longer the elephant in the room. Yet the pendulum swung in the opposite direction in 2023. Many Chicagoans apparently tired of talk about justice and racial equity, just as many in the country did after the uprisings following the police killing of George Floyd in 2020.

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The so-called racial reckoning petered out and cultural wars waged. In Chicago, that same heartland fatigue was evident in some wards.

Johnson ended up winning the race, but we do know that much of the Black establishment had backed Vallas. Retired Secretary of State Jesse White quickly threw his support behind him once the runoff was determined. Perennial candidate Willie Wilson pleaded with Black voters on Black radio to vote Vallas. Former Congressman Bobby Rush and former Illinois State Senate President Emil Jones put their names on the Vallas list. Alderpersons Emma Mitts, Walter Burnett Jr., Michelle Harris, Derrick Curtis, Roderick Sawyer, Anthony Beale and David Moore used their political capital to vouch for Vallas. There’s a whiff of old-school plantation politics.

Endorsements are a curious Rorschach test. It’s hard to know how much they actually sway voters, but they surely say a lot about the people standing beside a candidate.

Meanwhile, a disciplined Vallas stayed away from his previous right-wing talking points panning critical race theory, or using his social media to “like” messages dissing Chicago. The Fraternal Order of Police-backed Vallas swatted away accusations of racism and used the Black establishment as a buffer.

As a South Side denizen, I received my fair share of mailers from Vallas. He adopted the tagline “lifelong Democrat” to quash accusations he secretly donned GOP garments. One letter touted his Roseland upbringing — pre-white flight, of course. Vallas’ long career in Chicago dates back to the second Daley administration and I’m sure that meant familiarity to politicians who’ve been around for decades. Vallas attracted a well-oiled machine that the business class readily poured money into.

Vallas’ glad-handing and possible horse-trading is how politics work. What did Vallas promise to Black Chicago? And now that Johnson has been declared the winner, how will the Black establishment try to curry favor with the new mayor they shunned? An even more critical point will be when the ward-level voter breakdowns are released. What will it mean if Black voters cast ballots for Johnson, while their council representatives backed the loser and are seen as out of touch?

To be sure, Johnson — a little-known Cook County commissioner last fall — inherits a legacy of Black activism and leadership. Jesse Jackson Sr., Congressman Jonathan Jackson and fellow West Sider Congressman Danny Davis supported Johnson. But Johnson, a West Sider who emerged from the capital “P” progressive political wing, in some ways may have been perceived as a Black outsider, since Black political power in Chicago tends to be concentrated on the South Side.

The Black establishment may face its own reckoning with Johnson, who craves taking the city in a different direction.

Natalie Moore is a reporter for WBEZ.

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