Johnson’s momentum could land him in April 4 runoff with Vallas, analyst says
David Axelrod has helped to elect mayors, senators and the nation’s first Black president. While not ready to “write the epitaph” of incumbent Mayor Lori Lightfoot, he said: “She definitely has a very, very steep uphill climb.”
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Paul Vallas appears sure to make the April 4 mayoral runoff and Brandon Johnson “has the momentum” to be the opponent, setting up a battle between the “candidate of the Fraternal Order of Police” and the “candidate of the Chicago Teachers Union,” a veteran political strategist said Thursday.
David Axelrod, who has helped elect mayors, senators and the nation’s first Black president, stressed he is not prepared to “write the epitaph” of incumbent Mayor Lori Lightfoot. But he called the “degree to which she has struggled” to even make it into the runoff one of the biggest surprises of the mayoral campaign.
“She definitely has a very, very steep uphill climb,” said Axelrod, a CNN analyst and founder of the University of Chicago’s Institute of Politics.
“She spent a fair amount of her money trying to take Chuy Garcia down — I think, on the theory that Vallas would be an easier candidate to beat” in the runoff. “If she doesn’t make the runoff … that [wasn’t] money well-spent.”
A former presidential adviser to Barack Obama, Axelrod is a friend of former U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who, like U.S. Rep. Mike Quigley, passed on the mayor’s race.
He predicted Vallas, the only white candidate in the field of nine, would finish first after running a “brilliant” and “disciplined” campaign, “monomaniacal on the one issue” most important to Chicago voters: violent crime.
Axelrod didn’t rule out the possibility of either Lightfoot or Garcia slipping into the runoff. But if Johnson does become Vallas’ runoff opponent, it will offer voters a stark contrast on the future of education and policing in Chicago.
Johnson is a CTU organizer who has received $1 million in contributions from his union.
“He is the candidate of the Chicago Teachers Union and, if he is elected, he will owe it to the Chicago Teachers Union. … The question is, do you want a mayor who is entirely beholden to the union,” Axelrod said.
“The same question will be asked about Vallas, who boasts that he negotiated the police contract” and is the “candidate of the Fraternal Order of Police.”
Vallas has said he agreed to serve as an unpaid FOP adviser because he feared if the marathon contract dispute was not resolved, 2,000 more officers would join a mass exodus that already has created 1,700 police vacancies.
“The payoff is coming now: the fact that the union is mobilized on his behalf,” Axelrod said.
Although he expects Vallas to finish first Tuesday, Axelrod said Johnson cannot be under-estimated.
Vallas would have only five weeks to define Johnson in the same way Lightfoot has struggled to define the Cook County commissioner: as a “radical” who wants to “defund” the Chicago Police Department, and whose $800 million “tax the rich” plan will drive jobs and businesses out of Chicago.
Johnson is also a “big personality” and talented communicator who would ride a wave of national media attention into the runoff — just as Lori Lightfoot did in 2019, Axelrod said.
“Big personalities are an advantage. ... He’ll get more attention if he gets one of the seats because he’ll have started off as kind of an unknown and he’ll have scaled the heights to get into the finals and he’ll be treated, initially, as the story,” Axelrod said.
“It’s not gonna be a story that Vallas made the runoff. But, it will be a story if Johnson does. He will be propelled by that. He will get a lot of attention and he’s a good performer. That’s all to his advantage. He also will get more scrutiny and it will be a very interesting battle about the direction Chicago wants to go.”