Mayor-elect Brandon Johnson greets supporters at the Chinatown Red Line Station, the day after he defeated Paul Vallas in the mayoral runoff.
After coming out of nowhere to make the runoff, Brandon Johnson needed to consolidate African-American votes that went to Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Willie Wilson, build on his strong showing among lakefront progressives and stop Paul Vallas from making big inroads among Hispanics.
Johnson is the mayor-elect today because he executed that strategy to perfection.
He won 29 of 50 wards, including a clean sweep of majority African-American wards. He won six Hispanic majority wards to Vallas’ nine. The Latino wards Johnson carried included the 22nd Ward that is home to former mayoral challenger Jesus “Chuy Garcia, the Southwest Side congressman who endorsed Johnson.
And the impact of Vallas’ showing in the nine Latino wards he won was greatly diminished by the anemic Hispanic turnout. That was driven, in part, by so few Latino wards — only the 10th, the 30th, and the 36th — also holding City Council runoffs, which help bring out more voters. In the Southwest Side’s 14th Ward, where Council race was already decided, only 4,283 total votes were cast.
While Vallas was falling short of the big numbers he needed in Hispanic wards, Johnson was padding his vote totals along the lakefront and racking up big victories in predominantly Black wards after winning none of the majority African American wards in Round One of the mayoral sweepstakes.
The Cook County commissioner passed the 80% mark in eight African-American wards: the 6th, 8th, 16th, 17th, 20th and 21st, on the South Side and the 24th and 37th on the West Side. The Austin resident scored his highest percentage — 84.2% — in the 24th Ward.
Johnson sealed the deal by padding his Feb. 28 vote totals along the progressive-minded north lakefront, the hipster Milwaukee Avenue corridor and in three Northwest Side wards with Hispanic majorities, two of them represented by Democratic Socialists: the 33rd and 35th.
‘He united Black voters with lakefront liberals’
In the North Side’s 44th Ward, where retiring Ald. Tom Tunney went all out for Vallas, Johnson managed to eke out a narrow victory with 50.4% of the vote to 49.6% for Vallas. That was significant, particularly in a ward with no City Council runoff where 15,928 total votes were cast.
Johnson scored a 72.9% landslide in the Far North Side’s 49th Ward. He topped the 60% mark in the 46th and 48th Wards and managed to win 31.2% of the vote in the 43rd Ward, which includes the affluent and crime-weary residents of Lincoln Park.
In downtown and Near West Side wards, the mayor-elect even topped 40% of the vote in the newly-drawn 34th Ward, 24.8% in the 42nd Ward and 25.5 %in the 2nd Ward.
“Brandon Johnson ran the smart typical playbook in Chicago politics. He united Black voters with lakefront liberals,” said veteran Democratic strategist Tom Bowen, who ran Lightfoot’s 2019 and 2023 runoff campaigns and served as Rahm Emanuel’s 2011 deputy campaign manager and political director for the first half of Emanuel’s first term.
Mayor-elect Brandon Johnson greets supporters at the Chinatown Red Line Station Wednesday morning,
“A couple of wards that stood out to me were 21, 17, 7 — the tougher socio-economic Black wards. If there was gonna be a deterioration in Brandon’s coalition, that’s where you would expect it because those folks are very economically-sensitive. They also want an increased [police] presence. But, they obviously didn’t buy into the Vallas spin of Johnson’s public safety and economic plans being bad for them.”
Bowen also pointed to Johnson’s narrow win in Tunney’s home 44th Ward as evidence that attacks on Vallas as a closet Republican did enormous political damage in a ward with a large LGBTQ+ community that also includes a lot of younger voters.
“That ward going 50-50 tells me that the Republican attacks worked. And that diminished all of the plans that Vallas was trying to say he had for voters because they just didn’t trust him. They didn’t trust the fact that he was gonna govern as a real Democrat,” Bowen said.
“I found the most consistent message in the free media and in paid advertising to buttress it to be his attacks [on Vallas] as a Republican. It’s also really simple to understand — especially in a moment where Trump just got indicted last week and we’re in the post-Dobbs [overturning Roe v. Wade] environment where real consequences of Republican rule are in peoples’ lives every day.
“It’s just a very partisan, polarized moment. So, the easiest argument is, ‘I’m the Democrat. Don’t vote for the Republican.’”
Republican rap trumped defunding dig
Veteran Democratic strategist Peter Giangreco advised vanquished mayoral challenger Sophia King in Round One of the mayoral sweepstakes, only to watch her endorse Vallas in the runoff race against Johnson.
Giangreco said Vallas needed to win “25-to-30 %” of the Black vote to counter “how well Brandon was doing with white progressives, but he only got 20[%]” because his own words — that he is “more of a Republican than a Democrat” — came back to haunt him.
“If Paul Vallas had come across more as a Joe Biden Democrat, he would have done better in the Black community and he’d be mayor,” Giangreco said.
“He tried to remake himself as a Democrat in his ads, and people on the South and West Sides didn’t buy it. Brandon did a better job of running away from defund [the police] position than Vallas did of running away from being a Republican. That was the decisive thing.
Mayor-elect Brandon Johnson greets supporters Wednesday morning.
“Vallas had a shot to do better in the Black community. But in the end, Brandon did a good job of calming people’s fears about his intentions to defund. And he muddied up the tax issue by saying Vallas is the only one who’s gonna raise property taxes, and it was Vallas who under-funded pensions.”
‘A sense of hope about the guy’
Veteran political strategist David Axelrod said he was not at all surprised by Johnson’s meteoric rise.
“I thought from the beginning when Brandon only got 20% of the African-American vote in the first round that, if he could consolidate the African-American vote as past African-American candidates have, he’d be right in the race. And he did that,” Axelrod said.
“Vallas had hoped for more in the Black community. But, he really got pounded in those progressive wards. It was that combination of consolidating the African-American base and running up the numbers in progressive white wards that yielded victory for Brandon.”
Axelrod noted that Johnson and Vallas both had a “videotaped albatross.”
For Johnson, it was calling defunding the police an “actual political goal.” For Vallas, it was calling himself “more of a Republican than a Democrat.” But it was Vallas’ haunting video that “hurt more,” Axelrod said.
Mayor-elect Brandon Johnson greets supporters the day after he defeated Paul Vallas in the mayoral runoff election.
“Chicago is an overwhelmingly Democratic town. And the portrait that they painted of Paul as an anti-choice, quasi-Republican — when paired with his emphasis on policing — especially among progressive voters created a really negative image for him and drove more voters … into Brandon’s camp,” he said.
Axelrod acknowledged that Johnson owes his meteoric rise to the millions in contributions and campaign foot soldiers provided by the Chicago Teachers Union, SEIU Locals 1, 73 and Healthcare, AFSCME Council 31 and United Working Families.
But there’s a reason why those unions “anointed him” as their chosen mayoral candidate.
“They saw in him some innate talent. And that talent was apparent. He wasn’t always the most sure-footed on some issues. But, he communicates. There’s a sort of positiveness about the guy. There’s a sense of hope about the guy. That is appealing. That matters,” Axelrod said.
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April 5, 2023 at 11:19PM