Chicago’s April election between Paul Vallas and Brandon Johnson features candidates with some of the starkest political differences in a head-to-head matchup since the city started having mayoral runoffs more than two decades ago.
When the law that made Chicago’s mayoral elections nonpartisan was passed, many of the city’s top Black political leaders feared it would all but guarantee Chicago’s mayors would be white. And for many years that was the case — though it isn’t clear how much of an impact moving away from traditional partisan elections had on the end result. Mayor Richard M. Daley easily won reelection three times and Rahm Emanuel won in 2011 without needing a runoff.
But that’s changed in recent elections, and this runoff features Johnson, who is Black, facing off against Vallas, who is white, in a race that is not expected to be a blowout for either. Vallas got 33% of the vote in the nine-candidate first round election on Feb. 28, according to unofficial results, while Johnson came in second with 22%, setting up the April 4 runoff.
[ At first debate of mayoral runoff, Johnson attacks Vallas’ record as rival tries to stay above the fray ]
The runoff model — where the top two vote-getters compete in a second round if nobody gets over 50% of the vote in the first round — was supported by mostly white Democrats and some Republicans in the mid-1990s following the 1983 election and 1987 reelection of Harold Washington, the city’s first Black mayor.
When Washington first won in 1983, he did so by securing the Democratic nomination with a plurality of 36% of the primary vote against then-Mayor Jane Byrne, who received 34%, and Daley, who at the time was the Cook County state’s attorney, who received 30%. Washington then went on to defeat Republican Bernard Epton in the general election, 52% to 48%.
Had the nonpartisan system been in place in 1983, Washington and Byrne likely would have been forced into a runoff against each other, and some Democrats thought the split white vote between Byrne and Daley would have unified against Washington, winning Byrne a second term.
Some Black political leaders foresaw that potential scenario playing over and over again. And in the mid-1990s, as the legislation making Chicago mayoral races nonpartisan moved forward in Springfield, they clearly saw danger that the initiative was a conspiracy to thwart African American mayoral aspirations. Bruce Crosby, spokesman for the Harold Washington Party that formed after Washington’s 1987 death, called the change a voting rights violation and said the party would consider filing suit to block it.
[ 1995: City’s mayoral election likely to become nonpartisan ]
“We think we can make a case in federal court that white Democrats and white Republicans have come together with a scheme to prevent African Americans of the Harold Washington Party from becoming mayor. That’s all this is,” Crosby said at the time. The party eventually decided not take the case to court.
When the switch was proposed and passed in 1995, Daley was mayor and was said to have been agnostic about making Chicago mayoral elections nonpartisan, which began in the next election in 1999.
Republican Gov. Jim Edgar signed the legislation into law and said in a recent interview he was thinking the change could help the GOP contend in overwhelmingly Democratic Chicago because Republican candidates for mayor had often been fringe candidates.
The most notable example was in the 1995 municipal election held under the traditional partisan rules when Republicans nominated perennial candidate Ray Wardingly, once a professional clown known as “Spanky,” to take on Daley. On his way to being mayor for 22 years, Daley had consolidated his power as the Democratic incumbent and crushed Wardingly in the city’s final partisan mayoral election.
“Daley didn’t really care one way or the other,” Edgar told the Tribune. “It came from some Democrats. But I wanted to do it because I wanted to make the mayor’s race nonpartisan because we never could find a legitimate Republican candidate and we’d end up with Spanky the Clown. People would come up and say, ‘Why would you let this happen?’ I mean, there isn’t much of a Republican Party in Chicago. That’s just the fact. And nobody good really wants to run.”
Veteran political consultant Delmarie Cobb said it took Emanuel’s controversial move in 2013 to close 50 Chicago public schools and the Chicago Teachers Union’s decision in response to become much more politically active to break the seal and finally give the city its first runoff, between Emanuel and then-Cook County Commissioner Jesús “Chuy” García, who is now a congressman and who just lost a second bid for mayor.
“The possibility is the fact you had these mayors who were invincible and felt they could do whatever they wanted to do. And people finally rose up and responded. That’s the only reason Chuy — Jesús García — made it to the (2015) runoff, the first runoff since it was changed to nonpartisan, and look how long it took that to happen,” Cobb said.
Edgar said the law also made sense because it unified elections among aldermanic candidates, who had run under the runoff provisions for decades, and the three citywide elections — for mayor, city treasurer and city clerk — which had to that point run under the partisan primary/general election format.
Edgar said there is some irony in the fact that the runoff system will now force the lone white candidate in the nine-person, first-round mayoral race, Vallas, to take on Johnson, who led among the seven Black candidates.
“This possibly helped (Johnson) because with seven Black candidates, this made sure that they got a shot at a one-on-one,” Edgar said. “The old theory was a Black (candidate) wouldn’t win in a one-on-one matchup, well today, that’s changed.”
In 2019, the mayoral runoff featured two Black women, Lori Lightfoot and Toni Preckwinkle. Vallas also ran in 2019 and got 5% of the vote in the 14-candidate first round, well short of the numbers he needed to advance.
But Cobb said the nonpartisan election can still offer advantages to a candidate such as Vallas, who has been supported by the city’s deep-pocketed business establishment, over a candidate like Johnson, who the teachers union has backed with more than $1 million so far.
“Fast-forward to today, I think this race is a prime example of what (Black politicians) were talking about when you look at, OK, you forced a candidate into a runoff,” she said. “But when one side has multimillionaires writing checks, and they’re all Republican for the most part, they can do that because it’s nonpartisan. And the fact they’re Republican is not as significant because there’s no crossing the line, there’s no declaring your party, there’s no none of that.”