The powerful Service Employees International Union Local 1 threw its support behind Brandon Johnson on Wednesday as businessman Willie Wilson endorsed Paul Vallas, the latest jockeying for support by the two mayoral candidates ahead of the April 4 runoff election.
“Brandon is an organizer, a teacher, a Cook County commissioner and a longtime community activist, and most importantly for me and my union, he is one of us,” Local 1 President Genie Kastrup said.
Wilson, who also ran for mayor but didn’t advance past the first round of voting last week, declared at a dueling news conference that Vallas is “the best person for this job and for this moment in time.”
Crime is high. … We do not need defunding of police officers,” Wilson said, referencing Johnson’s previous support for reallocating the department’s resources. “If anything, we need to give raises and support them.”
On race, Wilson said he believes Vallas can bring people together and urged residents not to be divided by race. He also said Chicago Public Schools students “can’t read or write” and some can’t even tie their shoes while suggesting Johnson would be beholden to the teachers union.
SEIU Local 1′s endorsement gives a boost to Johnson, who already has backing from the powerful Chicago Teachers Union and is expected to vie for support from other labor organizations that went for candidates who were knocked out of the running last week.
Kastrup said the chapter declined to endorse until now because they had many “friends” in the first round. And now that Local 1 is all in, she hinted but did not specify a windfall of campaign contributions coming Johnson’s way.
“The best predictor of future behavior is past behavior,” Kastrup said.
Vallas, the former CEO of Chicago Public Schools who has the endorsement of the Chicago Fraternal Order of Police, will also likely make a play for more labor support.
SEIU has been a formidable presence in recent Chicago elections, easily topping the list of Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle’s biggest donors in her unsuccessful 2019 run for mayor at more than $3.6 million in total contributions. The union gave more than $3.3 million for García’s failed 2015 bid for mayor as well.
This most recent cycle, SEIU’s political funds have dropped more than $1.2 million to Johnson since the Local 73 and SEIU Healthcare endorsements. Local 73′s members work in schools, government and other social services, while Healthcare represents hospital, nursing home, home care and child care workers.
SEIU support could be critical for Johnson, who needs to raise money for expensive television ads and turn out voters to defeat the better-funded Vallas.
Wilson’s endorsement could also be critical for Vallas, who needs to continue building support in the Black community. Wilson endorsed Mayor Lori Lightfoot in 2019, helping her build ties among African American voters on the South and West sides. Vallas has spent the past week attempting to build support from Black elected officials and community leaders, rolling out endorsements from Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White, Ald. Roderick Sawyer and Ald. Walter Burnett.
Vallas will encounter significant headwinds as a white man running on a law-and-order platform, and he’s likely to face resistance from the city’s Black political establishment as officials try to coalesce behind Johnson in the runoff. Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle endorsed Johnson this week.
Although Wilson suggested he was open minded about supporting Johnson, his relationship with Vallas runs deep. Over the past year, Vallas and Wilson both ran to Lightfoot’s right as pro-police law and order candidates and were the only people in the field to pursue an endorsement from the controversial Fraternal Order of Police.
In addition to their shared political leanings, Vallas and Wilson formed a bond over their shared grief as having lost sons. Wilson’s son Omar was murdered in 1995 while Vallas’ son Mark died after a battle with addiction. Their friendship formed when Wilson unexpectedly showed up at the funeral.
“I didn’t know him at that point. He did not know me. I went there to make sure I let him know I have been through that and I wanted him to know I cared, I was empathetic with him,” Wilson previously told the Tribune.
Vallas said he was touched that Wilson came to his son’s funeral. He compared his relationship with Wilson to the classic 1958 film “The Defiant Ones,” about two escaped convicts on the run. After they lost the 2019 mayoral campaign, Vallas and Wilson went to a Bulls game together.
Johnson also picked up an endorsement Wednesday from the Illinois chapter of the environmental group Sierra Club.
“Commissioner Brandon Johnson stands out as the candidate with the most equitable vision for the climate and environmental justice crises Chicagoans face today, and Sierra Club is proud to endorse him for mayor,” Sierra Club Illinois Director Jack Darin said in a release.
Tribune’s A.D. Quig contributed.