Rejecting a ‘Republican in Disguise,’ Chicago Voters Elect Johnson as Next Mayor

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CHICAGO — Rufus Burns, a 73-year-old resident of Chicago’s West Side, voted for Brandon Johnson for Chicago mayor on Tuesday. But it was really more of a vote against Paul Vallas.

“A Republican in disguise,” he said of Mr. Vallas.

Ever since the resurfacing of a television interview from 2009 — during which Mr. Vallas called himself “more of a Republican than a Democrat” — many Chicagoans in this overwhelmingly Democratic city have doubted whether Mr. Vallas, a former schools executive, was really the Democrat that he more recently claimed to be.

Mr. Johnson, a county commissioner with more liberal policies on education, housing and policing, won the mayoral election, which is nonpartisan, in a close race, according to a projection by The Associated Press. At the polls on Tuesday, some voters said that as they considered the choice between Mr. Johnson, 47, and Mr. Vallas, 69, they were largely swayed by a sense that Mr. Johnson was the true progressive in the race.

“It was pretty obvious for me,” said Annie Wang, 22, a business analyst who lives in the South Loop. “Johnson is the much more progressive candidate. Vallas was closer to the Republican Party. That made all the difference.”

Carmen Moore, a schoolteacher who lives in the Austin neighborhood on the West Side, said that she cast a ballot for Mr. Johnson because she felt he would be a better agent for addressing systemic issues on the South and West Sides of the city. Then, she added, there was that clip from Mr. Vallas’s television interview, which began playing as a campaign ad in early February.

“That kind of got me from the beginning,” she said. “That was one thing that stuck out for me.”

In Hyde Park on Chicago’s South Side, Richard Strier, a retired professor of English literature at the University of Chicago, said he was worried that Mr. Vallas was a closet Republican.

“Vallas makes me nervous,” he said. “I’m basically voting against Vallas for someone who is more progressive.”

Mr. Vallas pitched himself to a voters as a tough-on-crime technocrat who would hire thousands more police officers and make the city safer than it has been since the pandemic, when shootings and homicides spiked. But he also spent much of the campaign trying to convince voters that he was a devoted Democrat.

On the campaign trail, he cited support from Black leaders, including Jesse White, the former Illinois secretary of state, and surrounded himself with Democratic City Council members who lined up behind him at events and vouched for his credibility and experience.

One major obstacle for Mr. Vallas among liberal voters was his early endorsement by the Chicago chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police, a union representing rank-and-file officers whose leader, John Catanzara, has alienated many Chicagoans with strident hard right positions. (Mr. Catanzara, for example, defended the rioters who stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, then apologized.)

Kristen Lopez, 30, a graduate student on the South Side, said on Tuesday that when she learned that Mr. Vallas was endorsed by the police union, she knew who would get her vote for mayor: Mr. Johnson.

“That made my choice for me,” she said.

Crime was one of Ms. Lopez’s general concerns, she said, but she also cared about issues like gentrification and affordable housing — and rejected Mr. Vallas’s notion of adding more police officers to the force.

“Obviously, giving the police more power hasn’t worked so far,” she said.

But for some voters, it was Mr. Vallas’s more conservative policies, especially on crime and policing, that drew them to him.

Brad Walker, 44, who lives on the city’s North Side, described himself as an independent who is liberal on social issues, but a strong proponent of gun rights and financial responsibility.

He voted for Mr. Vallas because progressives “have been very weak” on rising crime in Chicago, he said.

“The one thing Chicago was known for was its cleanliness and safety,” he said. “If you’re going to be in the city and pay high taxes, you want to feel safe.”

As he cast a vote in downtown Chicago, Daniel Lancaster, 37, an engineer who lives in Roscoe Village, a neighborhood on the North Side, said that he saw the two candidates as far apart politically. Mr. Johnson was “the Bernie Democrat,” he said, noting his endorsement by the progressive Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont.

“For me, it was more of a vote for an ideal,” he said.

Voting for Mr. Johnson was riskier, Mr. Lancaster conceded. His proposals for solving crime were more long term than Mr. Vallas’s, with calls to invest more deeply in education and affordable housing.

“There’s a lot of political theory behind it, but it’s going to take more time,” he said.

In the Far North Side neighborhood of Rogers Park, on the shore of Lake Michigan, Cal Graham, 62, said he took Mr. Vallas’s years-ago description of himself as a Republican seriously.

“He said he was,” Mr. Graham said.

But Mr. Graham said that he remains unsure if Mr. Johnson is better equipped to handle the crime problem in Chicago.

“I don’t know until one of them gets in office,” he said. “That’s the only way you can tell. They all have ideas but nobody has the solution.”

For Kevin Yahampath, 23, a business analyst, choosing between Mr. Johnson and Mr. Vallas required a last-minute gut check. Before he headed into a polling station in the Loop late Tuesday afternoon, he logged onto an online quiz on the Chicago Sun-Times website, designed to help voters see which candidate aligned with their politics.

The quiz told Mr. Yahampath that he was a Johnson voter.

“I kind of expected it,” he said. “I knew Vallas was to the right.”

Robert Chiarito, Michael Gerstein and Dan Simmonscontributed reporting.

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