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Who Is Brandon Johnson, the Next Mayor of Chicago?

Chicago has elected Brandon Johnson as the city’s 57th mayor as residents sought new leadership amid frustrations about crime, housing, and other quality of life concerns.

In a major victory for progressive Democrats in the intraparty election, Johnson, a former community organizer, was declared the winner by the Associated Press just about an hour after the polls closed on Tuesday night. “We have ushered in a new chapter in the history of our city,” Johnson said in a victory speech to his supporters, after earning 51.4% of the more than 500,000 votes cast to narrowly defeat the more conservative Democrat Paul Vallas in their race to lead the nation’s third-largest city.

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After nine contenders failed to earn 50% of the vote in February’s first-round election, the decision for the city’s mayor came down to a runoff between Johnson, the Cook County Commissioner and a former teacher who was endorsed by the Chicago Teachers Union, and Vallas, former CEO of the Chicago school system who was backed by the police union.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot came in third in February, garnering just 16.8% of the vote. Her loss in the first round of the election—the first for an incumbent mayor in 40 years—sent a strong signal that Chicagoans were unhappy with the direction of the city. Many attributed that loss to the rise in crime under her leadership, which Vallas centered his campaign on.

But some residents, like 24-year-old Isabella Salerno, said their concerns about crime do not overshadow the city’s other needs, such as better transportation and schools. “I think crime is a problem in Chicago, just as it is in any other major city,” Salerno told TIME. “I would love the crime rate to be lower, but … I think investing into communities and providing adequate resources are more efficient in lowering crime rates.”

Here’s what to know about the new mayor of Chicago.

Who is Brandon Johnson?

Chicagoans narrowly elected Brandon Johnson, putting the unabashed progressive in charge of a city struggling on numerous fronts.

The 47-year-old has advocated for a greater reckoning with how circumstances like unemployment and gun violence impact families and students, positioning himself as a would-be mayor with left-wing ideals. His campaign website discusses his efforts to recognize holidays like Indigenous Peoples’ Day and his experience helping immigrants facing deportation get legal representation.

Johnson, who won his seat as Cook County Commissioner for the 1st District in 2018, has been a longtime community organizer. Under his leadership, Cook County’s Just Housing Ordinance—which bans housing discrimination based on a person’s criminal history—passed. Working with the teacher’s union, Johnson also took part in the 2019 Chicago Public Schools strike, as educators fought for better wages, increased staffing of social workers and more, while positioning their protest as one that sought greater equity in the city.

Johnson has advocated for policies including reduced public transit fares and increasing social services spending, which he would fund by increasing taxes on big businesses. (He has promised not to raise property taxes).

His tax plan, which he says would make “suburbs, airlines, and ultra-rich pay their fair share” would generate $800 million in revenue.

It was subject to criticism from business and real estate groups.

“[Johnson] would increase taxes on hotels and motels that are still struggling to get through the pandemic, reinstate the employee head tax which charges businesses for each job they create within the city, increase taxes on real estate transactions which would stifle affordable housing development and much more,” said the the Chicagoland Apartment Association, Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce, Illinois Hotel & Lodging Association, Illinois Manufacturers’ Association, and the Illinois Retail Merchants Association in a joint statement.

And in a city where crime and public safety are key priorities for nearly half of Chicago voters, the former teacher has also been criticized by residents for his previous support of defunding the police. (Johnson, who was the only candidate during the first round who did not promise to maintain the police department’s current budget, later said he would not reduce their funds).

Johnson had the support of significant progressive political figures including Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, Rev. Jesse Jackson, in addition to Rep. Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, who was also previously in the running for mayor. United Working Families, a political organization that supports Black and Latinx candidates, also endorsed Johnson.

Who is Paul Vallas?

A more moderate Democrat, Vallas, 69, previously served Chicagoans under former Mayor Richard M. Daley, working as the city’s budget director.

The second-time candidate (Vallas first ran for mayor in 2019) has presented himself as a leader who would be “tough on crime” by promoting “proactive policing,” which would bring some 1,100 additional police officers on the streets. He also advocated for an end to the city’s foot pursuit policy, which says that officers cannot chase a suspect on foot unless the need to detain the person outweighs the potential dangers of engaging in a pursuit. (That policy was passed last year after a police chase led to the death of two people, including a thirteen-year-old boy, in 2021).

“Crime is going up and crime will be my number one priority as mayor because public safety is a fundamental human right,” Vallas said at a press conference on Monday. “Families cannot afford to have to live in fear.”

Vallas has also voiced his support for violence prevention through programs that would keep schools open during the summer and on Saturdays, and another to help unemployed individuals find work.

Election 2023 Chicago Mayor
Erin Hooley—APChicago mayoral candidate Paul Vallas addresses his supporters after conceding the runoff election to his opponent Brandon Johnson, at his watch party, Tuesday, April 4, 2023.

Vallas previously worked as Chicago Public Schools’ first CEO, where he earned a reputation as an avid supporter of school privatization and establishing charter schools. He also ran school districts in Philadelphia, New Orleans, and Bridgeport, Conn. His campaign received funding from Illinois Federation for Children PAC, a lobbying group founded by former Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who served in the Trump Administration.

Organizations like Chicago’s Fraternal Order of Police endorsed Vallas, which proved controversial given the police department’s longstanding reputation of misconduct.

Vallas had previously run for governor and lieutenant governor. During this mayoral race, he received the support of Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, former Congressman Bobby Rush, and the Chicago Latino Leadership Council.

Vallas his supporters Tuesday that he called Johnson to concede and offered to help with the transition, saying: “It’s clear, based on the results tonight, that the city is deeply divided.”

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