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Chicago will vote between two candidates with distinctly different ideas of being a Democrat


Chicago chooses a new mayor on Tuesday. The incumbent mayor, Lori Lightfoot, finished a distant third in the first round. Both candidates in Tuesday's runoffs are Democrats. Republicans in Chicago are as scarce as palm trees. But each candidate has a distinctly different idea of what being a Democrat means. From member station WBEZ, Mariah Woelfel reports.

MARIAH WOELFEL, BYLINE: In last month's initial race between nine mayoral candidates, you could not have chosen ones more dissimilar than the top-two vote-getters now in the runoff. It's a point each of them either start or conclude their stump speeches with these days. Here's Paul Vallas.


PAUL VALLAS: You have been presented a choice of which two pathways the city will follow, and these two pathways could never be more dissimilar.

WOELFEL: Vallas, who's running as a Democrat, is a 69-year-old white, tough-on-crime candidate backed by the police union. Then there's 47 year old Brandon Johnson, a Black progressive candidate backed by the Union for Teachers.


BRANDON JOHNSON: This election is about a choice between the stale, broken status quo and a new political collaboration that is built around unity and understanding.

WOELFEL: These two candidates are opposed on how they'd approach nearly every major issue on the table. Crime has been chief among them. But what's perhaps most distinctive is their different ties to public education. Vallas is a veteran public administrator who got his big start as head of Chicago Public Schools in the '90s. He has since built a controversial reputation as the Mr. Fixit of troubled school districts, building droves of privately run but publicly funded charter schools in the cities he's worked. Talking about himself in the third person, he puts it like this.


VALLAS: Paul Vallas, the wonk, is a public administrative version of a first responder. And right now our house is on fire, and its occupants are in danger.

WOELFEL: Johnson is a former social studies teacher and an organizer with the progressive Chicago Teachers Union, which has grown more politically aggressive in the past decade, in part in response to policies pushed by administrators like Vallas. But more so than anything else, crime has been top of mind for both candidates and voters as the city continues to grapple with staggering gun violence. Vallas has promised to make Chicago, quote, "the safest city in America" by bringing back retired police officers to boost ranks. And he tells voters his opponent would slash the police budget, putting Johnson on the defensive.


JOHNSON: Paul, hear me. I'm not going to defund the police. I've said that multiple times. I have 3,000 words on my website around public safety. None of those words say defund the police.

WOELFEL: The election has become a battle between old-school Democrats and those who want to push the party more to the left, according to Jaime Dominguez, a professor at Northwestern University.

JAIME DOMINGUEZ: The notion of progressivism is on the ballot. The emergence of, for example, newly elected, younger, left-leaning elected leaders, particularly amongst Blacks and Latinos, is challenging the vision and priorities of the status quo within the Democratic establishment.

WOELFEL: And in a city that is largely segregated, no Chicago election comes without racial overtones. Black and Latino voters largely went for other candidates in the first round of the election, with Johnson and Vallas enjoying the majority of their support from white residents. Both candidates have been jockeying for endorsements from establishment Black and Latino leaders to try to sway the voters who didn't support them initially.

For NPR News, I'm Mariah Woelfel in Chicago. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mariah Woelfel
Mariah Woelfel is WBEZ’s morning news producer--up before the sun to produce newscasts for the local broadcast of NPR’s Morning Edition. Prior to WBEZ, Mariah worked as a reporter, producer and All Things Considered host during her time as a fellow at WVIK, an NPR member station in western Illinois. She got her start in radio interning on WBEZ’s news desk during graduate school.Mariah has a bachelor’s and master’s degree in journalism from DePaul University.She grew up in the northwest suburbs of Chicago before moving with her family to the city’s Bronzeville neighborhood when she was 13. Mariah currently lives in Chicago’s Noble Square neighborhood with her dog, Lola.