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Why Chicago’s Mayoral Election Is One Of The Most Important Races Of 2023

Chicago's mayoral candidates represent two very different paths.

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Narrated by Miles Kampf-Lassin

One of the most liberal cities in America is at risk of electing a conservative mayor.

On April 4, Chicagoans will decide between Paul Vallas, a longtime champion of privatization in public schools, or Brandon Johnson, a former public school teacher. 

Too often, corporate-backed media covers these elections like a horse race, who’s up and who’s down, while ignoring a fundamental question: who will candidates fight for once they’re elected? The workers or the billionaires?

We dug into the candidates’ records, met with longtime workers and residents, spoke to the parents of students in school systems Vallas has run, and sat down with Brandon Johnson to learn about his vision for a Chicago where working-class people can control how their city is run. 

Leonard Simpson: These was the days, these were the days. Looking back on this history, say, you wouldn’t believe that all this happened under the auspices of one person who really did a lot against the public school system, to the residents of the city of Chicago.

That’s Leonard Simpson, a former janitor in the Chicago Public Schools, and a union representative with SEIU. He worked under Paul Vallas, who took control of the city’s school system in the 1990s. 

We met up with him and Greg Kelley, another longtime union organizer, to understand the lasting impact of Paul Vallas’s legacy in Chicago.

Leonard Simpson: He was the actual architect of, uh, we call it, slash slash slash

Greg Kelley: So Vallas was…the first chief executive officer, uh, for the Chicago Public Schools. Note the name. Chief Executive officer, and not school superintendent. So he came in as a CEO would, very focused on the money aspect of the system without really fully understanding the impact of decisions that he was making.

Vallas became CEO of Chicago Public Schools in 1995 and immediately got to work enacting his privatization agenda. He skimmed money from teachers’ pensions, took out high-interest loans that ultimately cost the city $1.5 billion—and he privatized school services like custodial staff, slashing wages and benefits for thousands of workers.

[Archival footage, crowd chanting]: Hey hey ho ho Paul Vallas has got to go. 

[Archival footage, protester]: I proudly present this award to Mr. Paul Vallas and I want to read what it says. This award is to certify that Paul Vallas of the Chicago Board of Education is truly this year’s Hypocrite of the Year.

Miles Kampf-Lassin: What were some of the psychological effects on the workers from these privatization plans?

Leonard Kelley: Well, hopelessness, number one, wondering, uh, how they were going to survive off of $7 and 65 cents an hour. There were some employees who I personally represented who lost their homes, lost their marriages, could not afford to put their children through college as they were doing when they were regular employees of the system.

Greg Kelley: When you take thousands of workers, right, mostly Black workers, and you’ve cut their wages, um, you are really impacting the neighborhoods and communities in which they live in. Places that have historically been strong places for Black middle class workers, they can no longer afford to live in them. And so they leave, right? And I honestly believe the decisions that Val made created the conditions for what we see today: depopulation, rising crime, lack of investment

For workers like Greg and Leonard who experienced the impacts of Vallas’s approach firsthand, the threat of a deeper crisis if he’s elected mayor is real.

Greg Kelley: To me, the worst part about Paul Vallas isn’t even his ideology. It’s his inability to understand that his policies impact people.

Part 2: Record in New Orleans

After Chicago, Paul Vallas went on to run school systems in Philadelphia and Bridgeport; but he might be best known for what he did to the public schools in New Orleans. 

Paul Vallas: Given the fact that this district is much smaller, y’know, I’m confident that we can transform this system.

Vallas is often credited with fixing New Orleans’s schools after Katrina, but people on the ground tell a different story.

Ashana Bigard: It was like someone was trying to create a disaster.

That’s Ashana Bigard. In 2007, when Vallas took over as head of the school system in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina, Ashana was an education advocate and a public school parent. 

After Katrina, corporate interests descended on the city to replace the public school system with privately run charter schools—shutting out the community from decision-making.

Ashana Bigard: They fired all of our educators—teachers, cafeteria workers, 7,500 people were fired. When the city was stll underwater and we were not allowed back, that’s when we learned Paul Vallas was coming and who he was and that he had done this before! 

[Archival footage, Paul Vallas interview]: We’ve really worked to develop a set of rules that take the wind out of the sails for those out there who say “we need a contract, we need an ironclad contract to recover our school districts and protect our members.”

Ashana Bigard: I believe he was sent to decentralize our union, to decimate them. Which firing the teachers did destroy the union. But Paul Vallas made sure the unions didn’t come back together.

[Archival footage, Paul Vallas speaking]: If you set the bar high, the higher you set it, the higher your children are going to perform.

Vallas instituted strict Zero Tolerance policies that punished students for low-level offenses, criminalized poverty, and led to an alarming rate of expulsions and suspensions.

Ashana Bigard: This is the opposite of how you deal with children who have trauma, who have lost family and friends and their neighborhoods have been decimated. You’re gonna punish children for not having money. And I remember them pulling jackets off of like first graders and kindergarteners cuz it wasn’t the school’s jacket, the school’s jacket was $60, and then you had children, if they wore the wrong color belt would be suspended for two days. Just horrific inhumane things.

He is gonna put his friends and them making money off the wellbeing of your entire city. I need you to know that.

In this race, Vallas has aligned himself with far-right interests and billionaires, including Republican mega-donor Ken Griffin. Vallas also spoke at a fundraiser for Awake Illinois, which pushes homophobic and transphobic policies.

For people like Greg Kelley, this last point is key to understanding the choice that voters will face in this election.

Greg Kelley: My mom always told me, you can learn a lot about people by who they hang out with, uh, who their friends are. And, you know, just looking at Paul Vallas, his friends lets me know that he hasn’t changed.

For decades, Chicago has been run by people who represent the corporate elite. But this moment could offer a real break with that past.

Brandon Johnson: Thank you and good afternoon. As the next mayor of the city of Chicago.

We asked both candidates to sit down with us, to tell us what they plan to do for working people. Vallas did not respond so we sat down with Brandon Johnson after an event on housing policy at Harmony Community Church in the North Lawndale neighborhood. 

Brandon Johnson: Paul Vallas has never seen a dollar that he wasn’t willing to spend three times. There’s a clear contrast between his view of the world, of privatization, running budgets into the ground. Versus someone like me who comes from the working class where like we can’t afford to play around with our budgets like that. Like if anything goes wrong in a working class family. And I can tell you cuz I grew up in one, it was 10 of us with one bathroom. My father was a public employee, worked hard, had a couple other jobs just to make the ends meet. Nothing could go wrong.

Brandon Johnson was a public school teacher in Chicago and later became an organizer with the Chicago Teachers Union where he protested school closings and fought for an elected school board. In 2018, Johnson was first elected Cook County Commissioner. 

Brandon Johnson, speech: Teaching really shifted my politics. Because there were students who showed up every single day because there were students who showed up every single day even when the city wouldn’t show up for them. And you need a mayor who’s willing to show up for you every single day. Because it is a matter of life and death, if you will, it is a matter of life and death. No matter where you live in the city, you get to have what you deserve. And what our people deserve is real economic justice. The safest cities in America all have one thing in common, they invest in people.

Brandon Johnson: We are in a position now where we can literally repair the damage that he caused in the 90s while also building towards a better, stronger city that is built off of the ideas and the hopes of working people.

Ultimately, voters want to know who has a track record of standing with working people, and who is willing to fight for them once in office. 

Brandon Johnson, speaking: The voices of working people will no longer be ignored and the interests of those who are working to separate and divide us. We are going to dismantle and disrupt that structure and usher in something beautiful, something dynamic, and something that is full of love. My name is Brandon Johnson, and on April 4, y’all, we approve these messages.

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