The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Chicago voters must choose further decline or a remedy for an ailing city

Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson, left, and Paul Vallas, the former chief executive of Chicago Public Schools. (Erin Hooley and Nam Y. Huh/AP)
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Chicago, a name said to derive from a Native American word meaning wild onion, has pungent politics. The mayoralty campaign that culminates Tuesday has featured, in Brandon Johnson, a comprehensively, almost exotically, inapt candidate. He was runner-up in February’s nine-candidate nonpartisan primary with 21.6 percent of the vote. Finishing first with 32.9 percent was Paul Vallas — another Democrat, of course. He resembles a remedy for Chicago, the nation’s worst-governed large city not named San Francisco.

The two dominant issues are rampant crime and execrable public schools. Johnson, 47, a Cook County commissioner and former organizer of the Chicago Teachers Union, has received more than 95 percent of his campaign funds from 15 unions, mostly those of teachers, the lion’s share from the CTU, whose handbook says “dues are not used for political purposes.” Watch the Illinois Policy Institute’s documentary “Local 1” on the CTU’s descent from an admirable origin into the sacrifice of children for adults’ gains.

Vallas, 69, who grew up in a family that ran a Greek restaurant, has been endorsed by the Fraternal Order of Police. He is a centrist Democrat who, after a 1990s stint as chief executive officer of Chicago’s financially and academically troubled schools, held similar positions in Philadelphia and, after Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans, where he oversaw a vast expansion of charter schools. His backing of school choice, which nearly two-thirds of Chicagoans support, explains the ferocity of the CTU’s opposition to him. His most recent assignment was administering Connecticut’s takeover of the failed school system in the state’s largest city, Bridgeport.

Today, Johnson says, “I never said defund the police.” Yet he has said of defunding the police, “I don’t look at it as a slogan, it’s an actual, real political goal.” And “there is no number big enough” for cutting the budget of the Cook County Sheriff’s Office. At a 2020 panel on “a police-free future,” he condemned “state-sponsored policing.” The rioters that summer who, undeterred by the raising of the Chicago River drawbridges, ravaged Michigan Avenue’s “Magnificent Mile” were, Johnson said, driven by “frustration and anguish” and hunger. They assuaged their anguish by looting high-end handbags, electronics and other nourishment.

Watch the video posted by Chicago Public Schools’ Office of Equity (“How Can We Win?”) defending looting. The video is applied “critical race theory,” which Vallas says gives people “an excuse for bad behavior.” Last year, Chicago led the nation with 695 homicides, far more than New York (433) and Los Angeles (382), both with much larger populations. Of the nine first-round candidates, only Johnson did not pledge to increase the number of patrol police.

Although in 2022, only 11 percent of Chicago’s Black pupils in grades three through eight scored at proficiency, and less than 6 percent did in math, what has troubled Johnson are measurable standards — tests, grades, homework. He has worried about selective-enrollment schools because Black students “who don’t meet those same standards” get “shamed.” When he taught at such a school, he assigned little homework as a “way of rebelling against the structure.”

Since Chicago’s population peaked in 1950 at 3.6 million, a million have fled (while the nation’s population has increased 120 percent). Since 2010, almost 90,000 students — more than 20 percent — have left the public school system, whose annual spending has increased $2.5 billion, and in fiscal 2021 included operational spending of $20,465 per pupil.

Progressive policies — e.g., Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx in 2016 essentially decriminalizing shoplifting of less than $1,000 — have demoralized the police force, which experienced a net loss of 2,641 officers between 2020 and August 2022. This year, car thefts are up 151 percent, sexual assaults and robberies up 23 percent each, and major crime reports are up 104 percent above this point in 2021.

Today, 1 dollar in 5 in the city’s budget goes to government employees’ pensions; about 80 percent of Chicago’s high property taxes fund retirement benefits. Vallas warns that experts say pensions funded below 40 percent of obligations are “likely to default.” Chicago’s four municipal employee pensions, as of January 2021, were funded at 45, 24, 22 and 20 percent.

These are the results of progressives’ “blue social model” of urban government — ever-higher taxes (Johnson wants $800 million more) to nourish government employee unions. Chicago’s most recent Republican mayor was elected in 1927. In 1955, when Richard J. Daley was first elected mayor, Paddy Bauler, a saloonkeeper (and alderman), said contentedly, “Chicago ain’t ready for reform yet.” Today, the city of slumped shoulders had better be.