(Bloomberg) — Chicago’s mayoral runoff could be swayed by executives at Citadel and Madison Dearborn Partners as well as the country’s largest teachers unions.
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Paul Vallas, the city’s ex-schools chief who pledged to be tough on crime and restaff the police force, is backed by personal donations from executives at hedge fund Citadel and private equity firm Madison Dearborn Partners. He has raised $6.3 million — more than any other candidate except Mayor Lori Lightfoot, who lost her reelection bid on Tuesday.
Meanwhile, Brandon Johnson, the Cook County commissioner and the only candidate who did not vow to rebuild the depleted police force but denied plans to defund it, has collected $4.2 million. Labor groups led the way, with three unions accounting for more than half that total.
The candidates’ campaign coffers will give them the fuel to keep going in one of the most polarized races Chicago has witnessed in 40 years. The third-largest US city is facing rising crime, high taxes and a slow economic recovery from the pandemic.
“If Vallas has unlimited money, which I assume he will, he can be on TV every day telling people that Brandon Johnson wants to defund the police, wants to raise your taxes,” said Frank Calabrese, an independent political consultant in Chicago. “That would be decisive in the race because voters are still new to Brandon Johnson.”
And campaign funds will be even more crucial now that infinite cash will be able to flow in. On Thursday, Vallas donated just over $100,000 to his own campaign, a move that will allow both candidates to receive unlimited donations, the Chicago Tribune reported.
Chicago is grappling with rising violence that has sparked outrage among residents and business leaders. Crime incidents jumped 41% last year and have increased 33% since 2019, the year Lightfoot took office.
Read more: Chicago Crime Defines Mayor Race as Spending, Lawbreaking Surge
Addressing public safety has been a constant challenge for one of the most segregated cities in the US. Black and Hispanic residents live primarily in neighborhoods in the city’s South and West sides, where unemployment rates are higher, and many White residents are based in the North side. While Chicagoans vote across racial lines, that wasn’t always the case and racial politics still matter.
The last time a race was so divisive was in 1983, when the city still had partisan elections and Harold Washington formed a Democratic coalition of Black and Latino voters to beat White rivals. He became the city’s first Black mayor.
Chicago’s current nonpartisan format requires a winner to garner at least 50% of the vote. Vallas, the only White candidate in the nine-person field, was the top vote-getter with 34%. Johnson, one of seven Black candidates, advanced with 20% of the votes. They’ll meet on April 4 in the runoff.
Vallas, 69, was backed by the police union and has pledged to overhaul a scheduling system that has prompted officer burnout. He has also earned the support of many business leaders, with Citadel Chief Operating Officer Gerald Beeson recently inviting him to speak at a private function at the fund’s building, according to a person familiar with the event.
Beeson and Peng Zhao, chief executive officer of Citadel Securities, also gave Vallas $100,000 each. James Perry, a co-founder of Madison Dearborn Partners, donated $350,000, and Golf course owner Michael Keiser — the biggest donor to the Vallas campaign — poured in a whopping $700,000.
Billionaire Ken Griffin cited crime as a reason for moving the headquarters of his Citadel hedge fund from Chicago to Miami last year. He is not backing any of the candidates and has not donated to the race.
“Vallas will get the city back on track,” said Craig J. Duchossois, executive chair of Duchossois Group Inc., a privately held investment firm headquartered in Chicago, who gave Vallas $10,000 in January and said he will give more. “You can’t afford to defund the police. We need to invest in our officers, provide them first-class equipment, top-quality training and instill a solid sense of pride and camaraderie.”
Johnson, 46, won the trust of local communities by focusing on mental health in the fight against crime.
He did not push to raise the number of police officers in Chicago, which has dropped by about 12% since 2019 as the pandemic sparked a wave of retirements.
When Lightfoot realized Johnson was rising in the polls in the weeks ahead of the elections, she accused him of making the city unsafe by planning to defund the police, something he denied.
Johnson argued his strategy was “to get smart, not just tough” on crime.
He also gained popularity with working mothers – who struggled with several school strikes over the years – after he was endorsed by the Chicago Teachers Union.
His campaign received $1.1 million from the American Federation of Teachers and the CTU. He also got more than $500,000 from the Illinois Federation of Teachers and $957,000 from the SEIU Healthcare Illinois Indiana PAC.
Johnson’s position as the more progressive of the two Democratic candidates puts him in prime position to pick up votes that went to Lightfoot in the historically disinvested South and West sides of the city, said Tabitha Bonilla, an associate professor of political science at Northwestern University. Lightfoot said 17% of the total vote.
“He has this experience with unions, he’s worked as a teacher, he talks a lot about neighborhood relations with police departments,” she said.
The Latino vote that went to US Representative Jesus “Chuy” Garcia — the only Hispanic candidate — is much more likely to be split, according to Calabrese, the consultant.
Calabrese, the consultant, said both candidates could still win. Chicago is a very liberal city and it will just depend on how the remaining votes get split, he said.
During a campaign event earlier this year, Vallas said the city has to move on from “combative leadership,” without mentioning Lightfoot by name. The mayor has frequently clashed with critics and opponents.
Chicagoans are now looking for a different kind of leadership, Anthony Fowler, a professor at the Harris School of Public Policy at the University of Chicago, said.
“Brandon Johnson is so far to the left of the median voter in Chicago that, barring a major Paul Vallas scandal, it seems very unlikely that he could win the runoff,” he said.
–With assistance from Tarso Veloso, Leslie Patton, Shruti Date Singh, Elizabeth Campbell and Kim Chipman.
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