George C. Dix Professor in Constitutional Law at Northwestern University School of Law and City Journal contributing editor John O. McGinnis joins Brian C. Anderson to discuss the results of Chicago’s mayoral election.

Audio Transcript

Brian Anderson: Welcome back to the 10 Blocks podcast. I'm Brian Anderson, the editor of City Journal. Joining me on today's show is John McGinnis. He's been on the show before. He's the George C. Dix Professor in Constitutional Law at Northwestern University Law School. He's a contributing editor of City Journal, and he's written for many publications including the Wall Street Journal, Time, the LA Times, New York Post, much more. He blogs regularly at Law & Liberty. He's the author of two books, Accelerating Democracy: Transforming Government Through Technology and Originalism and The Good Constitution. A Chicago resident, John provides valuable perspective for City Journal on the Windy City. So today we're going to discuss the results of Chicago's recent mayoral election. So John, thanks as always for joining us.

John McGinnis: Delighted to be here.

Brian Anderson: So last week, Brandon Johnson, who's a Cook County Board commissioner, defeated former Chicago Public School CEO Paul Vallas in Chicago's mayoral election. Now, both men are Democrats, yet ideologically they were very far apart. So I wonder if, for folks who haven't closely watched Chicago politics, can you just give us a brief introduction to these two men and summarize basically what they were running on?

John McGinnis: Certainly. Paul Vallas was a longtime education leader of public schools, not only in Chicago, but in other areas like New Orleans and Philadelphia. He was a centrist Democrat. He had run a few times before for political offices in Illinois—lieutenant governor and mayor—before and hadn't gotten very far, but this time he was the leader in the initial election. I should explain that Chicago has an initial election for mayor, a kind of nonpartisan primary, and he led with 35 percent of the vote, running on a tough-on-crime platform, because Chicago's crime rate has gone up, particularly with murders, carjackings and theft. And so it has given a sense of insecurity, not only in places in the city where previously there was a sense of insecurity, but all over, and there were enormous number of signs for Vallas in the business community around the Loop.

Brandon Johnson is a very different kind of Democrat. He also comes up through the educational system, but through its Chicago Teachers Union. Chicago Teachers Union, of course, is a public sector union, but it is by far the most radical public sector union in Chicago, with Marxist theorists among its leaders in the past. And he was a union organizer until he was elected not long ago to a position as a Cook County commissioner, which is essentially a city council for all of Cook County, which includes Chicago, at least its inner suburbs. And he ran on a very different platform. Previously, he had been enthusiastic for defunding the police as a political goal. He stepped back from that, but he was not enthusiastic about hiring more policemen. Instead, his focus was on increasing public spending and finding new taxes to do that. And in fact he, and I think this is what helped him win the election, he made the election a contest between what he described as a “black labor” and “white wealth.” So he was running on both a racialist and a redistributionist platform.

Brian Anderson: The final results, I think Johnson won with around 51.5 percent of the vote, and Vallas got 48 to 49 percent. But many polls running up to election day had Vallas in the lead. You started just talking about this, but what do you think were the main factors behind Johnson's victory, and how did the results break down demographically?

John McGinnis: The main factor I think, was that Johnson was extremely successful in energizing the black vote and also young people of all races, who certainly went strongly for him. And Vallas essentially did not expand his vote, which was very strong among government workers in the north and northwest of Chicago and also in the business district in the area where I live, Streeterville, he certainly won those handily but did not expand them. And I think it's also important to note that Chicago has a smaller Asian community than some other cities, around 5 percent. Vallas won that handily, and that's not a surprise since Brandon Johnson is hardly likely to be sympathetic to charter schools and schools which decide on the basis of tests, and those are prime issues for Asian Americans.

And he split the Hispanic vote, maybe he slightly won the Hispanic vote, and that was enough in a very close election. He did a little worse among lake shore liberals than Lightfoot, I think probably attributable to his radicalism and interest in raising taxes. But he still took a substantial vote from what might be described as gentry liberals. And that was enough to be the difference.

Brian Anderson: You noted that crime, public safety, that was a big issue in the run up to the election, and there's good reasons for that. Chicago's murder rate is very elevated. There's been a lot of commercial and vehicle theft. The police seem pretty demoralized. A lot of them are quitting. And many attributed the loss of Lori Lightfoot, who was the mayoral incumbent in the runoff in the first election, to her failure to do anything about the crime problem. So you noted that Johnson has backed away a bit from his defunding the police rhetoric, but I think it's fair to say that his broad vision is that he wants to boost social programs over filling police vacancies. So what do you think's in store for Chicagoans when it comes to safety, and what do you think Johnson is going to do as mayor when it comes to policing?

John McGinnis: Well, of course safety is a concern of all mayors. And if the crime rate starts to go up, he's going to have difficulty I think in saying, well wait until our social programs attack the root causes of crime. I think even some of the people who voted for him won't be very enthusiastic about that. But his difficulty is that his background is so hostile to the police that I think a lot of police are just going to leave, and it's going to be hard to fill those slots. Now, I should say the police in Chicago have their own difficulties, I think not unrelated to the fact that they are also a union, they strongly backed Vallas, but they have not always acted in a disciplined way. And so they do not have the best reputation in minority communities. That's a serious problem.

But I think the more serious problem will be just the depletion of police. And as I understand, it's harder to hire police now all over the country. And I assume that's true in Chicago, not only because it's become a job that's become more difficult and one that is not as respected. So that is, I think, a real difficulty that faces Chicago, that a lot of police, if they can retire, they'll retire. If they can find some other job, maybe a police job in the suburbs, they'll take that, and we'll just have a demoralized and de-manned police force that really will be unable to do very much. And that is a great danger to Chicago, because already the theft in Chicago has been threatening the one source of lifeblood, the Magnificent Mile is declining. I should explain it's the mile where the most expensive stores are, and which gets a lot of tourists into Chicago. And that's a deep, deep concern.

And I don't see quite what his program would be to reverse that. He's got to give a kind of confidence that he has the police's back, at least when they operate appropriately, that nothing in his background suggests he will.

Brian Anderson: So more about the city's economy, Chicago companies have long had to pay pretty high taxes, and now as you just note, they're needing to contend with metastasizing public disorder. So you would have to look at that as a pretty uncomfortable business environment. There's a lot more retail thefts so that some stores are closing and it's harder, I imagine, to attract employees to the city. So Boeing, United Airlines, the hedge fund Citadel, have all left the city in recent years, and it's quite possible that more might follow. So what are Johnson's policy proposals when it comes to the economic world, and what do you think that that might suggest for the future of Chicago's business community?

John McGinnis: Well, his policies are essentially to tax businesses. That's really his almost entire policy towards business is, tax them in a whole variety of ways to have a tax on headcount. So the more, in other words, big businesses higher, the more they'll be taxed just per employee. He wants to also, as I understand it, raise commercial real estate taxes. He wants to put a tax on financial transactions. Now that is already dead because the governor after Johnson's election announced that he was not in favor of it. And many of these taxes, he will need to get authority from Springfield, which of course is controlled by Democrats, but it's not obvious to me that they're going to be enthusiastic about all of these taxes. And so the question is going to be, I think a difficult question for Johnson, he ran on this redistributionist campaign, is where is he going to get the money?

One thing he said he's not eager to do is raise property taxes because he says those are the wrong kind of taxes because they don't hit rich people. I think the most likely kind of tax he's surely going to get through is what he calls a mansion tax on creating higher transfer fees of housing over a million dollars. Well, it may harm real estate development, and it's not going to get him, I think, enough money to do the sorts of things he wants to do. So one question is what he can do, some people who support him want to bring in a city income tax on everyone over $100,000. I think that would run into constitutional problems here, because we have a flat tax requirement in the Illinois Constitution. And I don't think you could get around that just by saying it's a city tax.

So that's a real problem for Johnson, a happy problem in some sense for Chicago because if he does increase taxes, it's just likely to increase the flight of businesses. As you've pointed out already, businesses are leaving Chicago, and they're leaving it because they face the certainty of future taxes because there's huge pension deficits in Chicago. And Johnson's not saying he's going to use any of the money to retire those deficits. So the people here are still going to be on the hook for those. So the one hope, I think, for Chicago is that he's going to have difficulty raising taxes. And I think this points out the other hope, which is that more generally, a mayor of Chicago isn't all that powerful. He has to get agreement to raise taxes often from Springfield. He has to contend with a rather rambunctious group of aldermen who are often very well entrenched. So there may be difficulties, particularly I think on the revenue side. I don't know how Johnson's going to react to that, maybe he'll react by even amping up his rhetoric, which itself of course can be discouraging to business.

Brian Anderson: I guess a third positive thing, at least short term for Chicago, is the fact that the Democratic Party is going to have its convention in the city. So that might mean Johnson is going to feel a little restrained, because you're going to want the city to look good.

John McGinnis: Yes, I think that's right, and I think particularly the governor's going to want to make it look good. Governor Pritzker fancies himself a presidential candidate, not this time, but almost surely next time. The last thing he needs is for Chicago to go south on his watch. And I think Johnson's election creates a huge dilemma for Governor Pritzker, because he's been very much on the progressive side of the party, the left-wing side of the party. And so he doesn't want to seem to be out of step with a young black progressive. On the other hand, many of Johnson's policies, I think as a factual matter, are going to be very problematic for growth and flourishing of Chicago. And so he's got to, in some sense, restrain Johnson without seeming to shut him down.

And that I think in fact is this is Pritzker's greatest political test. Otherwise, he's very wealthy, he can spend a lot of money on his elections. He's in a very democratic state with an overwhelmingly democratic legislature. He's a, he's got a sunny, sunny future ahead of him. But this is a very difficult problem that he's going to be contending with. And I do think it helps Chicago, which is another kind of constraint on what Johnson can do.

Brian Anderson: Well, thank you very much, John, as always. That was extremely precise and illuminating. Don't forget to check out John McGinnis’s work on the City Journal website. That's We’ll link to his author page there in the description. And you can find him on Twitter @joldmcginn. You can also find City Journal on Twitter @CityJournal, and on Instagram @CityJournal_mi. And as always, if you like what you've heard on the podcast, please give us a five-star rating on iTunes. John McGinnis, thanks very, very much. Looking forward to more of your work in City Journal.

Photo by Jakub Porzycki/NurPhoto via Getty Images

More from 10 Blocks