Vallas, Johnson Begin Closing Arguments in Race for Chicago Mayor as Focus Turns to Mail Voting

Video: The WTTW News Spotlight Politics team breaks down the biggest headlines of the day. (Produced by Alexandra Silets)

With less than a week left in the Chicago mayor’s race, Brandon Johnson campaigned on the South Side on Wednesday with religious leaders, while Paul Vallas touted endorsements from Democratic elected officials and defended his record on education.

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Polls show Johnson, a Cook County commissioner, and Vallas, the former CEO of Chicago Public Schools, running neck and neck with a large portion of voters undecided. Tuesday is Election Day, and early voting is already underway.

The close margin between the two candidates — who differ on nearly every issue from public safety to education and the city’s finances — means that the result of the most hotly contested runoff in Chicago history might not be known Tuesday night. More than 199,600 Chicagoans have requested a mail-in ballot, and while those votes must be postmarked no later than Tuesday, they will be counted as long as they arrive by April 18, officials said.

Read More: WTTW 2023 Chicago Runoff Election Voter Guide

In the first round of voting, which narrowed the field of nine candidates to the final two, those who cast a ballot for Johnson were more likely to vote by mail, shaving 3 percentage points from Vallas’ first-place finish from Election Day to the certification of the election. That could make the Associated Press and other news organizations reluctant to call the race to be Chicago’s 57th mayor on Tuesday night.

Voting by mail emerged as a flashpoint at an event hosted by the Vallas campaign on Chicago’s Southwest Side Monday evening, where former 12th Ward alderperson and current Cook County Board of Review Commissioner George Cardenas said Johnson was relying on votes cast by mail and asked the crowd whether they would let Johnson “cheat,” prompting the crowd to roar “no.”

“They loaded up the absentees,” Cardenas told the crowd, according to a video sent to WTTW News, as Vallas stood off to the side.“They got names from all of these people that usually don’t vote, they made them sign a document that got the ballot at the house and they mailed it back or they took it and dropped it off. If you let them cheat, they are going to win and that’s not acceptable. Are you going to let them cheat?”

Cardenas served as Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s deputy floor leader and was a reliable supporter of her initiatives and policies before resigning from the City Council to join the Board of Review and backing Vallas.

Cardenas’ remarks echoed false statements made by former President Donald Trump before the 2020 presidential election. Trump and other Republicans often falsely said that ballots cast by mail were more likely to be fraudulent than those cast in person and on Election Day. Those statements helped fuel both efforts to overturn President Joe Biden’s victory and the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.

Cardenas, a Democrat, told WTTW News he was trying to inspire Vallas supporters to vote during his remarks.

“I don’t think I crossed the line,” said Cardenas, who could not provide any evidence to WTTW News that the Johnson campaign had violated election law, which prohibits voters from being coerced into requesting a mail-in ballot and bans campaigns from dropping off completed ballots.

Cardenas declined to answer questions about whether his remarks could threaten Chicagoans’ confidence in the election results.

A Vallas campaign spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment from WTTW News.

Fueled by changes made during the COVID-19 pandemic, the number of votes cast by mail soared by nearly 20% in the first round of voting as compared to the 2019 election, according to data from the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners.

That means fewer than 48% of all votes were cast on Election Day, giving both campaigns an incentive to get their supporters to the polls as soon as possible.

“At a time when so many Republican politicians are peddling election denial and undermining public trust in elections, it’s unacceptable for Paul Vallas to stand by while one of his leading surrogates spews authoritarian, anti-democratic Fox News-style conspiracies,” said Ronnie Reese, a spokesperson for the Johnson campaign. “Paul owes it to Chicagoans to reaffirm his commitment to the basic principles of democracy, and explain why he’s continued to accept the support of extremist right-wing lieutenants who claim Trump-like election denial.”

Campaigning alongside Civil Rights leader the Rev. Jesse Jackson Jr., Johnson accepted the endorsement of Bishop J. Drew Sheard, head of the Church of God in Christ, the nation’s largest Pentecostal denomination.

But Johnson hopes to enter the final days of the campaign buoyed by U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, who will rally alongside Johnson Thursday at the Credit Union 1 Arena, a 10,000-seat venue on the campus of the University of Illinois-Chicago. Organizers moved the rally, which will also feature music superstar Vic Mensa, from the UIC Forum, which has a capacity of 3,000, because of strong demand for tickets.

Cardenas’ remarks came one day after John Catanzara, the president of the Fraternal Order of Police, Lodge 7, told the New York Times that between 800 and 1,000 police officers will resign if Johnson wins, leading to “blood in the streets.”

The union, which represents rank-and-file officers, endorsed Vallas in the race for mayor. Even after Vallas said he “condemns” Catanzara’s remarks, the union’s leadership doubled down on the statements in a Facebook post.

Vallas kicked off the final week of the campaign by releasing a television ad that touts his support from prominent Democrats, including U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, even as Johnson released a new website highlighting Vallas’ ties to the Republican Party and “right-wing extremists.”

Catanzara resigned from the Police Department while the Chicago Police Board was weighing whether to fire him for violating nearly a dozen rules stemming from his inflammatory social media activity and false police reports he filed against a supervisor and former Supt. Eddie Johnson.

In addition, Catanzara initially defended the insurrectionists who stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 and compared Chicago’s vaccine mandate for all city employees to Nazi Germany.

As Cardenas spoke, Ald. Silvana Tabares (23rd Ward) looked on. One of the most conservative members of the City Council, Tabares was one of 13 alderpeople to vote to roll back the COVID-19 mandate imposed by Lightfoot on city employees, including members of the City Council.

All but two of the alderpeople who voted with Tabares — Ald. Marty Quinn (13th Ward) and retiring Ald. Ed Burke (14th Ward) — have endorsed Vallas, who has said he will lift the COVID-19 vaccine mandate. Vallas’ supporters include Ald. Anthony Napolitano (41st Ward), the only member of the City Council who is not a member of the Democratic Party, and Ald. Jim Gardiner, who faces a runoff to keep his seat representing the 45th Ward while under multiple investigations.

Vallas also has the support of several City Council members with ties to former Mayor Richard M. Daley, who tapped Vallas in the 1990s to serve as Daley's budget director and then run Chicago Public Schools. Ald. Michelle Harris (8th Ward), appointed in 2006, and Ald. Emma Mitts (37th Ward), appointed in 2000, are the only two Daley appointees still serving on the City Council. Both have endorsed Vallas, along with Ald. Anthony Beale (9th Ward) and Ald. Walter Burnett (27th Ward), both of whom served as committee chairs during Daley’s tenure, as well as retiring Ald. Roberto Maldonado (26th Ward), who was also appointed by Daley.

Contact Heather Cherone: @HeatherCherone | (773) 569-1863 | [email protected]

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