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Trump’s a Major Issue in the Chicago Mayoral Race

Progressive Brandon Johnson is ripping rival Paul Vallas for once dismissing accountability for Trump as a “witch hunt.”

John Nichols

April 4, 2023

Chicago mayoral candidates Brandon Johnson, left, and Paul Vallas at ABC7 studios in downtown Chicago on March 16.(Chris Sweda / Chicago Tribune via AP, Pool)

Tuesday is going to be an all-Trump, all-the-time day. The American media won’t be able to get enough of the story of the former president’s arrival in New York and his arrest and arraignment on charges stemming from hush-money payments and other alleged crimes during his 2016 campaign. But Tuesday is also an election day that will see voters decide a critical Supreme Court contest in Wisconsin and choose a new mayor of Chicago, the nation’s third-largest and frequently most politically contentious city.

Trump’s always been an issue in the race for the open high court seat in Wisconsin, where voters will decide whether the bench will have a liberal or conservative majority. The conservative candidate, former Supreme Court justice Dan Kelly, worked as a lawyer for state and national Republican Party organizations during the 2020 presidential campaign, and during the post-campaign period when Trump tried to overturn the results of that election. Ads for Milwaukee County Judge Janet Protasiewicz, the liberal candidate who is supported by labor, civil rights, and progressive groups, have highlighted revelations that Kelly advised Trump operatives and GOP insiders as they were plotting a scheme to replace Wisconsin’s legitimate electors with a group of Trump-aligned fake electors. One Protasiewicz ad concludes with a deep-voiced narrator warning, “On April 4th, vote like democracy depends on it. Because it does.”

Elsewhere, in the closing days of the tight race in Chicago, Trump has also emerged as a factor in the contest between progressive Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson and former Chicago schools superintendent Paul Vallas. Though he has long been aligned with corporate interests and conservative school-choice advocates—and though his campaign this year has echoed the “law and order” rhetoric espoused by Republicans—Vallas has said throughout this year’s campaign that he’s “a lifelong Democrat.”

But as news of the former president’s indictment took center stage nationally last week, attention in Chicago turned to a statement made by Vallas when Trump faced impeachment charges in 2021. Asked in a radio conversation about efforts to hold the 45th president to account for stirring up supporters who sought to block certification of 2020 election results, Vallas said of the impeachment initiative, “I always felt it was a witch hunt.”

That’s a “lifelong Democrat” talking about a process that won the support of all 222 Democrats then serving in the US House of Representatives, along with 10 Republicans, for articles of impeachment. In the Senate, all 48 Democrats, as well as two independents and seven Republicans, voted for Trump’s conviction.

Brandon Johnson, who has for weeks been recalling Vallas’s announcement during Barack Obama’s presidency that “I’m more of a Republican than a Democrat,” seized on the “witch hunt” comment. As the news of Trump’s latest legal troubles surfaced, Johnson declared, “Donald Trump will finally be indicted. Justice will be served. But Paul Vallas? He said Donald Trump’s impeachment was a ‘witch hunt.’ Believe him when he says he is ‘more of a Republican than a Democrat.’”

For his part, Vallas was struggling last week to reposition himself in the Democratic mainstream. He hailed the indictment of Trump, saying, “This unprecedented and historic news begins the process of proving once and for all that no one is above the law and everyone must be held accountable for their actions.” But Johnson suggested that Vallas’s advocacy for accountability seemed to be conveniently timed to blunt criticism for his past remarks—and for his record of aligning with Republicans.

A close-of-the-campaign ad from the Johnson campaign featured a video clip from the “witch hunt” interview, an audio clip of the “more of a Republican than a Democrat” comment, a reference to an interview in which Vallas said, “Fundamentally I oppose abortion,” and references to the fact that Vallas’s mayoral campaign has been heavily funded by Republican donors. Johnson has highlighted all these connections in speeches. He’s also been talking about the $60,000 in independent spending on behalf of Vallas from a group founded by Trump administration Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

“It’s playing out in the city of Chicago,” Johnson said in a debate last week. “This Trumpian-style politics that has inserted itself into this campaign is quite disturbing and these ideas…are surrounding my opponent.”

That’s a potent message in a city where Trump won less than 18 percent of the vote in 2020, as Democrat Joe Biden was carrying every one of the city’s 50 wards.

John NicholsTwitterJohn Nichols is a national affairs correspondent for The Nation. He has written, cowritten, or edited over a dozen books on topics ranging from histories of American socialism and the Democratic Party to analyses of US and global media systems. His latest, cowritten with Senator Bernie Sanders, is the New York Times bestseller It's OK to Be Angry About Capitalism.

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