In this edition, we go to Chicago for a mayoral runoff that could send the city in two very differen͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌ 
sunny Chicago
thunderstorms Concord
sunny Nashville
rotating globe
March 28, 2023


Sign up for our free newsletters
David Weigel
David Weigel

In this edition, we go to Chicago for a mayoral runoff that could send the city in two very different directions; to New Hampshire, where Chris Christie has a lot of regrets; and to Tennessee, where the identity of a mass shooter turned into a political flashpoint.

Was this e-mail forwarded to you? Click here to sign up!

David Weigel

Why Chicago’s mayoral race is going down to the wire

Jacek Boczarski/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images


CHICAGO, Ill. — The race to replace Mayor Lightfoot is tightening. The candidates, both Democrats, could not be further apart.

On Sunday, Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson campaigned across heavily Black wards on the city’s South Shore and west side, promising to raise taxes on the “ultra-rich” and pour their money into the community.

“During the Great Depression, they gave white men shovels before there were places to dig. They gave them housing. They gave them free college. No one called it entitlement,” said Johnson. “In the city of Chicago, we have stuff to build and lives to save.”

The next day, ex-Chicago Public Schools CEO Paul Vallas rallied with union leaders who’d already endorsed him, decrying Johnson’s tax plan and worrying about crime. Johnson’s proposed taxes, said Vallas, were “job killers at a time when the city is struggling” that came from a candidate who wanted to “defund the cops.”


Voter worries about crime have defined Biden-era city elections in major cities, from the victory of New York Mayor Eric Adams in 2021 to last year’s recall of ex-San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin.

Neither city faced as much violent crime per capita as Chicago. Vallas, a non-factor when he ran for mayor four years ago, rode the issue to a fundraising lead and first-place primary showing.

“I feel like I need to have a gun in my house,” said Jim Sweeney, the president of IUOE Local 150, as he stood beside Vallas. “This is not the Chicago I grew up in.”

But Chicago’s election isn’t another black-and-white story about liberal cities rebelling against crime. One week out from the April 4 runoff, the 69-year old Vallas and 47-year old Johnson are in a dead heat, separated by single digits in polls, in a city that’s gotten used to landslides.

Johnson, a teacher and union activist who helped organize the city’s resurgent left, has portrayed Vallas as an incompetent executive who’d rather talk about crime than his record — and a crypto-Republican in a community that gave Donald Trump just 16% of the vote.

Vallas, campaigning with fellow “lifelong Democrats” to help blunt those attacks, calls Johnson “bought and paid for by the Chicago Teachers Union,” and warns that the city might not recover from a left-wing mayor.

Vallas grabbed 33% of the vote to 22% for Johnson. Both candidates got the opponent they wanted to maximize their contrasts: For Johnson, a white moderate who’d made enemies in the other cities that hired him. For Vallas, a Black progressive who’d mused about “redirecting money away from policing,” an electoral anchor for other Democrats.

“Brandon Johnson isn’t going to be the mayor of this city,” Lightfoot scoffed at one pre-primary campaign stop, at a moment when Rep. Jesus “Chuy” Garcia looked like a more credible progressive candidate.

But most Chicagoans who didn’t vote for Vallas last month went for someone running to his left, including Lightfoot, who started the attacks on his donations from Republicans. Her ads featured a 2009 interview clip where Vallas called himself “more of a Republican than a Democrat” and said that he was personally “pro-life.”

Johnson’s campaign, which includes strategists who worked on Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ 2020 presidential bid, went after Vallas relentlessly for his criticism of some Democrats and progressive ideas. This week, lawn signs with no listed sponsor began appearing in Black precincts on the city’s south side – Vallas’ name next to a Trump-style “MAGA 2024” logo. Vallas blamed Johnson for the signs, which Johnson flatly denied.

“It’s embarrassing, it’s humiliating. It’s really insulting when you really think about it,” Vallas said on Monday. “You have a whole conversation about how you’ve been an undying supporter of Roe vs. Wade and women’s reproductive rights. And then when somebody asks you about your personal religious convictions, you make a comment, and that’s the comment that shows up in commercials.”

But the message had made inroads with the city’s heavily Democratic electorate. “More than anything, it’s the problem with Vallas,” said Josef Michael Carr, an organizer of Johnson’s Sunday stop at a South Shore school gym. “Brandon is a great candidate. But you see on the news that Vallas, he’s associated with many people that supported former President Trump. And that just doesn’t sit well with most Chicagoans.”


Jacek Boczarski/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Johnson, who’ll campaign with Sanders on Thursday, has also connected his party loyalty to his progressive tax and schools agenda — one that has been stymied by generations of mayors since the death of Mayor Harold Washington in 1987.

“Vallas needs the middle class and working class people to pay so that his donors can make good on their investment in his campaign,” Johnson said in a Monday speech to the City Club of Chicago. “I believe that the wealthy should pay their fair share, just like all Democrats.”

But there are many kinds of Democrats in Chicago, and Johnson is building on left-wing organizing that started as a response to two-term Mayor Rahm Emanuel. The CTU and its national affiliates have put more than $2 million combined into a campaign to defeat Vallas; the United Working Families labor coalition, founded in 2014, is canvassing for votes. It endorsed Johnson last September, when he was polling in the low single digits.

“The terrain of the 2023 municipal elections — including a weak mayor and an unprecedented wave of aldermanic retirements — provides us with a generational opportunity to continue organizing for radical alternatives and mass-based political power,” UWF wrote in its endorsement resolution.

In Vallas, the union sees a long-time enemy whose real education plan can be seen in his charter school advocacy in other cities. In Johnson, the union has a candidate who favors strong “neighborhood schools” over a system of school choice and selective enrollment.

“We cannot afford to have a stratified school district where you have to apply in order to have access to a quality school,” Johnson said on Monday. “We’re talking about the desires of families and parents like mine, who do not want to receive letters deeming their children ineligible. That’s an inequitable structure.”

Some “radical” ideas have not made it. In debates, Johnson has repeatedly rejected the “defund” approach to policing, emphasizing the part of it that got lost in the protests of 2020 — that more jobs and resources in deprived neighborhoods would prevent crime. He portrays Vallas’ promise to fill the more than 1000 vacancies in the police force as an unrealistic quick fix that’s less effective than his own plan to hire more detectives.

“I’m not going to defund the police,” Johnson said at the City Club event. “Wouldn’t it just be easier to believe a Black man when he’s telling you the truth?”


  • In the New York Times, Jonathan Weisman frames the race as a clash between the CTU and the FOP, with police union president John Catanzara acting as a drag on Vallas. Catanzara predicted “blood in the streets” and a mass exodus of cops if Johnson prevailed; one day later, Vallas called those comments “absolutely irresponsible.” Previously, in an interview with Semafor, Vallas emphasized that he’d been endorsed by the FOP’s “rank and file,” not its president, who’s not an electoral asset in a Democratic city.
State of Play


Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie returned to the state where his presidential dreams ended to rally voters against a Donald Trump comeback. “I’ll be honest with you. We all made a strategic error,” said Christie, explaining why he became the first ex-Trump challenger to endorse his campaign. “I stayed with him in 2016 because I didn’t want Hillary Clinton to be president.”

An ad for Philadelphia mayoral candidate Rebecca Rhynhart.
YouTube/Rebecca For Philadelphia

Friends of Brandon Johnson, “Difference.” Johnson’s campaign has tried to turn Vallas’ crime-centric campaign against him, portraying him as obsessed with an unrealistic police hiring number and little else. Here, Johnson says that he alone has “a plan to make Chicago safer by finally going after the root causes of crime,” and he alone has pledged not to raise property taxes, highlighting how Vallas has promised only to “cap” them.

Vallas for Mayor, “911 Unanswered.” Under pressure from Johnson, Vallas has stuck with his theme: The election is about crime, and his opponent would make it worse. That’s dramatized with a gimmick previously seen in Donald Trump’s 2020 campaign, playing the sound of a 911 call to evoke what might happen after “Brandon Johnson’s deep cuts to the police department” — specifically, that “response times will get worse.”

Rebecca for Philadelphia, “Two Mayors.” John Street and Michael Nutter, who both served two terms as Philadelphia’s mayor, left office with plenty of enemies. They appear in city controller Rebbeca Rhynhart’s campaign ad for mayor as symbols of the good old days, when crime was lower. Nutter praises her “common sense plans to tackle violent crime,” while Street promises that she can “get illegal guns, trash, and abandoned cars off our streets.”


Last week’s thumb-sucking discussion of whether “woke” could be defined, or whether it had become a meaningless catch-all GOP insult, didn’t really reach a resolution. But this is a good snapshot of something Republicans are comfortable mocking and defining as “woke”: using preferred gender pronouns. Just one in five Americans say they like doing it, and even fewer, 17%, say that transgender athletes should be “able to play on teams that match their current gender identity.” Republicans haven’t gotten the electoral bounce they expected from opposing this, but they don’t see an electoral downside, either. A question about broader transgender rights suggests one hurdle: Only 43% of respondents said society had gone “too far” in accepting transgender people, versus 56% who thought the level of tolerance was “about right” or had “not gone far enough.”

Democratic voters continue to be worried about the oldest-ever president winning a second term, and uninterested in any particular alternative candidate. When asked who they’d support if Biden opted not to run again, 51% of Democrats have no idea; just 13% say Vice President Harris, who consistently polls worse than Biden in trial heats against Donald Trump or Ron DeSantis. Just 1% favor Marianne Williamson, the only declared candidate for the Democratic nomination, and just as many favor Tulsi Gabbard, the former Hawaii congresswoman who left the party last year.



Details on the motive and biography of the shooter in Monday’s attack in Nashville on a Christian school are still unclear. But Nashville police chief John Drake described “her” as transgender and officials pointed to a social media post using masculine pronouns.

That prompted Vivek Ramaswamy to denounce “transgenderism” and promise to treat it like a “mental disorder” if elected.

“We spend $80 billion per year through the U.S. Dept of Education that helps fund radical gender and racial ideology to create psychopaths,” Ramaswamy said in a statement. “When someone identifies as a gender different from their biological sex, more often than not, that is a sign and a symptom that they are suffering from a mental illness.”

In an interview earlier this month, Ramaswamy had told Semafor that “a plain reading” of how courts have interpreted anti-discrimination law protects gender identity, even though he did “not think it should be included.”

Other Republicans, like Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene and Ohio Sen. J.D. Vance, made the same Nashville linkage as Ramaswamy, part of a broader movement towards open antipathy toward transgender identity that’s been growing more prominent on the right. Major national medical institutions — the American Medical Association and the American Psychiatric Association— do not categorize gender dysphoria as a mental illness, and have criticized efforts to restrict medical treatment for it.

Pushing back on Greene, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y. told reporters that it’s “absolutely disgusting and she should be looking into a mirror as to why she’s defending and posing with the same weapons that  are being used to kill children, teachers and educators.”

Other 2024 candidates didn’t make the connection. In New Hampshire, Nikki Haley responded to the shooting with another call for security at schools: “It’s okay if there are metal detectors.”

Donald Trump didn’t respond and followed his weekend rally in Waco, Tex. with a friendly Sean Hannity interview. He used it to embellish the story of his 2017 tweet endorsing Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, saying that the candidate, then a congressman, had begged him with “tears in his eyes” to endorse his campaign, recalling that challenger Adam Putnam “was beating Ron by 30 points or something.”

In reality, Trump endorsed DeSantis before he got into the race, in December 2017; DeSantis entered the race weeks later, initially led Putnam, then slipped behind him in May and June 2018. In his memoir, DeSantis argues that his late June debate victory propelled him to the nomination, after an early assist from Trump.


California Rep. Ro Khanna won’t run to replace retiring Sen. Dianne Feinstein, endorsing fellow Bay Area Rep. Barbara Lee in an appearance on CNN’s “State of the Union.” Khanna, who’d previously said that it was important to have a Black woman in the Senate, added that Lee would be an “anti-war” voice; Rep. Adam Schiff, who started the race with the largest war chest of any Democrat, voted for both the 2001 authorization of war in Afghanistan, and the 2002 authorization of the invasion of Iraq.


… seven days until Chicago’s mayoral runoff and Wisconsin’s state Supreme Court election

… 49 days until primaries in Kentucky

… 222 days until elections in Kentucky, Louisiana, New Jersey, Mississippi, and Virginia

… 588 days until the 2024 presidential election

How Are We Doing?

If you’re enjoying Semafor Americana and finding it useful, please share with your family, friends and colleagues.

To assure this email doesn’t go to your junk folder, add to your contacts. In Gmail you should drag this newsletter over to your ‘Primary’ tab.

Also please send feedback! We want to hear from you.


Sign up now to get Semafor in your inbox.
Semafor, Inc. 228 Park Ave S, PMB 59081, New York, NY, 10003-1502, USA