Two candidates representing opposite ends of the Democratic party are on the ballot in the highly-watched Chicago mayoral runoff on Tuesday.

Paul Vallas, the former CEO of the Chicago school system, and Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson, a former teacher who is heavily backed by the Chicago Teachers Union, were the top two vote-getters in the February general election. Incumbent Mayor Lori Lightfoot came in third, so she will not be on the ballot on Tuesday. 

Polls will be open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. ET.  

“In general, the race is too close to call,” said Dick Simpson, a former Chicago alderman and professor emeritus at the University of Illinois-Chicago. “It depends on turnout that each candidate is able to produce their voters … the voters are literally torn.” 

Vallas, who is White, has focused his campaign mainly on crime while Johnson, who is Black, has focused on education. 

Brandon Johnson, left, and Paul Vallas. 

Jim Vondruska/Getty Images, Scott Olson/Getty Images

Vallas led in the general election, taking 32.9% of the vote, and Johnson came in second with 21.6%, but Johnson has closed the gap since then. A recent poll from Northwestern University’s Center for the Study of Diversity and Democracy (CSDD) and various nonprofit organizations found the race in a dead heat, with both Vallas and Johnson having 44% of the vote. 

Despite that Vallas formerly has described himself as “more Republican than Democrat,” he has received the backing from several high-profile Illinois Democrats. Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin, the senior senator from Illinois, has backed him, as well as former President Obama’s Education Secretary Arne Duncan. He also has the support of Republican donor Kenneth Griffin, who has previously backed divisive former Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel. 

Johnson, meanwhile, has received the backing of influential national Democrats like Sens. Bernie Sanders — who held a rally with Johnson last week — and Elizabeth Warren, Jesse Jackson and Rep. Jim Clyburn. At the rally for Johnson, Sanders categorized the race as being between the interest of the “powerful and greedy” and “the son of the working class,” according to the Chicago Tribune

Despite the national interest in the race — Chicago is, after all, America’s third largest city — Christopher Mooney, a political science professor at the University of Illinois-Chicago, noted the biggest issues are local issues — crime and education — and not broader cultural war issues.

“The culture war issues and the weird national polarization that we’ve got now — and Donald Trump — those culture wars and Donald Trump, those things are irrelevant in the city of Chicago,” Mooney said. 

According to the Chicago Tribune, the candidates brought in about $17 million in the month between the general election and the end of March. Vallas brought in just under $11 million and Johnson brought in $5.8 million, according to the Tribune. 

More than half of Johnson’s fundraising haul has come from the Chicago Teachers Union, where he was once an organizer. Since he announced his candidacy, he has also received support from other influential teachers’ unions, including the American Federation of Teachers and the Illinois Federation of Teachers. 

Education has become one of the driving local issues in this race. While Vallas served as CEO of Chicago Public Schools under former Mayor Richard Daley from 1995-2001 and later in similar positions in other cities around the country, he was a strong proponent of charter schools.

As Mooney noted, the teachers union and charter schools have “conflicting interests,” but Vallas appeals to people who think that Johnson is too controlled by the CTU. 

Although Vallas has received significant funding from charter school advocates, he has not highlighted it as an issue in this campaign. Rather, Vallas has focused heavily on being tough on crime. 

Vallas has campaigned on adding police officers on patrol and on public transit, Johnson has taken a more progressive route of tackling the root causes of crime. 

In big cities throughout the country, tough-on-crime messaging has proven popular for Democrats. In New York, former cop-turned-politician — and more conservative Democrat in the race — Eric Adams won the mayor’s race in 2021 and progressive district attorney Chesa Boudin was successfully recalled in San Francisco in 2022. 

Vallas has received significant support — both financial and personal — from the Fraternal Order of Police, the police union. Chicago FOP president John Catanzara said last week that 800 to 1,000 police officers would resign if Johnson was elected, predicting that there would be “blood in the streets as a result.”

At a debate last week, Johnson blasted Catanzara, saying “has said a lot of disturbing, ridiculous things,” highlighting Catanzara’s comments supporting the rioters at the Jan. 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol, criticizing Black Lives Matter and other controversial statements.

“It actually speaks to the type of candidacy that my opponent is running,” Johnson said of Vallas’ ties to the FOP and Catanzara. Vallas, for his part, said he would not be beholden to the FOP.   

Most of the city’s Black community appeared to be lining up behind Johnson, according to recent polls. Vallas has also tried to reach more conservative Black voters as well as assembling a coalition of Republicans, wealthier residents and Latinos. The Latino community has so far remained split, which could be a huge deciding factor in the race.

Lightfoot, meanwhile, the first incumbent Chicago mayor to lose reelection in over 40 years has not endorsed a candidate, although it’s unlikely either candidate would welcome it. Her leadership style amid the COVID-19 pandemic, crime surges and clashes with the teachers’ union has left her with high unpopularity both within the city and nationally.