Illustration by Siena Fite

On April 4, we have the choice to face our past and rectify it—or to deny it altogether. 

This election is not rare in having two imperfect candidates squaring off. It is rare because the battle we face is rooted in the eternal American debate about race and our history, and carries huge implications for the future of our country.  In this debate, there is no ethical path that allows a vote for Paul Vallas.

We don’t come to this conclusion lightly.  We are a group of Chicagoans who work across policy areas—education, arts and culture, neighborhood development, and housing—and none of us are wedded to electoral politics. We stay dreaming and working for a better Chicago, no matter who is in office.

But who is in office matters deeply to this work. 

These two candidates represent starkly different positions in the racial justice movement. On one end, we have Brandon Johnson, a former educator and current Cook County Commissioner, who is responsible for the public safety of 400,000 constituents. 

He is unequivocal on issues of race, segregation, and how government policies of the past directly targeted and harmed communities of color. With this approach, he sees what is necessary to make real opportunities possible for all Chicagoans: a holistic system of care, weaving together investments in public education, housing, mental healthcare, and youth programs. 

While Johnson speaks clearly about race, Paul Vallas speaks in code. His campaign has reduced the complex challenges of our vibrant city to public safety as the singular issue, and policing as the only answer.

This echoes the rhetoric espoused by Trump and Fox News every time Chicago is brought into a conversation. Vallas’s dog-whistles signal his subscription to far-right views, while weaponizing Chicagoans’ fear and their rightful desire to be safe in their city.

In all his focus on policing, Vallas fails to acknowledge that for many communities in Chicago, police do not mean safety. The Chicago Police Department is under federal monitoring due to its “racially discriminatory policing practices as well as widespread police abuse.” 

Vallas opposes naming this history of police abuse, and prefers to not talk about the problem.  This aligns with the views of groups funding anti-masking lawsuits, anti-trans legislation, and book bans to rewrite American history—as if the Civil War was not fought over slavery or as if January 6 was a casual tourist trip to D.C. 

Indeed, these groups see Vallas’ candidacy as a test of how to infiltrate Democratic politics through a candidate who flirts with their ideology. In Vallas, they find a perfect Trojan horse to recruit for their movement: someone desperate enough to say whatever is needed to court the funding necessary for a big-city election.

As Chicagoans who believe our collective future is inherently tied to how we understand our past, we disagree with Paul Vallas’s vision for the future of Chicago.

We know that in order to heal our city, we have to not only acknowledge history, but be accountable for past wrongs and make amends so that this history does not repeat itself. This is not an abstract statement. 

The cost of inequity and segregation in the Chicago region is billions of dollars in lost income, lost lives and lost potential each year, according to a Metropolitan Planning Council research study. If metro Chicago were less segregated, the research team found, it could see $4.4 billion in additional income each year, a thirty percent lower homicide rate and 83,000 more bachelor’s degrees. We know that a more racially equitable city is the way to ensure a safer, more vibrant Chicago for all of us.   

In James Baldwin’s words, “Not everything that is faced can be changed. But nothing can be changed until it is faced.”   

We believe in a future for our city that is honest about where we have been and clear-eyed about where we must change. We believe our future mayor must understand the realities of segregation and inequity—and the root causes of violence—in order to bring solutions from and with the communities that have experienced the greatest harm in our history. 

We believe Brandon Johnson has demonstrated the courage to look back at our history, and the conviction to move our city forward.  

This election is about what we value, and the unwavering judgment necessary to stand for what’s right. In this election, our values call us to vote for Brandon Johnson.

✶ ✶ ✶ ✶

Paola Aguirre, Niketa Brar, Tonika Johnson, Lisa Yun Lee, and Hilesh Patel are a group of Chicagoans who work in the field of racial equity, as cultural activists, organizers, and philanthropists. Together, they have launched numerous creative spaces for dialogue and culture shift, including The Folded Map Project, Inequity for Sale, Creative Grounds, the National Public Housing Museum, and The People’s Budget Chicago. They care deeply about recognizing Chicago’s past as well as building her future.

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  1. So incredibly ill-informed. As if they never once read one piece of Vallas policy or looked into his work over the past three decades. This campaign has vaulted a person of little experience in a racial war against someone who has addressed numerous crises – never perfectly – but resulting in far Improved conditions from how he found them. I’m saddened and angered about how people have simply listened to ads and campaign rhetoric and didn’t do research. And I thought these were considerate and balanced leaders.

    1. Most of use speaking out about Vallas were CPS students when he was CEO of CPS. We’ve lived through it AND have done the research. There are plenty of links in this op-ed and around the web that backs up these claims against Vallas.

    2. Agreed. This is bias and an over reach…much was added to pin Vallas as an alt-right. This screams Alt-Left controlled narrative.

  2. This is a brilliant article that has the beautiful ring of Truth .
    These are the kinds of leaders we must have to help us organize and do our work post election no matter who wins.

  3. This article seems to be fear mongering and only further contributes to the divisions and tribalism of our politics. While Vallas is supported by the police unions, that does not indicate a stark difference of racial justice and your claim that there is no ethical path to electing Vallas is inflammatory and misguided. You are doing your community a disservice and further dividing people.

  4. As a former Chicagoan( I moved away for a better job and better life) I’m disappointed with your article but I respect you nonetheless. We must learn to respect those we disagree with. IMHO Brandon Johnson plays the race card and a lot of are really really tired of that. As a marine corps veteran my advice to Chicago’s youth is join the military, get around others that look different from you, it will help you overcome your woke, victim-racist views.
    God bless

  5. Is it possible for the writers to abstain from painting contrarian points of view as unethical or immoral just because they disagree with it?

    I’m undecided and a person of color. It’s all well and good to espouse that investment will solve the root causes of crime, but the effects of that investment takes years, often decades. Investment to correct racial injustice is crucial but that does not prevent kids, grandmas and grandpas from getting shot, mugged or carjacked next week.

    Is it unethical to vote for a candidate who may bring the homicide rate down but does not fit into the writer’s narrative of delusional idealism? Is it ethical to vote for a candidate who says all the right things but has not put forward a concrete plan to bring down crime in the short term, thereby placing my family at risk?

    How about the ethics of “activists, organizers and philathropists” turning every public conversation into a toxic soup of purity olympics and painting every contrarian point of view as “bad people”.

    You guys need to get out there and talk to people who don’t fit in your echo chamber.

  6. These comments are 100x better than the article itself, written by 5 people! I truly want to vote for Johnson, but the article makes statements with no real hard reasons of fact and therefore fails to persuade. Its strongest part is linking to the study on segregation, Yet provides zero connection to how the candidates will address this segregation. So very odd.
    Terrible waste of time reading this one.

  7. I love this article i just wish i would’ve came out sooner. April 3rd is just the day before the election. I love this newspaper, but waiting til the day before to announce this opinion seems ill mannered. Many people would’ve benefited from this if it came out sooner.

  8. Given the current state of the city, I guess Vallas is the only choice then. Thanks

  9. Good luck. Keep wondering why there is so much crime instead of stopping it, keep making excuses for criminals instead of punishing them, and keep voting for woke mayors based upon the color of their skin instead of their plans for making Chicago a safe and beautiful city.

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