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Why Chicago's runoff mayoral election has the nation's attention

ADRIAN FLORIDO, HOST:

Today is the last day to vote in Chicago's critical mayoral race. Two Democrats, Paul Vallas and Brandon Johnson, are in a runoff that has attracted a rush of attention and spending from outside of Chicago. It will determine which Democrat will lead one of the country's largest cities. As NPR's Kelsey Snell reports, that's a role that may help define the entire party's identity.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VIC MENSA: (Rapping, inaudible).

KELSEY SNELL, BYLINE: Last Thursday, a raucous crowd rallied just outside of downtown Chicago. Rapper Vic Mensa and Senator Bernie Sanders were opening acts for Brandon Johnson. He is a Cook County commissioner and former public school teacher running for mayor. Sanders says this race is part of a bigger fight for progressive values across the country.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BERNIE SANDERS: We can create the kind of city that the people of Chicago deserve, the kind of nation that all of us deserve.

(APPLAUSE)

SNELL: Johnson is facing Paul Vallas, who was once the CEO of Chicago Public Schools. The two offer starkly different versions of how Democrats talk about issues like public safety, race, education and equity. Vallas won 33% of the vote in the first primary round in February. He has centered his campaign around public safety.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD, "PAUL VALLAS FOR MAYOR")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Crime in Chicago is out of control. And if you've had enough, you have a choice.

PAUL VALLAS: I'm Paul Vallas. I'll put more police officers on our streets, platforms and the L.

SNELL: Vallas says Johnson would defund the police, a position Johnson denies. Instead, Johnson talks about a community investment strategy for public safety that focuses on education, health care and housing equity. He won 22% of the vote in February. The race is the latest example of Democrats splitting along progressive and moderate lines. Johnson has framed Vallas as a Republican in disguise.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BRANDON JOHNSON: When you take dollars from Trump supporters and try to cast yourself as a part of the progressive movement, man, sit down.

SNELL: That's Johnson at the rally with Sanders last week, where he touted his support from local and national teachers unions. Vallas has backers that include the city's police union, and Illinois Senator Dick Durbin, who is one of the most senior Democrats in the state.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DICK DURBIN: I believe there's too much at stake to stand on the sidelines in this mayoral election. Crime and gun violence are hurting families and the good name of this great city.

SNELL: Their backgrounds echo other divides within the broader party. Johnson, who is a 47-year-old Black man, says his candidacy unites a multigenerational, racially diverse coalition of voters that Vallas, who is 69 and white, cannot reach. But Vallas is focusing on crime and urban business development at a time when polls show voters across the country are worried. And Republicans have spent the past several years hammering the message that Democrats are ruining cities like Chicago.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RON DESANTIS: The reason why you have crime that is spiraled out of control in so many of these different areas is because you have politicians putting woke ideology ahead of public safety.

SNELL: That's Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, an expected Republican presidential candidate. He was addressing members of Chicago's Fraternal Order of Police ahead of the February primary. That Republican critique is also one of the reasons that national Democrats are closely watching the outcome of elections like this. Simon Rosenberg, who is a longtime political consultant for Democrats, says many factors will affect the upcoming presidential election. And ultimately, President Biden, who is expected to run for reelection, will determine the party's message.

SIMON ROSENBERG: But it's like anything else in politics - right? - is that if the other side comes after you for something and you don't have a strong response, it can be hurtful.

SNELL: It will be up to national Democrats to come up with that response. Johnson and Vallas are trying to keep the focus on Chicago. Kelsey Snell, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kelsey Snell is a Congressional correspondent for NPR. She has covered Congress since 2010 for outlets including The Washington Post, Politico and National Journal. She has covered elections and Congress with a reporting specialty in budget, tax and economic policy. She has a graduate degree in journalism from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. and an undergraduate degree in political science from DePaul University in Chicago.

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