Chicago’s Jewish community could swing mayoral race

Crime and education emerging as top issues as Paul Vallas and Brandon Johnson square off on Tuesday

As Chicago’s mayoral campaign approaches its end with next Tuesday’s election, the two candidates, Paul Vallas and Brandon Johnson, have stepped up their efforts to win support from the Jewish community, a politically active voting bloc that could be pivotal in the highly competitive contest. 

In just the past week or so, the rival Democrats have each sat for private listening sessions with Orthodox Jewish leaders, appeared in dual forums hosted by the local Jewish federation and made separate arrangements to address congregants at one of the city’s oldest synagogues.

The 11th-hour overtures to a range of key Jewish groups and activists in metropolitan Chicago, home to the third-largest Jewish population in the United States, have come as polls show a tightening race between Vallas and Johnson, who advanced from a crowded election in late February that knocked the incumbent, Mayor Lori Lightfoot, out of contention.

The Orthodox Jewish community — a crucial demographic that traditionally votes as a bloc — is likely to coalesce behind Vallas, a moderate Democrat and former chief executive of Chicago Public Schools who has vowed to expand the city’s police force and promote school choice.

In February’s nine-way mayoral election, Vallas, 69, performed best in some of the city’s most heavily Orthodox areas, winning two precincts in the 50th Ward with more than 80% of the vote. Across the entire ward, where the majority of Chicago’s Orthodox community is concentrated, he claimed 50% of the vote, defeating Johnson, a Cook County commissioner and outspoken union organizer who has embraced a progressive platform, by more than 30 points.

The lopsided ratio might be interpreted as a highly localized response to their opposing approaches on crime and education, which polls show are the top two issues in the race. “I’m hearing from a lot of my constituents that public safety is probably the top concern,” Avroham Kagan, a Chabad rabbi in downtown Chicago who met with Vallas and Johnson during the first round of voting, said in an interview with Jewish Insider on Tuesday. “That’s been the most common thread.”

The candidates are divided on how to handle the city’s rising crime epidemic. Johnson, 47, has advocated for more accountability from Chicago’s police department while emphasizing community-based partnerships with law enforcement. During the campaign, he has backtracked on recent comments in which he described the movement to defund the police as a “political goal.”

Vallas, by contrast, rose to prominence by channeling fears over violent crime rates that increased during the pandemic. His tough-on-crime message, including a vow to fill nearly 2,000 police vacancies and aggressively prosecute misdemeanors, won him an endorsement from the Fraternal Order of Police, which Johnson has seized on to suggest that Vallas secretly harbors Republican views.

Meanwhile, Johnson’s close affiliation with the Chicago Teachers Union, which endorsed him even before he announced his candidacy, has fueled speculation that he is beholden to its interests. He has rejected those claims. The union, from which Johnson is on leave as a paid organizer, has opposed the continuation of a tax credit scholarship program that has benefited low-income students who attend Jewish day schools. In alignment with Orthodox leaders, Vallas has expressed support for the state legislation, which is set to expire this year.

Shlomo Soroka, the director of government affairs for Agudath Israel Illinois, characterized the preservation of “true Torah education” as “an existential need” that is linked directly with fighting antisemitism. “Yeshiva and day school enrollment are growing every year and the community is growing every year,” he told JI. 

Still, he said that Orthodox voters in Chicago, whose population he estimates at more than 20,000, now feel “uniquely vulnerable” to violent crime amid a national surge in antisemitic incidents, which rose significantly last year in Chicago and the broader Midwest, according to a recent report conducted by the Anti-Defamation League.

“Our neighborhoods have historically always been very safe, and we’ve experienced a very serious uptick in violent crime in our areas,” he said in an interview with JI on Tuesday. “While overall crime may be down, Chicagoans in many neighborhoods don’t feel safe.”

The Orthodox community is particularly exposed because its members are “visibly Jewish,” he told JI, and therefore easily targeted. He said the community “needs to see the issue being addressed effectively,” citing hopes for an increased police presence during Shabbat as well as Jewish holidays when community members are also forbidden from working. 

He raised those issues, among others, in recent meetings with Vallas and Johnson, he said. “They were receptive to our concerns,” Soroka told JI, acknowledging that both candidates “obviously have different styles and different ideas about different things.”

While neither candidate promised to deliver votes in the state capital to uphold the education bill, Vallas and Johnson were otherwise supportive of combating antisemitism, he said. “Brandon said that your Jewish identity, your culture, your language, your mode of dress, it shouldn’t be something to be afraid of,” Soroka recalled. “It should be celebrated, and anyone that tries to take that away from you, that is the definition of antisemitism.”

Days earlier, however, Johnson had struggled to define antisemitism during a closed-door candidate forum hosted by the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago at its downtown offices, a recording of which was obtained by JI. 

“Any speech or any effort to delegitimize Israel and its right to exist, that’s how I view antisemitism,” he told attendees, briefly pausing between some words as he tentatively began his response. “And that definition isn’t far away from just my own personal experiences,” said Johnson, who is Black. “It’s like, when Black men say we can’t breathe, you should believe us. Don’t delegitimize my humanity or my existence, and so when there are efforts to do that, that’s how I would categorize or define antisemitism.”

Some participants who spoke with JI said they were surprised by the relatively limited scope of Johnson’s answer and felt it had demonstrated a lack of familiarity with Jewish communal issues such as security concerns, which he had also been asked to address. “I was shocked that he stumbled like that,” said one attendee. “I have seen countless candidates and politicians speak on this issue. Probably one of the worst fumbles I have seen.”

The initial question had not been particularly “complex,” said the attendee, noting that the moderator gave a “two-minute introduction to antisemitism” covering recent incidents of antisemitic vandalism in Chicago as well as “teachers misrepresenting the Holocaust” and college students who are asked to “leave their belief in Israel’s right to exist at the door.”

In the same answer, Johnson also expressed a commitment to “making sure that we hear and see and view the expertise and the lived experiences of the Jewish community,” adding: “I’m actually a little disturbed by the fact that you have forces that do not want to see the history of the Jewish community told.” He said he was “very much committed to making sure that we are bringing communities together.”

In a statement to JI after this story was published on Thursday morning, a spokesperson for Johnson’s campaign, Ronnie Reese, said the commissioner “is fully aware of and concerned about” rising antisemitism. If elected, Johnson will have “a liaison on staff to be a direct point of contact for the community” and “will work with partners in public safety to ensure there is a presence in areas in the communities that have been impacted,“ including kosher markets and synagogues.

Elsewhere in the forum, Johnson weighed in on the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement targeting Israel. He was asked specifically if he would support anti-BDS legislation in Illinois as well as a resolution passed by the City Council in 2015 urging a pension fund in Chicago not to invest in companies that engage in boycotts of Israel. While he did not explicitly commit to either, he clarified that he is opposed to BDS. “The divestment movement is not aligned with my values,” he said. 

Johnson’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment from JI on Wednesday.

For his part, Vallas, who faced the same questions while meeting with the federation recently, said he is against BDS and would support the legislation and the resolution, according to two attendees who were present for the discussion. In explaining his own view of antisemitism, meanwhile, Vallas deferred to the working definition promoted by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.

A spokesperson for Vallas’ campaign did not respond to a request for comment from JI on Tuesday.

While neither candidate “has a long history of Jewish communal engagement or involvement,” said Daniel Goldwin, the executive director of public affairs for the Jewish United Fund of Metropolitan Chicago, the city’s federation, they have both “been active in reaching out to different parts of the Jewish community.”

On Saturday, for example, Vallas appeared before congregants of Anshe Emet Synagogue, a Conservative congregation in the Lakeview neighborhood of Chicago, where he spoke with the senior rabbi, Michael Siegel. In response to a question about how he intends to address antisemitic incidents, Vallas said his “first order of business would be to pass” a public safety ordinance that allows the city to “prosecute and impose sentences for people who commit hate crimes.”

“We have the power to do that,” he explained, noting that his administration would have “zero tolerance when it comes to hate crimes.” 

In his discussion with the federation, Johnson, who is scheduled to appear at Anshe Emet on Saturday morning, suggested that he would work to ensure that Chicago police officers are given adequate training to recognize and investigate hate crimes.

Leonard Matanky, a rabbi who leads Congregation K.I.N.S., an Orthodox synagogue in West Rogers Park, said in a recent interview with JI that he believes “there is a greater amount of support for Vallas” among Jewish voters, citing his budget experience as a longtime superintendent in several major cities as well as his efforts to promote Holocaust education. 

But progressive Jewish activists say they are more enlivened by Johnson, who earlier this month held a rally with the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs alongside several Jewish elected officials, including Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL), who is backing his campaign. The group’s recently launched political arm, JCUA Votes, which is focused exclusively on domestic issues, has also endorsed Johnson in the runoff. Its volunteers are currently engaged in door knocking and phone banking ahead of Tuesday’s election.

With the election set to take place just a day before Passover, there have been some challenges in ensuring that Orthodox voters cast their ballots before they have left town or become too busy in making preparations for the holiday, according to Soroka, the government affairs director of Agudath Israel Illinois.

The group itself does not make endorsements, and he declined to share which candidate he suspects the Orthodox community will support. But he said the organization has otherwise engaged in a “comprehensive” vote-by-mail program that he described as successful. 

“I think you’re going to see very solid turnout from the Orthodox community,” he told JI. “Our community could go either way in any given race and help determine the outcome of a close election.”

Ed. note: This story was updated at 1:20 p.m. ET on March 30, 2023, to include comment from Johnson.

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