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Voters in Chicago elect Brandon Johnson as their new mayor

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Chicago chose a new mayor last night. A runoff election in a city as blue as the waters of Lake Michigan featured a Democrat against a Democrat, and voters chose the more progressive Democrat. Brandon Johnson defeated a candidate who is considered more mainstream. From member station WBEZ, Mariah Woelfel reports.

MARIAH WOELFEL, BYLINE: In many ways, Brandon Johnson beat the odds to triumph over his better-known opponent, Paul Vallas, who raised double the amount of money than he did. And Johnson wasted no time acknowledging his underdog status in his victory speech.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BRANDON JOHNSON: You know, they said this would never happen.

(CHEERING)

JOHNSON: So, you know, if they didn't know, now they know.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: Now they know.

WOELFEL: Johnson is an organizer for the city's teachers union and a local county commissioner. He is the product of a progressive and politically aggressive teachers union that has, until last night, tried and failed to put one of their own in the mayor's office. Johnson, who will be Chicago's third Black man to lead the city, told supporters the win was the culmination of Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.'s dream.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHNSON: It was right here in the city of Chicago that Martin Luther King Jr. organized for justice, dreaming that one day - that the civil rights movement and the labor rights movement would come together.

WOELFEL: Across town in a Hyatt ballroom, Vallas told his supporters the results prove the city is deeply divided. But he pitched unity and he tried to calm the crowd as they rumbled at the sound of his concession.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PAUL VALLAS: And please, please...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Please.

VALLAS: ...Please, please, please, please. It's critically, critically important we use this opportunity to come together. And I've offered him my full support on his transition. And God knows we've spent a lot of time on - in forums together, and certainly, we shared a lot of opinions. And I look forward to working with him and providing him with the full support he needs to be successful.

WOELFEL: Despite the sentiment, Vallas and Johnson did not share many opinions. They were diametrically opposed on most major issues facing the city. Vallas ran a tough-on-crime campaign centered around increasing police presence and repeatedly accused Johnson of wanting to defund the police. And fears of a Johnson administration were abound at the Vallas Party as the defeat sunk in for his supporters, some of whom painted a bleak picture ahead.

LYNCHA DELUUEW: We need a mayor that gets along with the police.

JEAN KOHN: I think that this is a great loss for the city of Chicago. I think we're going to lose people. They're going to move.

ANTHONY BEALE: You're going to see crime run rampant because the police are about to leave in droves.

WOELFEL: Those were voters Lyncha DeLuuew and Jean Kohn and a local city council member, Anthony Beale, who endorsed Vallas. But Johnson told supporters that by voting for him, the city defined itself as one that rejects the traditional and tired approach to solving crime by simply boosting police.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHNSON: A city that's truly safer for everyone by investing in what actually works to prevent crime.

(CHEERING)

WOELFEL: Johnson's plan includes raising taxes on certain businesses to address root causes of crime, like a lack of youth employment opportunities or adequate education. And he had a message for the more than quarter of a million people who didn't vote for him.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHNSON: To the Chicagoans who did not vote for me, I care about you. I value you, and I want to hear from you. I want to work with you. And I'll be the mayor for you, too.

(CHEERING)

WOELFEL: Johnson will succeed Mayor Lori Lightfoot and be inaugurated in mid-May.

For NPR News, I'm Mariah Woelfel in Chicago. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mariah Woefel