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In Chicago's mayoral election, voters choose between a progressive and a moderate

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Chicago chooses a new mayor today. We know the mayor will not be Lori Lightfoot. The incumbent lost in the primary some weeks ago. Two candidates remain for today's general election - Brandon Johnson, who's a county commissioner, and Paul Vallas, a former leader of the schools in Chicago. Both are Democrats, although they take different approaches to the big issues of a big city. Mariah Woelfel is the city government reporter for our member station WBEZ. And of course, she's been covering this race. Good morning.

MARIAH WOELFEL, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: What's it been like covering this campaign the last few weeks?

WOELFEL: So it's been crazy here. You know, candidates have five to 10 campaign stops every single day. Candidates are crisscrossing the city. Chicago is a large city. It's a city of more than 2 million people. But it's also a segregated city with different demographics and different pockets and sides. And yeah, candidates have really been trying to reach each of those different little pockets on their campaign trail.

INSKEEP: As you follow the candidates from one neighborhood to another - different incomes, different races, different kinds of people - do you hear common themes in people's concerns?

WOELFEL: Sure. I mean, crime is a big one. You can't ignore crime. Chicago, like every other city throughout the pandemic or most other cities, saw a rise in crime that's just been unacceptable to residents. Of course, Chicago has dealt with staggering gun violence for decades, but this has really become the forefront of this election, and especially during this runoff, because you have two candidates who are very opposite on how they would address crime.

INSKEEP: What do you mean?

WOELFEL: So you have Paul Vallas, who wants to take a more traditional approach to addressing crime. He thinks that the answer to many of the city's problems is to boost police ranks and to boost police morale by having a mayor who supports the police and who comes from a first-responder family. And then you have Brandon Johnson, who's a more progressive candidate, who wants to do some of those things - you know, he wants to hire 200 more detectives to solve more crime - but has really focused his campaign on trying to address the root causes of violence - you know, shift 911 calls that involve a mental health crisis to mental health responders instead of police.

INSKEEP: So we have a reflection of the debate within the Democratic Party and the country, really, about how to approach crime. Is there another big divide between these two candidates?

WOELFEL: Sure. One major divide is these candidates' approach to public schools. The Chicago Public Schools has a lot of issues facing it. It's been losing students. It has a big fiscal cliff facing it in the next few years. And you really couldn't have two candidates who are more opposed on how to address those issues.

You have Paul Vallas, who started his career in the '90s as the head of Chicago Public Schools, but then went on to really build this career, this controversial reputation as the Mr. Fixit of school districts by building and bringing in droves of charter schools in the cities where he's worked. Charter schools are privately run, but publicly funded schools that provide a different option to families when their neighborhood school isn't, you know, up to par. And then you have Brandon Johnson, who really believes that charter schools have degraded public schools by allowing families to leave their public school option. And he wants to invest in those public schools, keep them open, you know, even the underperforming, underenrolled ones.

And this is a big issue in Chicago, as we're, you know, in the next few years, moving to an elected school board. And we have a moratorium on school closings lifting in the city. And so the next four years is going to be pivotal for public education as well.

INSKEEP: Is this dominating conversation as the election arrives?

WOELFEL: I think it is because, you know, people are focusing on the differences between those two candidates. And those two, crime and public education, are just huge. And I think people think they paint a picture of what kind of leader each of these two candidates would be.

INSKEEP: Mariah Woelfel of WBEZ, thanks so much.

WOELFEL: Thanks, Steve. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mariah Woelfel