There are few issues besides keeping a clean alley that most Chicagoans agree on. Yet, last week, a majority of the city’s voters ousted incumbent Mayor Lori Lightfoot in the city’s mayoral primary.
With just under 17% of the vote, Lightfoot became the first mayor to fail to advance to the runoff election since Jane Byrne lost the 1983 primary. But the recent election was not a stunning rebuke of Lightfoot, who commanded third place with a loyal base of mostly Black voters on the city’s South and West Sides, but a demand for a radically different approach toward combating crime amid pandemic recovery, with one candidate focused on law and order and the other hoping to boost the social safety net.
In one month, the general election could serve as a bellwether for how Democratic voters across the nation think about crime – a topic that became deeply politicized during an uptick in violence after the onset of Covid-19 and the widespread call for police reform after George Floyd’s murder. Chicago is the third largest city in the US, and its nearly three million residents are deeply segregated and break down into almost equal thirds white, Black and Hispanic. What may appear on the surface to be a reliable Democratic stronghold actually encompasses a wide spectrum of moderate liberals, progressives and even some Trump supporters, the latter concentrated among cops, firefighters and other public workers living on the far Northwest Side.
At a time when places like New York City and Washington DC are reassessing their approach to public safety issues and rebuilding their communities, Chicago’s election in April could inform how some of the biggest cities move forward.
When Lightfoot ascended to power in 2019, the political outsider made history as the first Black, openly gay mayor of Chicago and dominated all 50 of the city’s wards with the optimistic message that she would “bring in the light”.
But Lightfoot’s campaign promises of transparency foundered once she took office, particularly when it came to public safety. After Chicago police wrongfully raided the home of a Black woman, Anjanette Young, in 2019 and forced her to stand naked until a female officer arrived, Lightfoot claimed she knew nothing about the incident until local news broke the story. Her own lawyers tried to prevent the local TV station from airing the video of the botched raid and Lightfoot herself later admitted that she was aware of the raid before the news broke. When five alderwomen introduced an ordinance in 2021 banning no-knock raids – building on the momentum of the Breonna Taylor case – Lightfoot opposed the bill and argued it could hamper the police’s ability to respond quickly.
At the same time, Lightfoot engaged in a legal battle with the city’s cop union, the Fraternal Order of Police, over a vaccine mandate for public workers. Police expressed their frustration over burnout and multiple canceled days off by literally turning their backs on Lightfoot in 2021.
In February’s primary, Lightfoot attempted to thread the needle by marketing herself as a moderate candidate. But many voters bolted in one of two other directions: to the most progressive and conservative options. Paul Vallas and Brandon Johnson, the Cook county commissioner, going head-to-head on 4 April represent dueling philosophies of criminal justice.
Vallas, the former CEO of Chicago public schools who came in ninth place in his last run for mayor in 2019, ripped a page from the Republican playbook with a law-and-order message. On election night, he placed crime at the forefront of his campaign, declaring public safety a “civil right”. He also received an endorsement from the Fraternal Order of Police, along with its Trump-supporting president John Catanzara, and has pledged to fill Chicago’s 1,700 police vacancies.
Johnson’s résumé as a former teacher and Chicago Teachers Union deputy political director puts him at immediate odds with Vallas, whom critics say set the stage for the closure of 50 Chicago public schools predominantly in Black and Brown neighborhoods under former Mayor Rahm Emanuel. Johnson’s progressive approach toward criminal justice would include a mental health hotline and eliminating no-knock warrants. He also committed to ending the city’s contract with ShotSpotter, which the city’s own inspector general found “rarely leads to evidence of a gun-related crime”. In a televised debate, both Lightfoot and Vallas supported keeping the acoustic gunshot detection tool used by police.
Johnson and Vallas agree on some policy issues including changing the Chicago police department’s patrol plan to allocate more police officers during high crime hours. Both have vouched for boosting the number of detectives so that CPD can solve more murders, though Johnson has dodged the question of whether he would reduce CPD’s nearly $2bn budget. But on most issues they represent very different directions for the city.
“What we have in this runoff is the tale of two cities in Chicago,” said Constance Mixon, a political science professor and director of the urban studies program at Elmhurst University. “It is a tale of progressives and Brandon Johnson, but it’s also a tale of more conservative voters, particularly in white ethnic neighborhoods on the far north-west and south-west sides of the city … Paul Vallas’s message of crime resonated with them.”
Like other cities across the US, crime escalated during the pandemic in Chicago. While homicides had been on a steady decline since 2016, they shot up from 500 in 2019 to 776 in 2020. Homicides dropped in 2022, but still rival the rate Chicago saw in the 1990s.
“Things like theft and burglary have been trending down for the last two or three decades and the last couple of years is no different. Even overall violence hasn’t increased that much,” said David Olson, a criminal justice professor and co-director of Loyola University’s Center for Criminal Justice Research. “The challenge politically are the crimes that have increased are the ones that are the most serious and the most visible in terms of coverage by the media and attention by people. And rightfully so, given the fact that homicide is the most serious offense.”
For years, crime had disproportionately impacted Black and Brown communities on the South and West Sides of the city. But since the pandemic started it has increased in those areas, as well as predominantly white and wealthy neighborhoods – spurring fresh outrage and new attention to the issue. Carjackings in Lincoln Square, robberies on the Gold Coast, and kidnappings in Wrigleyville have rattled residents and dominated local headlines.
“Wealthier, whiter parts of the city have been safer for many, many years and the violence has persisted on the South and West sides in plain sight without the kind of attention and response that the issue is getting now,” said Roseanna Ander, founding executive director of the University of Chicago Crime Lab and the University of Chicago Education Lab. Leaders should recognize that public safety strategies should look at persistent problems throughout the entire city, rather than making one part of Chicago safer at the expense of other parts of the city, Ander added.
While the post-pandemic uptick in crime has frustrated white Chicagoans, Black Chicagoans who have long dealt with the city’s crime problems have left in droves over the past decade. Recent census data showed Chicago’s Black population dropped by nearly 10% since 2010. Political strategist Delmarie Cobb attributes that exodus to two factors: crime and schools.
“Those two issues are front and center for Black people, whereas white people may just be experiencing crime for the first time, but they’re okay with the schools,” Cobb said. “With the tough-on-crime candidates, they’re often who get all the attention and support because those people who are experiencing crime for the first time at this level, they want somebody who can do it quickly.”
How the two mayoral candidates communicate their message on crime to Black voters will prove crucial. In the primary, Johnson garnered support from white progressives on the North Side but in order to beat Vallas, he’ll have to court Hispanics on the West Side who voted for his progressive rival, Congressman Jesús G “Chuy” García, and Black voters who backed Lightfoot on the South Side. Vallas is already trying to shore up support from Black politicians, racking up key endorsements from the former Illinois secretary of state Jesse White and Lightfoot’s ally Alderman Walter Burnett. Toni Preckwinkle, Lightfoot’s rival in the 2019 election, and US Congressman Danny Davis, who represents much of the South and West Sides, endorsed Johnson.
Johnson may have trouble taking the middle road in the general election. Though his policies on criminal justice reform fired up a progressive base in the primary, Johnson has tried to distance himself from past comments on defunding the police. When it comes to filling police vacancies, Johnson told Block Club Chicago that hiring more officers wouldn’t solve the city’s crime problem, instead saying that funding could be reallocated by shifting officers’ roles and hiring additional emergency service responders.
During one primary debate, Lightfoot questioned how Johnson would boost the number of detectives without increasing the police budget.
“He says he wants to promote detectives,” Lightfoot said. “When you promote detectives then you’ve got to backfill the patrol officers and if he’s not willing to commit to not defunding the police, he’s gonna have less officers on the street and our communities are gonna be less safe.”
It is possible that Johnson could reallocate funding rather than increasing CPD’s budget, counters Craig Futterman, a clinical professor of law at the University of Chicago Law School and director of the school’s Civil Rights and Police Accountability Project.
“Within a fixed budget, you can put less of your officers in the kind of stop-and-frisk mode, street policing mode and more in investigating mode,” he said. “That’s not necessarily going to cost you more money.”
For Vallas, the endorsement from the Fraternal Order of Police will either become his winning advantage or his Achilles heel. The group welcomed Florida’s conservative governor Ron DeSantis for a speech in February while its president, Catanzara, has landed in the news for defending January 6 rioters and comparing Lightfoot’s vaccine mandate to the Nazi Germany.
More than the endorsements, however, voters may choose based on their visceral feelings about what’s needed to reduce crime, Olson said.
“For a lot of people, their gut feeling is, well, if we just had more police, that would address the problem and it’s more complicated than that,” he said.
“So if one candidate presents this blunt: ‘We just need more police’, that may swing some folks. If another approaches with: ‘We’ve got to address the root causes, this is a long term problem that needs a long term solution’, that might resonate because they see that as perhaps being a more realistic understanding.”
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