Mar 1, 2023 - Politics & Policy

Why Chicago matters for the Democratic debate on crime

Lori Lightfoot

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot concedes Tuesday night. Photo: Kamil Krzaczynski/Getty Images

Chicago's mayoral runoff is about to provide an early test of how Democrats are redefining their public safety platform ahead of 2024.

Why it matters: Deep-blue cities are leading a real-time transformation of the Democratic Party in a post-pandemic world where voters demand more forceful answers on public safety solutions.

  • Democrats have multiple high-profile mayoral races in November, including Philadelphia, Houston and Denver.
  • "It is so important, as you see in Chicago, that Democrats have a very clear, succinct and strong message that we can be focused on solving violent crime while also making sure there's accountability for police misconduct," Cleveland Mayor Justin Bibb told Axios.
  • Bibb, the son of a police officer, ran against a fellow Democrat in 2021 who tried to tie him to the defund movement.

Zoom out: After Republicans clobbered down-ballot Democrats in 2020 with attacks tying them to the "defund the police" movement, the Democratic Party has had to convince voters otherwise.

  • Mayoral races in New York City, Atlanta and San Francisco have shown voters turning to more moderate Democrats who are often at odds with activists on the left.
  • "You’re absolutely getting more of a moderate voice representing fairly progressive cities," said Mayor Quinton Lucas of Kansas City, Missouri, pointing to New York Mayor Eric Adams and Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell.

Zoom in: Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, who won nearly 75% of the vote in 2019, failed to make the runoff on Tuesday.

  • Lightfoot was singled out by opponents for rising crime, the Associated Press notes, even as similar trends were happening nationwide.
  • That included a rise in carjackings and gun violence, Axios Chicago reports.

The leading candidate in the first round, former Chicago Public Schools CEO Paul Vallas, is a moderate white candidate who's proposed hiring over 2,000 more cops.

  • He ran on reforming public schools and reducing crime.
  • One option at the top of his campaign website invites visitors to "Share your crime story."

The other candidate in the runoff, Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson, is a Black grassroots organizer and former educator who has advocated for social workers to replace police officers in certain circumstances.

  • Though he supported the "defund the police" movement in 2020, Johnson has backed away from that framing and proposed a "treatment not trauma" approach to policing — including directing funds to community safety programs.

The other side: Some believe that other Democratic candidates who push a progressive policing platform will feel more emboldened in their own campaigns now that Johnson has made it to the runoff.

  • "Conservative, big-city mayors are defining the national Democratic agenda on crime, on housing, on immigration," said Emma Tai, executive director of United Working Families, which helped recruit and support Johnson's campaign.

The bottom line: “Working with police and giving adequate funding is going to be a winning position in almost every major city,” Lucas said.

  • “That said, you need to find a balance on how you are actually investing in prevention programs, working with things like mental health professionals and going through the data to see that some of the biggest challenges in public safety aren’t just gun violence,” he added.
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