Chicago mayor’s race underscores Democratic divide on handling crime

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The Chicago mayoral race is emerging as a key test for Democrats on how they handle the hot-button issues of crime and public safety.

Two starkly different candidates in the Windy City’s April 4 runoff have offered contrasting approaches over an issue that has been blamed for costing the party control of the House last year in New York.

Former Chicago Public Schools (CPS) CEO Paul Vallas has staked out a tough-on-crime approach. Meanwhile, Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson has leaned into addressing the root causes around crime and incorporating mental health professionals in certain situations.

Whoever wins the race could offer clues about which approach on crime and public safety is most resonating with voters — an issue that Republicans are already making a key part of their platform heading into 2024.

“I think a lot of voters see their choices right now as somewhat polar,” said Democratic strategist Aviva Bowen.

Johnson and Vallas have underscored those differences — despite occasional overlaps — during the debates.

Vallas, who’s received the endorsement from the Fraternal Order of Police, has focused on aiming to restore police staffing levels to 13,500 cops, having officers on a dedicated beat and placing more cops on Chicago transit. He has suggested that “hundreds” of cops who left the workforce want to return if they saw better schedules and better leadership.

Johnson, meanwhile, has said he wants to train and promote 200 more police detectives and would have mental health professionals respond to some 911 calls, arguing that police officers have been asked to do more than their basic job when responding to crises. The Cook County commissioner has suggested that by not requiring police officers to juggle more responsibilities and by having more consistent supervisors the city can make inroads with its officers.

The big unknown is how voters who supported Mayor Lori Lightfoot (D), who lost reelection in February, or Rep. Jesús “Chuy” García (D-Ill.), who lost the primary in late February, will vote heading into April.

“The thing that really jumps out to me is that if someone is truly undecided right now and is looking at their ballot at their kitchen counter and doesn’t know what to do because they feel like Vallas is too far to the right or Brandon is too far to the left, it might come down to emotion,” said Bowen, who worked on Ald. Sophia King’s mayoral campaign and is not affiliated with either Johnson’s or Vallas’s campaigns in the runoff.

Recent polling on Chicagoans’ attitudes about crime and public safety has been sparse. But surveys from prior to the initial February election suggest the issue has been top of mind for residents. A WBEZ/Chicago Sun-Times/Telemundo Chicago/NBC5 Poll published in early February found that the issue that ranked as the most important one among voters was crime and public safety at 44 percent. Criminal justice reform came in second at 13 percent while 12 percent said the economy and jobs.

And while Chicago voters acknowledge there are many key issues at play besides just crime and public safety, some say those issues in particular are factoring into their thinking.

“Brandon Johnson also has expressed that he wants to increase the number of detectives on the Chicago Police Department workforce. That is important because folks that are very interested in policy have already noticed that Chicago’s murder clearance rate is very low compared to other cities,” said Grace Chan McKibben, a nonprofit executive director from Hyde Park, who’s supporting Johnson.

Others like John Early of Wicker Park are still a toss-up. Early said he voted for Lightfoot in February and is figuring out who to support next. But the Wicker Park resident said on the issue of crime that “it depends on which candidate is going to really address it and not just provide lip service to it.”

Mell Monroe, a former owner of a bed and breakfast who lives in Bronzeville, said that perceptions of crime and public safety will vary across neighborhoods depending on how much they’re confronted with the issue. Monroe, who supported Lightfoot in February and is backing Vallas in April, said he was doing so simply because the former CPS CEO engaged with him and even agreed to meet him and his friends.

Though the mayoral election is technically nonpartisan and both candidates are running as Democrats, Bowen said the April mayoral runoff is showing “some of the markings of what often happens in a general election in a partisan race” as candidates are seeking to moderate on their stances heading into the final race.

The issue of crime and public safety offers one example. During a WGN-TV debate earlier this week, Johnson reiterated that he was against the idea of defunding the police when asked about a 2020 resolution he worked on that passed the Cook County Board of Supervisors that encouraged reallocating funds away from the police.

Meanwhile, the Cook County commissioner has accused Vallas of being a Republican, arguing during that debate that Vallas’s claims that Johnson would defund the police were parroting Republican talking points that have been made against other Democrats. Vallas for his part has argued he’s been a “lifelong Democrat” and has run as a Democrat before.

Jason DeSanto, a senior lecturer at the Northwestern Pritzker School of Law and a Democratic debate strategist, explained that when it comes to how Democrats message on the issue of crime and public safety, candidate quality is important.

“That’s what it comes down to: A candidate who understands that crime is both a practical reality for people to worry about, but also a proxy for values and a referendum on leadership and common sense,” he said. “A candidate who understands that is going to be able to not only message the issue but understand the issue in people’s lives and how it relates to what they want for their families.”

Though not necessarily a new talking point in political campaigns, crime and public safety proved especially salient in certain parts of the country during the November midterms, such as around New York City.

While Republicans have long accused Democrats of being “soft on crime” or out of touch on the issue, even members of the party have acknowledged that having a pulse on the issue is important. Former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) suggested in an interview with The New York Times earlier this year that Democrats could have retained their majority in the House if her party had been better keyed in on the issue in New York.

The candidates in the race for their part suggest they are tuned into the issue.

Asked earlier this week following the WGN-TV debate if Democrats grappled with issues around messaging on crime, Vallas argued that it’s an issue that affects both Republicans and Democrats.

“I think things like affordability is not a Republican or Democratic issue, holding the line on taxes is not a Republican or a Democratic issue. I certainly do not believe that public safety is … a Republican or Democratic issue,” he told reporters. “And I think that’s why I’ve been doing well. That’s why I got into the runoff and I think that’s why I’ll be successful on April 4.”

Bill Neidhardt, who serves as an adviser for the Johnson campaign and has worked on other campaigns, including Sen. Bernie Sander’s (I-Vt.) 2020 presidential campaign in Iowa, noted that every Democrat handles the issue of crime and public safety differently. He suggested that campaigning “aggressively on building safer, stronger communities” and showing authenticity on the issue wins over voters.

“Why do you trust Brandon Johnson on crime? Because he lives on the West side in a great neighborhood, Austin, but one of the most violent neighborhoods. Like he has that personal experience with it,” Neidhardt said. “I think that’s a differentiator for us. I think there are some other Democrats across the country that can’t really lend that authenticity to the issue.”

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