Summary: First round of Chicago mayoral election focuses and threat to leftwing politics posed by the spurious claim that the U.S. is experiencing an unprecedented epidemic of crime – Editors
The results of Chicago’s recent election for mayor and the city council reveal a great deal about where politics is headed not just in that city but nationwide—in both a positive and negative sense.
The positive take-away from the Feb. 28 mayoral election is that Lori Lightfoot, who in 2019 became the first Black women and first openly gay person to become Chicago’s mayor, was voted out of office—something that has not happened to an incumbent mayor in 40 years. Since none of the nine candidates garnered 50% of the vote, a run-off will be held on April 4 between Paul Vallas (who got 34%) and Brandon Johnson (who got 20%). Lightfoot came in third with 16% (only the top two vote getters make it to the run-off).
In 2019 Lightfoot carried every one of Chicago’s 50 wards while campaigning as an alternative to the bankrupt policies of then-Mayor Rahm Emmanuel (who closed over 50 schools in Black and Latinx neighborhoods while trying to cover up the crimes of Chicago’s Police Department). Yet upon taking office she did exactly what many grassroots activists at the time predicted—she pivoted to the Right. She gave the police free rein to brutalize and arrest peaceful protesters during the 2020 demonstrations following the murder of George Floyd, clashed repeatedly with the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) and other unions over their demands to keep schools closed until proper resources were devoted to battling the pandemic, and rebuffed calls to significantly reallocate resources away from policing and toward trauma centers, mental health facilities, and community development projects. She instead significantly increased the CPD’s budget while giving the Fraternal Order of Police an eight-year contract that failed to include such basic accountability measures as having officers disclose any secondary employment and requiring them to provide a legally-binding statement within 24 hours of a police shooting.
Brandon Johnson, an African-American public-school teacher and longtime organizer with the CTU (and now Cook County Board Commissioner) ran as an unabashed leftwing and progressive candidate, surprising many by coming in second to make the run-off—despite polls showing just days earlier that he had single-digit support. What the polls did not take into account was the impact of his endorsement by the CTU and an array of other leftwing unions and organizations. Johnson centered his campaign on combatting inequality, reopening shuttered mental health clinics and hospitals, and imposing higher taxes on corporations and financial institutions to pay for a series of new social programs. He also promised not to further increase the CPD’s budget, which currently eats up 40% of Chicago’s discretionary budget.
A Johnson victory on April 4 could indicate that the effort to build a political alternative to both neoliberalism and the neo-fascist Right, which the 2020 protests did so much to bring to prominence, is moving forward. However, it will be a tough fight. Vallas is a well-funded reactionary who has the support of Republicans, corporate Democrats, the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP), and many others attracted to his pledge to do “all it takes to crack down on crime.”
In a city where Republicans get barely get 10% of the popular vote, Vallas had little choice but to position himself as a Democrat opposed to the likes of Ron DeSantis, whom his friends in the FOP invited to Chicago just days before the election (its head, John Catanzara, supports the January 6, 2021 coup attempt). Vallas is not so foolish as to think his path to becoming Mayor will be facilitated in a city that is two-thirds Black, Latinx, and Native American by criticizing the teaching of critical race theory and transgender rights (which doesn’t at all mean he doesn’t share such criticisms). Nor are Democrats who hate the thought of their taxes going up in order (at least in theory) to improve the lot of workers, the poor, and discriminated minorities likely to gravitate to a candidate who apes the rhetoric of Trump and DeSantis. But it is a very different matter when it comes to someone who has long touted “educational form” (aka privatization) and now promises (as Vallas did as soon as the votes were counted) to “make Chicago the most crime-free city in America” after he is elected.
Vallas’ history is unambiguous: In the 1980s, as head of the Illinois Economic and Fiscal Commission, he implemented austerity policies that gutted social spending; in the 1990s, as the head of Chicago Public Schools, he imposed standardized testing, promoted charter schools while leaving others (especially in the Black community) grossly unfunded, and fired teachers who disagreed with his policies; and in the 2000s, as CEO of public schools in Philadelphia and then New Orleans, he attacked teachers’ unions while trying to privatize as much of the educational system along corporate lines as possible. He is equally at home with Democrats who want to purge the party of the progressive Left as he is with Republicans who want to purge the country of “woke” ideology (he doesn’t hide the fact that he is firmly opposed to abortion rights).
Vallas has never won an election (he got 7% of the vote in his 2019 mayoral bid) but as the only white candidate in field of nine this year, he positioned himself to appeal to voters who feel a “strong hand” is needed to suppress demands for defunding police at a time when the central problem facing Chicago (and the country as a whole) is supposedly a massive crime wave.
I emphasize supposedly, since despite claims to the contrary, overall crime rates in Chicago are lower today than a generation ago. To be sure, crime rose during the pandemic (though its level has declined over the past year)—largely due to the stresses generated by the lack of adequate hospital and mental health facilities (40% of 911 calls in Chicago concern cases of potentially violent behavior due to mental illness) and the profound inequality brought to the surface and further generated by the system’s completely inadequate response to the pandemic. It should come as no surprise that crime rates would increase in some parts of the city given that many communities (of color especially) have been hollowed out by years of austerity, school closings, and overall neglect. Yet crime rates have not significantly increased in many wealthier and whiter parts of the city (violent crime is now the lowest in 30 years in some parts of the North Side). Yet the perception that the city is engulfed is crime has become virtually ubiquitous.
The perception is not accidental; it is constructed. It is a direct response to the mass protests that swept the country in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd and so many others in 2020. No sooner did these protests begin to crest than the narrative emerged that a crime wave is on the rise; car-jackings that would barely merit attention suddenly became reported on virtually every media on hand. Many of the statistics of rising crime were reported by outlets relying heavily on data supplied by the Chicago Police Department—which had good reasons for wanting people to believe that questioning the criminal injustice system puts the lives of others in jeopardy. Meanwhile, what got pushed aside was the central message of the call to defund police—that gutting social services and underinvesting in impoverished communities while doing little to deter police violence (more police shootings occurred in 2022 than in 2020) actually fosters crime. The discourse that crime has suddenly gotten out of control is indeed a curious one, given that no police department in the country has been defunded and the vast majority of them (especially Chicago’s) have witnessed a considerable increase in funding—including adding to their already considerable arsenal of military-style deadly weapons.
If it were true that crime is at an all-time high, and since it is true that police budgets are larger than ever, doesn’t it follow that pouring more resources into policing is the wrong approach?
Today’s virulent anti-crime rhetoric can hardly be said to have a rational basis—at least from one way of looking at things. But it may well be rational from another, though not in the way its proponents may presume. I am referring to how emphasizing crime is often a misdirected way of expressing distress with conditions that have little or nothing to do with crime—such as anxiety over changing social norms and expectations, unease over unstable and precarious conditions of economic life, diffidence about trusting others in an era marked by growing atomization and social isolation, etc. Those who are invested in maintaining their power and privilege in the face of movements aiming to subvert them have every reason to play off such disquiet by propagating the notion that a strong hand is needed to suppress rising crime.
A strident expression of this is found in some of the alderperson elections for the Chicago City Council. There were some positives on this front as well—such as that of the five incumbent socialists on the City Council four were re-elected with over 50% of the vote and the fifth (Daniel La Splata) is expected to win the run-off in April (it should be noted, however, that several of the socialist alderpersons voted for Lightfoot’s most recent budget). In the 48th Ward, however, Nick Ward—a socialist active in the defund police movement—failed to reach the run-off by only 400 votes after a Republican Party-funded Super Pac funneled tens of thousands of dollars (clearly with the connivance of some Democratic Party officials) into negative ads attacking him for wanting to eliminate the police department and throw open the prison gates. Nick was initially the frontrunner after the longtime neoliberal alderperson, Harry Osterman, decided to retire, but despite a large number of local activists aiding his campaign it ended up falling victim to a relentless attack against him (other self-proclaimed progressives who ran against him did not receive such attacks, something that is, let us say, so very interesting). Johnson endorsed Nick and campaigned alongside him, and many of those active in supporting leftists during the aldermanic races will now be working to help elect Johnson as mayor.
Whether Vallas can muster enough support in the second round to get him above 50% remains to be seen; just as it remains to be seen whether Johnson can pick up enough votes from the 46% of those who voted for the other seven candidates in the first round. A lot depends on whether Johnson gets the support of Chuy Garcia and his supporters, a liberal and the only Latinx in the race who came close to beating Rahm Emmanuel eight years ago but got only 13% this time—at least in part because he has become increasingly cozy with the mainstream Democratic Party in recent years. And a lot depends on whether Vallas can expand his appeal beyond his largely-white base by picking up support from Black and Latinx voters. The latter possibility should not be discounted, especially if Willie Wilson comes out for Vallas; he is a Black conservative businessman who admits voting for Trump and got 10% of the vote, mostly from Blacks on the South and West side. No community, including those of people of color, is monolithic: there are deep class divisions as well as differences over gender, sexuality, and politics in each one. It is highly unlikely that Lightfoot would endorse Vallas given how sharply she attacked him during the campaign; but it would take a lot of her to endorse Johnson, given her extremely hostile and acrimonious battles with the CTU and others unions for the past four years.
The major takeaway from the election is that even in a city like Chicago, the discourse of crime and punishment threatens to subvert the progress that has been made in turning this country’s attention toward its endemic problems of racism, sexism, and class domination. Vallas promises to hire more than 2,000 more cops if elected, wants them to have a freer hand in going after suspects, and will hammer away at Johnson for his history of supporting the defund police movement. It is the single and sole message of his campaign. Johnson has already moderated his tone, calling not for cuts in the police budget but saying he will not hire more cops or give it more money. As he recently stated, “Chicago must not commit to four years of rehashing the same old racist, ‘tough on crime’ attitudes that have repeatedly failed to make us safer while victimizing poor communities and communities of color.”
Of course, the critical issue is whether any elected official can bring to heel the abuses associated with the Chicago Police Department. A small step forward was made on Feb. 28, when the ballot contained, for the first time, elections for a new citizen board to oversee the CPD. Despite these modest steps, the fact remains that it is not political officials who in the final analysis control the police, but the police who control the elected officials. Our bourgeois democracy is just that—bourgeois, in the sense that it is not civil society that controls the state but rather the state that controls civil society. That only begins to change when masses of people exert political pressure for radical change outside the electoral process even as they defend the ballot box from those who wish to close down any and all institutions that at least make it possible for them to advance their cause.
Joe Biden shows us what not to do. This week, he decided not to veto a resolution pushed by Congressional Republicans (and supported by 32 House Democrats and several Senators) blocking a new criminal code for Washington, DC, which reduced mandatory prison sentences for some crimes. Though the administration initially opposed the effort to gut the code (Congress has final authorization for such measures since Washington DC is not a state), Biden decided not to veto the measure out of fear the Republicans will target him for being soft on crime.
Such a response merely feeds into and confirms the very narrative that the Right is using to achieve a total reversal of whatever was gained from the 2020 protests. As history shows again and again, we fail the moment we take the ground of our opponent. The entire narrative on crime that has become so pervasive today has to be challenged; we only strengthen the peddlers of lies and half-truths by conceding even an inch in their direction. That matters far more in the long run that who does or does not win an election. Without in any way discounting the importance of elections, we have a lot more to struggle for—we have a world to win, and a world to save.