The Washington Post
In Chicago, mayor’s race is Democrats’ cue on crime
Chicago’s runoff mayoral election will tell Democrats a lot about the politics of crime. It will reveal almost nothing, though, about what policies actually lead to safer streets.
On Tuesday, Lori Lightfoot became the first incumbent Chicago mayor to be kicked out of office after a single term since 1983. Like every mayor since 1931 of the nation’s third-largest city, Lightfoot is a Democrat — as are the two challengers who beat her to make it into the April 4 runoff: onetime Chicago Public Schools chief Paul Vallas, who finished first; and Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson, who edged Lightfoot for second place.
Lightfoot was the first Black gay woman to serve as mayor of a major U.S. city. But she was unlucky enough to hold office during the covid-19 pandemic, when being a bigcity mayor was basically a no-win proposition. Instead of presiding mostly at ribbon-cuttings and street festivals, she went before the cameras again and again to impart dour news about death tolls, lockdowns and public health mandates.
Crime was by far the biggest issue in the campaign, having sharply increased in Chicago, like other cities, after covid hit. Homicides jumped from 500 in 2019 to 776 in 2020, then peaked at 804 in 2021, according to the Chicago Police Department. Last year, however, homicides fell to 695 — nearly a 14 percent drop.
What do those figures mean? Every unlawful killing is not just a data point, of course, but a human tragedy. Beyond that, however, what you see in the numbers is what you want to see — which depends on your ideological worldview and your lived experience.
For one of Vallas’s most vocal supporters — John Catanzara, the powerful leader of the Fraternal Order of Police, the biggest union of rank-and-file officers — the rise in homicides and other violent crimes happened because politicians sided with Black Lives Matter protesters after George Floyd’s murder, rather than give police officers the backing and leeway they need to keep order.
Catanzara is a vocal supporter of former president Donald Trump and has defended the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol insurrectionists. Vallas — who was the only White candidate in the mayoral race — has deflected questions about Catanzara by saying he welcomes the support of the officers the FOP represents. On election night, Catanzara’s support did appear to help boost Vallas’s vote totals in White working-class neighborhoods. Vallas has pledged to hire up to 2,000 additional police officers if he is elected.
For many progressive Democrats, that analysis is racially tinged nonsense. It might be true, they say, that some police officers reacted angrily to the BLM protests by shirking their duty. But the increase in crime more likely resulted from how the pandemic broke down societal routines and norms. Schools closed, businesses shuttered, the mental health of people across the economic spectrum suffered to the point of crisis. According to this view, the reason the murder rate dropped in 2022 is that life began to return to normal.
Johnson, who is a Black progressive, has done his own disavowing: In 2020, he endorsed the “defund the police” slogan, but now he rejects it. He maintains that what Chicago needs is not more police officers. He wants professionals outside law enforcement to respond to situations such as mental health crises, he wants existing police resources to be used more efficiently, and he wants to fund his new initiatives by raising taxes on the highest earners.
My view on crime rates is a consistent and firm agnosticism, or perhaps befuddlement. I was a reporter and editor at The Post during the 1980s, as the crack cocaine epidemic raged and crime rates soared to all-time highs. Then, in the mid-1990s, they began to fall. When Barack Obama became president, the national homicide rate had plummeted by half from what it had been when Bill Clinton became president.
Why? Some experts say it was aggressive policing and mass incarceration. Others credit community policing and demographic trends. Still, others try to map crime rates to economic ups and downs. Patterns of drug and alcohol abuse, as far as I can tell, sometimes seem to correlate with crime but often do not.
The fact that Vallas finished with 34 percent of the vote, far ahead of Johnson’s 20 percent and Lightfoot’s 17 percent, will be read by many Democrats as a warning to talk tougher about crime — and by many Republicans as a promising line of attack for 2024. Those messages will be amplified if Vallas beats Johnson.
But Lightfoot is a progressive, as are several other candidates who finished as also-rans. If Johnson consolidates enough of their votes — and if race becomes an issue, as it often does — he may well be the winner.
And the homicide rate? I don’t think it will care.