CHICAGO – For years, Republicans have sought to win over voters by depicting Democratic-led cities as lawless centers of violence that need tough-on-crime policies. In Chicago, some of the Democrats running for mayor are deploying the same strategy as they debate how to make the city safer.
One leading candidate, who touts his endorsement from the Chicago police union, says “crime is out of control” and the city needs hundreds more officers patrolling its streets. Another hopeful says that if suspects flee a crime scene, officers should be able to “hunt them down like a rabbit.”
Even incumbent Lori Lightfoot, the first Black woman and first openly gay person to serve as Chicago mayor, has used language right out of the GOP playbook, saying a top rival in her reelection bid wants to defund the police.
The shift in rhetoric reflects the degree to which concerns about crime have dominated Tuesday's mayoral election in Chicago and threatened Lightfoot's reelection bid. Far from being an outlier, the nation’s third-largest city is just the latest Democratic stronghold where public safety has become a top election issue.
In San Francisco, progressive District Attorney Chesa Boudin was ousted in a recall election last year that was fueled by frustration over public safety. In Los Angeles, two Democrats running for mayor debated how to deal with rising crime rates and an out-of-control homelessness crisis. In New York City, voters elected Eric Adams as mayor, elevating a former city police captain who pledged to fix the department and invest more in crime prevention. And in Philadelphia, candidates running for mayor this year are debating how to curb gun violence.
The increased attention on public safety follows a spike in crime rates in many communities that coincided with the COVID-19 pandemic. High-profile incidents of police misconduct drew more scrutiny of policing, and there has been disagreement even among Democrats about so-called progressive public safety policies such as ending cash bail or providing safe injection sites for drug users.
Jaime Domínguez, a political science professor at Northwestern University, said it's the first time in 20 years that he's seen public safety be “front and center” in a Chicago mayoral election.
The difference, he said, is that crime is no longer largely isolated to some predominantly Black and Latino neighborhoods. As more crime is occurring in other parts of the highly segregated city, including in the downtown and other areas frequented by tourists, public safety is also top of mind for white voters.
“Historically, it was primarily a pocketed matter. It was still pernicious and candidates spoke to it, but it didn’t really affect areas where you see crime occurring now,” Dominguez said. “That has been blown up. It’s just, it’s everywhere.”
Chicago has a higher per-capita homicide rate than New York or Los Angeles, but it’s lower than other Midwestern cities, such as St. Louis and Detroit. Still, the number of homicides in Chicago hit a 25-year high in 2021 with 797, according to the Chicago Police Department.
That number decreased last year but is still higher than when Lightfoot took office in 2019. Other crimes, such as carjackings and robberies, have increased in recent years.
Nine candidates are running in Tuesday's officially nonpartisan mayoral election. With no candidate expected to get over 50% of the vote, an April 4 runoff between the top two vote-getters is likely.
Randall Fearnow, a 67-year-old health care attorney who is white and who lives near Wrigley Field on the city's north side, experienced the city's crime problem firsthand when he and his wife walked in the back door of their home one day last October and discovered burglars inside. The criminals ransacked the home and stole thousands of dollars' worth of jewelry and money before running out the front door, he said. Police didn't catch the perpetrators.
“It happened in the broad daylight," Fearnow said. “When you step out, it makes you feel a little uneasy. … You’re not immune anywhere from crime in the city.”
Fearnow cast an early ballot for Paul Vallas, who was endorsed by the Chicago police union. He also voted against Lightfoot four years ago, saying he believed her rival in the 2019 runoff was “much more level-headed.” This year, Fearnow said the two most important factors in his vote were crime and rising property taxes.
“The city gets more expensive to live in and less safe,” he said. “So somebody needs to do something.”
As she fights to land a spot in the April runoff, Lightfoot has taken on opponents she sees as a threat — among them Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson. In a recent ad, Lightfoot accuses Johnson of wanting to defund police, using video of him speaking on a local radio program in 2020. During the interview, Johnson said reducing the amount of money spent on policing isn't a slogan but “an actual real political goal.”
His statements came after the protests across the United States over the killing by Minneapolis police of George Floyd. Johnson also sponsored a nonbinding resolution, passed by the county board, that said money should be redirected from policing and incarceration and into social services.
Lightfoot said Johnson, who avoids the word “defund” when speaking on the campaign trail about policing, isn't being candid with voters.
“He’s asked direct questions at a variety of forums, and that guy’s got more bobs and weaves than Muhammad Ali," Lightfoot said.
Johnson, a former teacher and union organizer endorsed by the Chicago Teachers Union, says he wants to invest more in areas such as mental health treatment. In a statement responding to Lightfoot, his campaign said that doesn't mean cuts to the police department. Johnson also notes that Chicago still has a violence problem even though the police budget grows every year.
"Lori Lightfoot hasn’t made Chicago safer, but I will,” Johnson says in a new ad. “It’s time to get smart, not just tough.”
All of Lightfoot’s opponents want to fire the police superintendent she hired, saying that the former Dallas police chief has been ineffective and that hiring an outsider hurt morale. Lightfoot has defended the superintendent, David Brown, and says that while the city faced never-before-seen challenges such as the pandemic, their strategies are working and some crimes are falling.
Vallas, an adviser to the Fraternal Order of Police during the union's contract negotiations with Lightfoot's administration, says that if he becomes mayor, he would promote a new leadership team from within the department. Vallas says he would welcome back hundreds of officers who have retired or gone elsewhere out of frustration with Lightfoot. He also wants to return to a community policing strategy, with dedicated officers assigned to patrol each of the city's nearly 300 police beats.
“We’ve got to restore public safety,” said Vallas. “Everything proceeds from that.”
Wealthy businessman Willie Wilson, another mayoral candidate, has doubled down on his comment that suspects in violent crimes should be hunted down like rabbits. Wilson says he lost a son to gun violence, and he believes police officers are being prevented from doing their jobs.
The other candidates are Rep. Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, Chicago City Council members Sophia King and Roderick Sawyer, activist Ja’Mal Green and state Rep. Kambium “Kam” Buckner.
Associated Press writer Claire Savage contributed to this report.