Chicago Mayor’s Race Could Be a Blueprint for Democratic Messaging on Crime

CHICAGO — The mayoral victory on Tuesday of Brandon Johnson, a once little-known progressive and former teacher, over a more moderate veteran of this city’s burly political realm injected confidence in the Democratic Party’s most liberal wing — and may have pointed a way forward for the party on the fraught issue of crime.

Mr. Johnson, 47, walked back some of his most progressive positions, including budget cuts to Chicago’s police force. But he never disavowed the position that, in a city where violence and crime are surging, those in power must take a fundamentally different approach to public safety. Instead of more police on the beat, he called for economic and community development, more social workers and mental health professionals — and more detectives to actually solve the crimes that are committed.

“He may not call that law enforcement activity, but it will be part of the law enforcement system,” said Representative Danny K. Davis, a longtime House Democrat from Chicago who backed Mr. Johnson.

Mr. Johnson’s victory may be a lesson for other Democrats struggling with the issue under the verbal assault of Republicans. Representative Delia Ramirez, a newly elected progressive Democrat from Chicago’s Northwest Side, was ecstatic. “We’ve had a police department that had been attempting to do the jobs of social workers, counselors, mediators, you name it,” she said. “What we haven’t had is help.”

Perhaps no issue has divided Democrats more than crime and policing as violence has surged across the country during the coronavirus pandemic, and Republicans have relentlessly made the case that their opponents are soft on criminals. Crime and public safety were the top concerns of Chicago voters, with 57 percent of Chicagoans — and 61 percent of Black Chicagoans — calling the city unsafe, according to a poll done for the conservative Manhattan Institute by Schoen Cooperman Research.

The city has experienced a 45 percent increase in crime compared with the same point last year in several categories, including sexual assault, robbery, burglary and car theft. Murders have fallen from the pandemic-era rise in 2021 and 2022, but the number of murders this year is still almost 50 percent higher than in 2019.

National Democrats had conceded that they expected those numbers to yield a narrow victory for Mr. Johnson’s opponent, Paul Vallas, 69, a former Chicago schools chief who centered his campaign on being tough on crime.

“When people are afraid, they will flock to what they perceive as strength,” said Representative Brendan Boyle, a Pennsylvania Democrat who took part in an internet ad for Mr. Johnson that criticized Mr. Vallas for his stewardship of the Philadelphia school system. “As Bill Clinton once said, people will choose strong and wrong over weak and right. We as Democrats need to have a message on crime that meets this moment.”

Then Mr. Johnson won.

Mr. Boyle cautioned against reading too much into the outcome. Mr. Vallas may have lost because so much attention was focused on his missteps running the school systems of Chicago, Philadelphia and New Orleans and on his association with Republicans, whether they were suburban business leaders or the pro-Trump president of the local Fraternal Order of Police. With the power of the Chicago teachers’ union behind him, Mr. Johnson out-organized and out-hustled Mr. Vallas, who spent far more money on the campaign.

“This in many ways came down to Paul Vallas,” Mr. Boyle said.

Analysts also cautioned that Mr. Johnson’s victory most likely had less to do with ideology than with Mr. Johnson’s consolidating the Black vote after a divided primary and with Mr. Vallas’s failing to make up for that with a larger-than-expected Hispanic turnout.

But liberal activists were not about to squander the triumph of a young progressive voice who exuded optimism over an older, gruffer moderate who relied heavily on the message that more crime required more police officers with fewer restrictions. Leaders of the Democratic left, including Senators Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, endorsed Mr. Johnson, lifting him from obscurity to a second-place finish in the first round of voting.

And in the end, his appeal in an overwhelmingly Democratic city overcame Mr. Vallas’s efforts to prove his Democratic bona fides with the endorsements of party mainstays, including Senator Richard J. Durbin of Illinois; Arne Duncan, a secretary of education under President Barack Obama; and former Representative Bobby L. Rush, who became an icon on the South Side as a Black Panther.

“Brandon is representative of today’s Chicago — it’s progressive, it leans younger,” said Representative Jan Schakowsky, a Democrat whose north lakeshore district was the core of Mr. Johnson’s support. “This should give heart to people who want to run progressive campaigns around the country, and it should give inspiration to people who believe in diversity, who believe in individual participation in elections.”

In that sense, the vote in Chicago was more like the mayoral race in Los Angeles than the contest in New York. In Los Angeles, a surge of support for Rick Caruso, the Republican-turned-Democrat, forced a runoff, but the liberal in the race, Karen Bass, ultimately triumphed. In New York, Eric Adams, a former police officer, won on a crime-focused message.

But Howard Wolfson, who worked for Michael R. Bloomberg when he was New York’s mayor and was involved in the Bloomberg endorsement of Mr. Adams, noted that Mr. Adams had something that Mr. Vallas didn’t: He was a victim of police misconduct as a teenager and a criminal justice reformer as a police officer.

“It was a lot harder to attack him on the issue of policing,” Mr. Wolfson said of Mr. Adams. “Vallas, given his own biography, was easier to attack.”

One big issue could be affected by Mr. Johnson’s victory: the imminent choice that the Democratic Party must make between Chicago and Atlanta for its 2024 presidential convention. On the one hand, Chicago will be led by an ebullient voice for change, Ms. Schakowsky said.

On the other, Republicans are not about to forget the video of Mr. Johnson calling for the defunding of the police.

Republicans made the label “San Francisco Democrats” stick after the 1984 convention in that city nominated the ill-fated ticket of Walter Mondale and Geraldine Ferraro, Mr. Boyle noted.

With Mr. Johnson as mayor, “I could see us labeled ‘Chicago Democrats,’ given the crime and violence,” he said. Then he added, “But I want it in Chicago.”

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