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How Chicago Mayor Election Honed Democrats' Messaging on Crime

Chicago's mayoral victory on Tuesday of Brandon Johnson, a once little-known progressive and former teacher, over a more moderate veteran of the 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. Johnson, 47, walked back some of his most progressive positions, including budget cuts to Chicago’s police force. 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 solve crimes, reports the New York Times. “He may not call that law enforcement activity, but it will be part of the law enforcement system,” said Rep. Danny Davis, a longtime House Democrat who backed Johnson. Johnson’s victory may be a lesson for other Democrats struggling with the issue under the verbal assault of Republicans. Rep. 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 surged during the coronavirus pandemic, and Republicans have made the case that their opponents are soft on criminals. Crime and public safety were the top concerns of Chicago voters, with 57% of Chicagoans, and 61% of Black Chicagoans calling the city unsafe, said to a poll for the conservative Manhattan Institute by Schoen Cooperman Research. The city has experienced a 45% increase in crime compared with the same point last year in several categories, including sexual assault, robbery, burglary, and car theft. National Democrats had expected those numbers to yield a narrow victory for Johnson’s opponent, Paul Vallas, 69, a former Chicago schools chief who centered his campaign on being tough on crime. With the power of the Chicago teachers’ union behind him, Johnson out-organized and out-hustled Vallas, who spent far more money. Analysts cautioned that Johnson’s victory most likely had less to do with ideology than with his consolidating the Black vote after a divided primary and with Vallas’s failing to make up for that with a larger-than-expected Hispanic turnout. Liberal activists were not about to stop the triumph of a young progressive voice who exuded optimism over an older, gruffer moderate who relied on the message that more crime required more police officers with fewer restrictions.


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