CHICAGO (AP) — For years, Republicans have tried to win over voters by portraying Democrat-led cities as lawless centers of violence in need of strong anti-crime policies. In Chicago, some of the Democrats running for mayor are applying the same strategy as they debate how to make the city a safer place.
Showing support for the Chicago police union, a leading candidate says “crime is out of control” and the city needs hundreds of more officers patrolling the 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’s mayor, has used language straight from the GOP playbook and accused a top rival in her reelection of trying to snub the police.
The shift in rhetoric reflects the extent to which crime concerns have dominated Tuesday’s Chicago mayoral election and threatened Lightfoot’s re-election. Far from being an outlier, the country’s third-largest city is just the latest Democratic stronghold where public safety has become a major election issue.
In San Francisco, progressive district attorney Chesa Boudin was impeached last year in a recall election sparked by frustration over public safety. In Los Angeles, two Democrats running for mayor debated how to deal with rising crime rates and a spiraling homelessness crisis. In New York City, voters elected Eric Adams mayor, elevating a former city police chief who promised to revamp the department and invest more in crime prevention. And in Philadelphia, this year’s mayoral candidate are debating how to reduce gun violence.
The increased focus 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 increased police scrutiny, and even among Democrats there was disagreement over so-called progressive public safety policies such as cutting bail or providing safe injection sites for drug users.
Jaime Domínguez, a political science professor at Northwestern University, said it is the first time in 20 years that he sees public safety “first and foremost” in a Chicago mayoral election.
The difference, he said, is that crime is no longer largely isolated in some predominantly black and Latino neighborhoods. As more crime occurs in other parts of the highly segregated city, including downtown and other areas frequented by tourists, public safety is also at the top of white voters’ agendas.
“Historically, it was mainly a matter of pocket money. It was still damaging and candidates spoke against it, but it didn’t really impact areas where you see crime happening now,” Dominguez said. “That’s blown up. It’s just, it’s everywhere.”
Chicago has a higher murder rate per capita than New York or Los Angeles, but it is lower than other Midwestern cities such as St. Louis and Detroit. Still, by 2021, Chicago’s homicide rate will hit a 25-year high of 797, according to the Chicago Police Department.
That number fell 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 contesting Tuesday’s officially nonpartisan mayoral election. Since no candidate is expected to receive more than 50% of the vote, a runoff on April 4 is likely between the top two voters.
Randall Fearnow, a 67-year-old white health care attorney who lives near Wrigley Field on the north side of town, experienced the city’s crime problem firsthand when he and his wife walked through the back door of his home one day last October. walked into their house and discovered burglars. The criminals ransacked the home and stole thousands of dollars worth of jewelry and cash before running out the front door, he said. The police have not caught the perpetrators.
“It happened in broad daylight,” Fearnow said. “When you step outside, you feel a little uncomfortable… You’re nowhere immune to crime in the city.”
Fearnow put out an early ballot for Paul Vallas, which was endorsed by the Chicago Police Union. He also voted against Lightfoot four years ago, saying he believed her 2019 runoff rival was “much more down to earth”. This year, Fearnow said the two main factors in his vote were crime and rising property taxes.
“The city is becoming more expensive to live in and less safe,” he said. “So someone has to do something.”
As she fights for a spot in April’s second round, Lightfoot has taken on opponents she sees as a threat, including Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson. In a recent ad, Lightfoot accuses Johnson of trying to pay back the police, using a video of him speaking on a local radio show in 2020. be candid with voters.
“He’s been asking direct questions on several forums, and that guy has more bobs and weaves than Muhammad Ali,” Lightfoot said.
Johnson, a former teacher and union organizer backed by the Chicago Teachers Union, says he wants to invest more in areas such as mental health care. In a response to Lightfoot, his campaign said this does not mean cutting back on the police force. Johnson also notes that Chicago still has a violence problem, even as the police budget grows every year.
“Lori Lightfoot didn’t make Chicago safer, but I will,” Johnson says in a new ad. “It’s time to get smart, not just tough.”
All of Lightfoot’s detractors want to fire the police chief who hired them, saying the former Dallas police chief has been ineffective and that hiring an outsider hurts morale. Lightfoot has defended the superintendent, David Brown, saying that while the city faced unprecedented challenges, such as the pandemic, their strategies are working and some crimes are dropping.
Vallas, an advisor to the Fraternal Order of Police during the union’s contract negotiations with the Lightfoot administration, says that if he becomes mayor, he will promote a new leadership team from within the department. Vallas says he would welcome 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 precincts.
“We need to restore public safety,” Vallas said. “Everything flows from that.”
Wealthy businessman Willie Wilson, another mayoral candidate, has doubled down on his comment that suspects of violent crimes should be hunted like rabbits. Wilson says he lost a son to gun violence, and he believes police officers can’t do their jobs.
The other candidates are Representative Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, Chicago City Council members Sophia King and Roderick Sawyer, activist Ja’Mal Green and State Representative Kambium “Kam” Buckner.
Associated Press writer Claire Savage contributed to this report.