Thursday, November 2, 2023

US Progressives Energized by Chicago Mayoral Win


The recent election of Brandon Johnson as the next mayor of Chicago, Illinois has been a significant win for progressives, according to experts. The election was seen as a referendum on the future of the Democratic Party, with Johnson’s victory highlighting the schisms within the party. Johnson was initially seen as a long-shot candidate but advanced to a run-off election against Paul Vallas, a conservative Democrat who pushed an aggressive message on crime and touted the endorsement of law enforcement groups. Ultimately, Johnson won 51.42 percent of the vote compared with 48.58 percent for Vallas, who conceded on Wednesday.

Vallas’s platform reflected concerns that Democrats were perceived as “soft on crime”, a common criticism levelled by Republicans who point to an uptick in violent crime during the COVID-19 pandemic. Vallas counted the city’s Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) among his supporters and vowed to expand the city’s police force. In contrast, Johnson campaigned on a more progressive platform, advocating for criminal justice reform, including increased police accountability and greater investment in community and mental health services. He also touted his support from labour groups such as the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) and US Senator Bernie Sanders.

Johnson’s campaign was dogged by accusations that he would “defund the police”, a rallying cry that emerged after the 2020 killing of George Floyd. However, Johnson has denied any plans to defund Chicago’s police force, saying instead he hopes to approach public safety in a more “holistic” way.

The first round of voting took place on February 28, with the crowded field of candidates including incumbent Lori Lightfoot, the first Black woman to serve as mayor of Chicago. However, Lightfoot’s popularity suffered during the pandemic, and she came in third, becoming the first mayor to lose her reelection bid since 1983. None of the candidates won more than 50 percent of the vote in the first round, but Vallas and Johnson earned the most votes, allowing them to proceed to Tuesday’s run-off.

While crime loomed large in the election, other issues were also on the minds of Chicago voters as they returned to the ballot box on Tuesday. Johnson’s progressive stance on issues such as housing, mental health services, and funding for public schools drew support from groups such as 48th Ward Neighbors for Justice. Ameshia Cross, a Democratic strategist in Chicago, also supported Johnson over Vallas in part because of the latter’s history of promoting charter schools.

During the campaign, FOP president John Catanzara predicted that up to 1,000 police officers would quit their jobs if Johnson won and ominously warned that his election would mean “blood in the streets”. However, many communities are concerned about crime but also have a long history of police abuse in Chicago, so some of that rhetoric backfired. Aaron Gottlieb, an assistant professor who researches criminal justice at the University of Chicago, told Al Jazeera that voters do not always buy the idea that embracing reform means sacrificing public safety.

“In places like New York, Democrats have joined with Republicans to push this narrative that crime is out of control and we need a ‘tough on crime’ approach,” said Robert Peters, an Illinois state senator and Democrat representing Chicago’s 13th district. “It’s a failed approach that doesn’t keep people safe. The Democratic Party should be more like Chicago and less like New York.”

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