The Fifty

Chicago’s messy, caustic mayor’s contest has Democrats feuding over crime

The party strife has made the Chicago mayor’s race a crucible for how high-profile Democrats are threading their messages around policing, violence and racial justice.

An illustration featuring Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot with mayoral candidates Paul Vallas, Brandon Johnson and Chuy García.

CHICAGO — The homicide rate in this deep-blue city doesn’t crack the top 10 in the U.S. — though you wouldn’t know it from the mayor’s race.

The eight challengers hoping to topple Democratic Mayor Lori Lightfoot later this month are almost solely focused on the city’s violence — hammering on issues such as homicides, carjackings and robberies at every open microphone.

It’s a policy spectrum that stretches from the far left, where there’s a call for police funding to be shifted to social services, to the far right, and a candidate who wants suspected criminals hunted down “like a rabbit.”

Throughout 2022, the political script was clear: Republicans in New York, Pennsylvania and elsewhere channeled voters’ attention to a pandemic-era spike in violence while Democrats did their best to talk about anything else.

The Chicago brawl over crime, however, is happening among candidates who all count themselves as Democrats. And a dearth of public polling has given them space to question whether the city’s first Black female mayor, who swept the 2019 runoff, is vulnerable.

The intraparty strife has made the Chicago mayor’s race — one of the nation’s biggest elections since the 2022 midterms — a crucible for how high-profile urban Democrats everywhere are threading their messaging around policing, violence and racial justice ahead of 2024.

It’s also deeply personal for a city that’s regularly dragged onto the national stage for its crime, and where its South Side serves as political shorthand for gun violence even though St. Louis, Mo., and Washington, D.C., see more homicides per capita.

“It’s the only thing voters care about,” said Arne Duncan, former Obama-era Education secretary and Chicago native who considered a run for mayor himself.

Sixty-one percent of Chicagoans were concerned about crime, Duncan, who runs Chicago CRED, a program that helps young Black men find jobs, said in an interview referencing a poll he ordered. The No. 2 issue was the economy, at a distant 11 percent.

“This is the issue and nothing comes close,” he said of crime.

At the same time, Chicago’s mayor sits at the uncomfortable intersection of voter expectations, a powerful police union and longstanding police accountability issues.

The Chicago Police Department is also under a federal consent decree to make improvements after the 2014 police killing of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald under then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel. The fears and concerns about the McDonald case were reignited last month with the fatal police beating of Tyre Nichols in Memphis, Tenn.

The pandemic and the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis became a prelude to a steady rise in crime. And tensions heightened further when 13-year-old Adam Toledo was killed by Chicago police in 2021. No charges were filed in that case but it led the city to pull back on foot pursuits.

Lightfoot recently said the police department is in compliance with about 80 percent of its training and accountability targets.

The mayor has responded with incremental changes and tweaks that have drawn challengers who believe she should either be wholly rewriting policing doctrine or putting more cops on the street.

While Chicago’s homicide rate is far lower than places like New Orleans, Atlanta and Memphis, it trails New York City and Los Angeles in reducing crime. There were about 100 fewer homicides in Chicago in 2022 than the year before. But the figure remains higher than in 2019 and the sheer volume — nearly 700 last year alone, according to the University of Chicago Crime Lab — keeps the issue at the center of voters’ attention.

“People who pick up a gun and wreak havoc in a neighborhood, they need to be locked up. Period, full stop,” Lightfoot said in a wide-ranging interview in her campaign offices a few blocks from City Hall. “But we also want to bring lasting peace, not just temporary peace that dissipates” only to see it resurface again and again. “We’ve been doing that since the ’70s. It’s not working.”

Lightfoot’s administration was criticized for how it responded to Floyd protesters, and she and the City Council have rejected calls from left-leaning activists to “defund the police” and transfer resources to other city agencies. Instead, the mayor has increased funding for police every year she’s been in office.

Prominent Democrats like Lightfoot and New York City Mayor Eric Adams — and President Joe Biden — have long rejected the defund rhetoric, but it’s remained a useful label Republicans deploy to put Democrats on the defensive.

“I’m not a defunder and I will never be a defunder,” Lightfoot, a former federal prosecutor and police accountability board member, said while noting her support for boosting social services. “You can’t swing so far in a direction that we say the police are irrelevant. That’s not reasonable for a rational place like Chicago.”

But when the questions turned to 2020 and whether the city of Chicago is still haunted by Floyd’s murder, Lightfoot was caught off guard.

“I don’t think we’re ever —” she said, pausing to compose herself. “I don’t think we can ever move on from watching that video knowing that his life was needlessly and brutally taken over a counterfeit $20 bill. We can never come back from that,” she said. “But God forbid —” she added before her voice trailed off.

The turmoil of 2020 and the looting that followed along Chicago’s central business strip, the Magnificent Mile, rattled the city just as its economy was set into a tumble by the pandemic. Residents in largely northern white neighborhoods — many of which backed Lightfoot four years ago — are also newly frustrated by carjackings that had once been a rare occurrence in their communities.

“Now that there’s crime in Wrigleyville and Lakeview [on the North Side], people have a different opinion,” Chicago Ald. Jason Ervin, who heads the City Council’s Black Caucus and is supporting Lightfoot in the mayor’s race. “When it was Garfield Park and Englewood [on the South Side], the reactions were different.”

None of it is good for Lightfoot, or any sitting mayor.

“The boiling point didn’t start with Floyd’s killing, but it was a boiling point of social unrest,” said Teny Gross, founder of the nonpartisan Institute for Nonviolent Chicago. “Those things, it was a pretty big blow to trust in governmental institutions.”

Lightfoot, like many Democratic mayors across the country, is now trying to communicate an alternative to defunding the police — a slogan popularized after Floyd’s killing — that moderates and progressives can live with.

“What we’ve tried to do is go back to common sense, which is recognizing that you need officers, and you need violence prevention and there’s not going to be one or the other,” said Kansas City, Mo., Mayor Quinton Lucas, a Democrat who chairs the U.S. Conference of Mayors’ Criminal and Social Justice Committee.

Lucas, who has discussed policing and public safety with Lightfoot, sees it as a “problem on both sides” of the Democratic Party — left-leaning “defunders” and right-leaning Democrats who eat up “Fox News criticisms that are inaccurate and fetishize violent crime.”

Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey also opposes defunding police as his city searches for more solutions.

“We have to dropkick ideological lines just to figure out what works,” Frey said in an interview. “Granted, most big cities, including myself, are staunch Democrats, but purity tests for right or left don’t get the job done.”

Lightfoot’s top rivals, Rep. Jesús “Chuy” García, who ran unsuccessfully for mayor in 2015, and former Chicago Public Schools CEO Paul Vallas, have both vowed to hire more cops and oust Police Superintendent David Brown if they win the Feb. 28 race and the likely April 4 runoff.

Vallas, who is backed by the city’s conservative and confrontational police union, has proposed a 14-point plan that centers on rebuilding the police force. He blames Chicago’s crime problem in part on “the abandonment of a community based policing strategy,” he said in an interview.

García’s public safety plan doesn’t differ all that much from what Lightfoot has already put into place. But he criticizes the city for not meeting all the goals set out by the federal consent decree.

“It shouldn’t have taken four years to get that done,” he said in an interview. He wants officers “to get out of their cars and knock on doors and rebuild trust. Trust is critical to getting the department back on track.”

And candidate Brandon Johnson, who is backed by the powerful Chicago Teachers Union, won’t say “defund” but he would like to see the agency’s resources moved to other areas, especially publicly funded mental health centers.

“It’s about treatment not trauma,” he said in an interview, echoing his campaign speeches.

The mayor has so far stood behind her police chief but she, too, wants to see more new recruits — particularly among people of color. Lightfoot is banking on the recent opening of a police training center to further that goal and she’s directed more money and personnel to the South and West sides.

Chicago wasn’t always an outlier on big-city crime. In 1890, Chicago had a homicide rate on par with New York and Los Angeles, said Roseanna Ander, who heads the Crime Lab. “But we really diverged in the early 2000s.”

The “key difference,” she said, is that those cities adopted data-driven management practices and invested more in police leadership development and now Chicago is playing catch-up.

Ervin, the Black Caucus chair, said Chicago is making much-needed changes but it’s not going to happen quickly.

“It didn’t take George Floyd in Los Angeles to change. It was Rodney King. It was a wake-up call for all of America. We didn’t listen back then as LA and New York did, and now we’re paying for it today.”