Lori Lightfoot made history four years ago when she won every ward in the city of Chicago to become the first Black woman and first openly gay person to be elected mayor of America’s third-largest city. She made it again last night, becoming the first Chicago mayor in 40 years to lose a reelection bid.
Lightfoot’s loss was expected, but it also served as a referendum on her first four years in office and on crime in Chicago. The coronavirus pandemic dealt a huge economic hit to the city, and violent crime surged during the outbreak, reaching levels not seen in the city since the 1990s. Because of this, and because of Lightfoot’s poor relationship with other political leaders, she was viewed as the underdog, just like in her last race. Nearly half of Chicago voters rated crime and public safety as their top electoral issues, and more than 60 percent of voters said they felt personally unsafe in the city, according to an early February poll.
That continues a trend in many American cities dominated by Democrats. Crime rates rose during the pandemic and have since moderated a bit, but some visible kinds of crime have continued to test Democrats politically. In Chicago, homicides and shootings have trended down after drastic rises in 2021 and 2022, while property crimes have risen over the last four years. The city has also seen high-profile shootings, increasing crime in downtown, constant media coverage about the violence, and heated rhetoric about how bad crime has become by the police union and Lightfoot herself.
Those conditions have meant Chicago’s mayoral race has echoed local races in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Philadelphia, and Washington, DC over the last two years. And in some national elections as well: Republicans had mixed success in trying to make it a political cudgel during midterm elections last year, when 61 percent of Americans cited it as a major electoral issue.
Violence was a constant topic of the Chicago mayor’s race with challengers taking every opportunity to criticize Lightfoot’s approach to crime and policing. The 60-year-old Democrat and former prosecutor did not get enough votes to make it to a runoff election in April, coming in third behind challengers to her ideological right and left: Paul Vallas, the former head of Chicago’s public school system, took in the most votes Tuesday night, mostly from the city’s predominantly white neighborhoods. A progressive challenger, Cook County commissioner Brandon Johnson, came in second, with support concentrated in the city’s racially diverse and mixed north and northwest neighborhoods, where he spoke about crime in a more nuanced way.
How Chicago became disillusioned with a trailblazer
Lightfoot faced serious struggles as an incumbent who managed the city during one of its toughest times, and many of the challenges that helped bring her down have also tested Democrats in the country’s biggest, bluest strongholds.
The coronavirus pandemic and its shutdowns, a surge in crime, and battles with the city’s police union and the teachers union all dragged down Lightfoot’s political shine. She is also famously short-tempered (she has acknowledged some criticism of her leadership style before), and Lightfoot’s clashes with the press and city council didn’t help her: Many of her former supporters there backed her challengers.
The Chicago Teachers Union backed Johnson, the progressive in the race, while the police union backed Vallas, the conservative Democrat who ran on a tough-on-crime message.
Crime and policing were frequently cited as the top issues for voters this year — both topics where Lightfoot was at a disadvantage because of her incumbency and her campaign promises four years ago. Back then, she had pledged to clean up the city’s political machine, reduce violence across the city, and invest in Black and brown neighborhoods. Though she did make progress on the economic front (including passing a higher minimum wage and planning and investing in more affordable housing), Lightfoot has floundered on her public safety and police reform efforts.
And after union clashes in 2019, the pandemic halted hopes of rapid change and saw a spike in violence: 2021 was the deadliest year in the city since the 1990s: nearly 800 homicides, the highest total number since 1996 and 300 more than in 2019, when Lightfoot took over.
While she told Chicagoans that crime was trending down — and homicides and shootings were down from their pandemic peak last year — those statistics didn’t resonate with the lived experiences of many voters. Much of this feeling was driven by the spike in shootings and homicides during her tenure, and more visible property crimes in the touristy areas downtown that got a lot of media coverage. Also not helping Lightfoot’s case was the fact that particularly visible property crimes, like burglaries and theft, did increase last year (as they have in other cities).
Chicago is indicative of a larger trend in Democratic city politics
The next round of voting will take place on April 4 and will see a new standard-bearer of Chicago progressive politics. Johnson will square off against the conservative top vote-getter, Vallas. Though Vallas currently identifies as a Democrat, he was attacked throughout the race for previously saying he’s “more of a Republican than a Democrat.”
The result of that clash in ideology, race (Vallas was the only white candidate in the field), and class fits in with the broader trend among big-city Democrats to moderate their politics and resort to more conservative proposals for dealing with crime and policing. Vallas has called for hiring more police officers, more patrolling of the city’s public transportation system, and dismissing the city’s current public safety leadership. Johnson is running as a progressive hoping to attack root causes for crime: Instead of cuts to police budgets, he calls for better mental health treatment and schools, addressing poverty, and training new detectives to solve homicides and find illegal guns.
That same kind of dynamic has played out in cities across the country since the pandemic’s outbreak. In New York, it led to the election of Eric Adams as mayor, who pledged to make crime his top priority. (The jury is out on Adams’s agenda, and on his popularity.) In Los Angeles, it meant a billionaire former Republican forced a top Democratic Congress member into a runoff election to lead the city, in what is a bit of a parallel to Chicago’s race. Vallas shares the tough-on-crime message that Rick Caruso, the centrist LA billionaire used, and Johnson has sought to talk about crime with nuance, like now-Mayor Karen Bass.
In DC, it forced an incumbent mayor to move to the right on crime policy in 2022, and set up a clash with the city council as Congress scrutinizes a new local law that would reform the city’s criminal code. And congressional Democrats are responding with scrutiny on local crime policy after facing a flurry of attacks from Republicans during the midterms for their supposed weakness on crime. (Those attacks didn’t fare well everywhere, but did in New York.)
In this context, Chicagoans might give another example of how the Democratic base and its elected leaders are recalibrating their approaches to crime as the party finds a middle ground between conservative and progressive solutions.