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Progressive Johnson Triumphs Against “Tough-on-Crime” Democrat in Chicago

Johnson’s opponent, Paul Vallas, ran on a platform of further empowering the already extremely violent Chicago Police.

Union organizer and Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson speaks after being projected winner as mayor on April 4, 2023, in Chicago, Illinois.

Progressive Brandon Johnson won the Chicago mayoral race on Tuesday, triumphing over conservative Democrat Paul Vallas in a victory that serves as a rebuke to Vallas’s “tough-on-crime” platform and shows that candidates running on left-wing platforms can win.

Johnson, a former labor organizer for the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU), defeated his well-financed opponent on a platform of supporting affordable housing, reducing police brutality and otherwise offering a progressive alternative to the neoliberalism that has long plagued the city.

He will be replacing Democrat Lori Lightfoot, who was roundly rejected by voters last month, and whose time in office was marked with a brand of reactionary conservatism that mainstream Democrats have increasingly embraced in reaction to the 2020 protests for Black lives. From her campaign picking fights with the CTU to her unabashed support of police, Lightfoot made an enemy of the left, only to become the first Chicago mayor in over 30 years to lose reelection.

The mayor-elect’s positions on policing and public safety, which were a large focus of the election, stood in contrast to Lightfoot and Vallas’s positions. Vallas’s platform was centered on fear mongering around crime in the city, with the candidate saying that he would “take the handcuffs” off the already empowered and violent Chicago police.

Johnson, on the other hand, has advocated for addressing public safety concerns by increasing resources for social interventions and services. After being subjected to relentless attacks over a 2020 remark that appeared to defend the concept of defunding the police, the progressive insisted that he wouldn’t move any money away from the police. But he has also emphasized his commitment to expanding mental health and drug addiction resources, as well as social interventions aimed at addressing root issues behind community instability.

“Tonight, Chicago chose hope over fear,” Johnson said in his victory speech Tuesday night. “I ain’t never seen a city silence a dog whistle.”

But while Johnson’s win represents a triumph for progressivism, it may not be as strong of a rebuke of supposed tough-on-crime messaging as it appears. The election was extremely hard fought — in last month’s election, Johnson received 20 percent of the vote, while Vallas received 34 percent. Progressives swiftly organized to support Johnson on the ground for the runoff, netting Johnson a win by a slim margin of two points.

As Kelly Hayes, Truthout writer and podcaster and Chicago organizer pointed out, the fact that Vallas got 49 percent of the vote shows that fear mongering on crime is still extremely potent messaging that the left and progressive movements must push back on.

“The scapegoating of criminalized people, migrants and unhoused folks is only going to escalate in these catastrophic times — and it will be heartbreakingly effective in many cases. We cannot underestimate the power of this tactic,” said Hayes.

“We have to be realistic about the fact that a lot of people respond to a crisis, on a psychological level, by taking status quo preserving stances, or by skewing in conservative directions. We have to be honest with ourselves about the fact that this is happening to a lot of people and that it’s going to continue to happen to a lot of people. This will be the struggle: to build against that trend,” Hayes continued, noting that Johnson’s campaign serves as a model of what it looks like to fight reactionary narratives.

Vallas also made a number of unforced errors during his campaign, Hayes noted. He criticized hometown hero President Barack Obama; he aligned himself with Republicans in the blue city at every turn and was plagued by his 2009 remark that he is “more of a Republican” than a Democrat; and local reporters dug up racist, homophobic, and otherwise unsavory posts that Vallas’s social media accounts had liked in recent years, including Facebook posts describing Chicago as “Shitcago” and a “hell hole.”

Further, like Lightfoot, Vallas has also made an enemy of educators in the city.

As CEO of Chicago Public Schools in the 1990s and 2000s, Vallas made drastic moves to transfer $1.5 billion from the Chicago public school budget to Wall Street after issuing $666 million of bonds that have been likened to payday loans. In a huge case of institutional wage theft, he slashed public school pensions, bringing Chicago from having one of the best, most well-funded school pension funds in the country to one of the worst. And, all the while, he was overhauling the city’s public school system in order to make schools more privatized and focused on testing, rather than education.

To be sure, there still appears to be backlash across the country against messaging on crime and increasing policing. Democrats in New York have been blamed for the party’s loss of the U.S. House because of their unrepentant focus on crime during the midterms; some commentators have speculated that Joe Biden’s recent tack to the right on issues like the GOP’s attempt to roll back D.C.’s crime bill has caused his ratings to drop.

But, as the right has long known, such fear mongering is extremely powerful; practically the entire platform of the Republican Party is rooted in fomenting some sort of fear within its base. Progressives say that it is up to the left to present alternatives to such fear in order to usher in a future less susceptible to reactionary politics.

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