CHICAGO (CN) — Election Day for Chicago's mayor and city councilors is only two weeks away, with candidates for multiple city offices still jockeying to show Chicagoans why they ought to take a seat in City Hall on Feb. 28.
In the mayoral race, incumbent Lori Lightfoot faces eight challengers from across Chicago's political spectrum: Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson, former Chicago Public Schools CEO Paul Vallas, Democratic Illinois Congressman Jesus "Chuy" García, City Councilors Roderick Sawyer and Sophia King, community activist Ja'Mal Green, businessman Willie Wilson and Democratic Illinois House Representative Kam Buckner.
In an upending of the control white political dynasties have historically exerted over the mayor's office, all of the candidates except García and Vallas are Black. All are similarly Democrats, save Wilson, who is a self-funded independent. But they're nonetheless divided by their stances on issues most pertinent to the race - particularly crime and policing, which has become the central focus of the campaign.
While the rates of shootings and homicides in Chicago have fallen since 2020, police statistics also show incidents of economic crime such as burglary and car theft are on the rise. One figure from the Chicago Police Department shows that car theft alone doubled in 2022 compared to 2021. Wealthy white neighborhoods on the city's Northeast Side, which handed Lightfoot her mayoral victory in 2019, are especially sensitive to the perceived decrease in public safety.
"There's been a perceived increase in crime and lack of safety in those areas," said Stephen Maynard Caliendo, a professor of political science at North Central College in the Chicago suburb of Naperville. "That's going to be a factor."
Other hot-button issues include the state of Chicago's public transportation and education systems, as well as property tax rates, city budgeting and labor rights. But these factors also tie back to policing, given that the city dedicates more funds to the police than any other department.
The CPD budget has steadily inflated over the last several decades, growing from about $1.3 billion to over $1.9 billion in just the last 10 years. And that's not including the over $1 billion the city currently spends on police pensions and benefits. A 2020 study by the nonprofit Chicago watchdog group Injustice Watch found that since at least the 1990s, the CPD "has consistently taken up about 40% of the city’s general operating budget."
Still, most of the mayoral candidates, including Lightfoot, have said they plan to either maintain or further grow police spending if elected. Only Green, Johnson and Buckner have said otherwise, and of that trio, only Johnson remains competitive in the race.
"We spend more on policing, per capita, than anywhere else in the country," Johnson said during the first televised mayoral debate last month. "And yet we're not safe."
Johnson, by trade a public school teacher and a member of the powerful Chicago Teachers Union, is one of the furthest left candidates in the running, a rebuke to Lightfoot's more Obama-aligned neoliberal tendencies. He has also won the endorsement of many of the city's unions, including CTU and its close ally the Service Employees International Union. Lightfoot, over the course of her term, has gotten into bitter fights with both.
"He's the only one who's standing apart," Maynard Caliendo said of Johnson. "He's not saying 'defund the police,' but he's saying 'let's shore up these other [departments]."
It's enough distance from the rest of the pack that Lightfoot has attacked Johnson over it, accusing him in a Feb. 9 debate of wanting "to destroy our police department by cutting our officers and making our communities less safe."
While Johnson's progressive stance on police spending and his numerous union endorsements and donations may have thus far kept him a viable threat to Lightfoot, the most recent polling also shows him trailing behind García and Vallas.