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Chicago mayoral race enters final stretch

The election is seen as a referendum on policing, public investment and incumbent Lori Lightfoot herself.

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.


A survey conducted in the first week of February by independent polling firm Mason-Dixon Polling and Strategy showed García, Vallas and Lightfoot in a near three-way tie, earning 20%, 18% and 17% of the projected vote, respectively. Johnson and Willie Wilson, a law-and-order conservative who has unsuccessfully run for mayor twice before, meanwhile controlled 11% and 12% respectively.

U.S. Rep. Chuy Garcia, D-Ill., participates in a forum with other Chicago mayoral candidates at the Chicago Temple on Jan. 14, 2023. (AP Photo/Erin Hooley, File)

García, representing Illinois' newly redrawn 4th Congressional District, is undoubtedly the candidate with the largest national profile. He was born in the Mexican state of Durango but immigrated with his family to Chicago in 1965, and has been involved in local Democratic politics since the early 1980s. Generally a progressive, his base of support includes several of Chicago's historically underrepresented Latino communities, which have gained major ground in City Hall since the 2019 election. Those communities' position in the city's near South and West sides is a major hurdle for Lightfoot, who has been courting the same areas with her "INVEST South/West" program since before García announced his candidacy last November.

However, García's campaign has also been damaged by his apparent connection to accused crypto fraudster Sam Bankman-Fried. The embattled Bankman-Fried personally donated $2,900 to García's unopposed congressional reelection campaign in 2022, while his Protect Our Future PAC spent over $151,000 on mailers for voters in García's 4th District. At the time García sat on the House Financial Services Committee which oversees crypto industry. García, who has said he's never met Bankman-Fried nor understood why he received the donations, resigned his seat on the committee in January. His congressional campaign also said last week that it will return Bankman-Fried's $2,900 donation to FTX investors.

In contrast to García, third frontrunner Vallas is among the most conservative candidates in the running. He's also the only white candidate, which by itself gives him pull among the city's white enclaves on the suburb-bordering far Northwest and Southwest sides.

"He has the Northwest and Southwest sides of the city," said Dick Simpson, a former Chicago alderman and retired University of Illinois - Chicago political science professor. "They're conservative sides of the city."

Vallas is also staunchly pro-police, having won the endorsement of the local Fraternal Order of Police, and is a free market ideologue where it concerns education. Besides being the former chief of Chicago Public Schools, Vallas also worked as superintendent of New Orleans' Recovery School District from 2007 to 2011. There, he spearheaded the mass privatization of the public school system in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, and has continued to defend "educational choice" to this day.

The rest of Lightfoot's challengers have thus far proven nonviable. The Mason-Dixon Poll found none had more than 2% of voter support. An additional 18% of voters reported they were undecided.

It's on these undecided voters that the race hangs, said Evan McKenzie, the head of UIC's political science department. Per Chicago election rules, if no candidate secures 50% of the vote on Feb. 28, the top two picks go to a runoff election on April 4. Both McKenzie and Simpson, who has endorsed Lightfoot, say a runoff is likely.

"No one is close to getting 50% of the vote outright," Simpson said.

In that case, McKenzie said, the crowded field of frontrunners cuts both ways for the incumbent.

On the one hand, Lightfoot has the daunting task of defending her past four tumultuous years in office against a large cast of critics. She is an unpopular mayor, having earned the reputation of being vindictive and difficult to work with in City Hall. She has also been embroiled in numerous controversies since she took office in 2019 – from raising city bridges in the middle of protests in 2020, separating protestors and pushing them into violent confrontation with police, to locking city teachers out of their remote teaching platforms in early 2022 in an attempt to force the return of in-person classes, to a recent scandal in which her campaign contacted dozens of teachers hoping to entice students to help her reelection effort in exchange for class credit.

Per the recent Mason-Dixon poll, Lightfoot's approval rating stands at only about 22%.

Conversely, McKenzie predicted the large candidate pool also means that before the Feb. 28 election, the progressive vote could be split between García and Johnson, while conservatives may divide along racial lines - Black conservatives for Wilson, whites for Vallas.

"The thing about an incumbent is, are people voting against Lightfoot or for their preferred candidate?" Maynard Caliendo agreed. "She might be a lot of people's fallback."

McKenzie also wondered if there may be a "shy Tory" effect in play for Vallas, where those who plan to vote for him don't openly say so for fear of social backlash in a racially diverse, heavily unionized city. Vallas' views on school privatization could be especially polarizing given the legacy of mass public school closures in Black and Latino neighborhoods under former Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

"There may be a hidden Vallas vote... I thinks what Vallas did in New Orleans is horrifying to a lot of Chicagoans, but maybe they'll look past it," McKenzie said.

McKenzie, Simpson and Maynard Caliendo all predicted that the most likely outcome for Feb. 28 was a runoff between Lightfoot and either Vallas or García. What happens on April 4 depends on which one of them it is. Simpson was confident that a showdown between Vallas and Lightfoot would probably end in the incumbent's favor, while Maynard Caliendo and McKenzie said that a García-Lightfoot contest was very uncertain.

"If it's a two-way race, the voting blocks are going to shift," McKenzie said. "The progressives are divided between Johnson and Chuy, but if one of them gets into the runoff, they're not going to be divided."

 "It will probably go to whoever runs the best campaign over the next two weeks," he added.  

Categories:Government, Politics, Regional

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