AMAC Exclusive – By Daniel Berman
On Tuesday, Chicago voters made history, at least of a sort. Lori Lightfoot, the city’s outspoken mayor, lost reelection, becoming the first incumbent mayor in more than 40 years to do so.
Lightfoot not only lost reelection, she came in third in the first round, winning a mere 17% of the vote. In first place, with 34%, was Paul Vallas, a former school superintendent backed by police unions and many Republicans. Vallas had won just 5% of the vote in 2019. His success is further evidence, along with the poor performance of Democrats in New York and greater Los Angeles last November, that the “woke wave” in America’s cities has crested. Voters who were happy to cast ballots for Democrats as acts of virtue signaling recoiled when mayors and district attorneys tried to apply those principles to governing in a way which increased crime.
Chicago should be an American success story. Located in the Heartland, it was a key hub for the rail lines which made America’s westward expansion possible and the industrial revolution that drove America’s rise to global preeminence. It lacked the geographic limitations on expansion which hobble New York City even today, with a vast hinterland in the “Collar Counties”. It is no surprise that it quickly rose to become the nation’s second largest city, a distinction it held until Los Angeles overtook it in the 1990 census.
The decline of American manufacturing through free trade hit the Midwest hard, and Chicago was no exception. The Sears Corporation, whose name adorned Chicago’s highest skyscraper, once dominated American mail-order sales, and was the nation’s largest retailer through the 1980s. It failed to respond to the challenge of Amazon, Wal-Mart, and low-cost Chinese imports, forcing the firm to file for bankruptcy in 2018.
Yet Chicago had other advantages. Its geographic location made it an excellent airline hub. It hosted several corporate headquarters. The University of Chicago was one of the world’s leading research institutions. With New York suffering under a blight of misgovernment in the 1970s and 80s prior to Rudy Giuliani’s election, an aggressive, pro-growth agenda could have helped revitalize Chicago.
Instead, Chicago joined New York in a race to the bottom. In fact, Chicago showed a determination that New York and Los Angeles did not to win that race. New York elected Republican and independent mayors between 1993 and 2013, while Los Angeles did the same between 1993 and 2001. Both helped reverse the 1980s crime waves which were threatening American cities.
Chicago has always had issues with organized crime since the time of Al Capone, but the explosion in homicides by street gangs during the last decade is unprecedented. By 2016, Chicago had recorded more homicides and shootings than both Los Angeles and New York City combined, a figure which rose even further by 2021.
The response of Chicago’s political leadership has been to agonize not over the victims of violent crimes but the perpetrators. Mayor Rahm Emmanuel fired his police commissioner in 2014 following the shooting of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald, despite a jury acquitting the officers involved. In 2019, Mayor Lightfoot pushed to establish a civilian oversight board for the Police Department, and she banned the police from cooperating with ICE, effectively declaring Chicago a sanctuary city for human traffickers and Central American gangs. Despite record rates of violence which saw 114 school children killed between 2010 and 2014 and necessitated the creation of “safe passage routes” for students, Mayor Lightfoot tried to ban police officers from schools.
Lori Lightfoot, was, in fairness, fulfilling her mandate and implanting the orthodoxy of the left wing of the Democratic Party. Lightfoot built her career on identity politics in general, and racial ones in particular. Before becoming mayor, she used her perch as head of the Chicago Police Board to attack the department’s “code of silence” and to denounce the efforts of Mayor Emanuel to work with the Trump administration. During her campaign, she her status as the first Black female and LGBT candidate for Mayor of Chicago a centerpiece – a line she continued as mayor, when, in 2021, she said she would only take questions from non-white reporters.
The irony is that the greatest victims of Lightfoot’s head-in-the-sand approach to governance were the African American community. The racial variation in murder rates is appalling. In 2021, more than 80% of the more than 1,000 murder victims were black, as were two-thirds of the 17,722 recorded victims of aggravated assault and battery.
It is hardly surprising that this surge in crime produced a political backlash. This year, Lightfoot found herself challenged from both left and right. To the right, she faced Paul Vallas, who headed Chicago Public Schools from 1996 to 2001, a period which saw rapidly rising test scores. Vallas had run in 2019, receiving the endorsement of Chicago Teacher’s Union President, the head of the Chicago Republican Party, and former Republican Governor Bruce Rauner. But Vallas, a life-long Democrat, was cast as a closet Republican by Lightfoot and other rivals, finishing with only 5% of the vote.
This year, his message had greater resonance, and he campaigned on extending the school day, universal school choice, and trumpeting his endorsement by the police union. Despite increasingly desperate efforts to attack him on abortion due to statements in a 2009 interview and for having endorsed “stop and frisk” on Twitter, Vallas finished a strong first with 34% of the vote.
In second place was Lightfoot’s challenger from the left, Brandon Johnson, a member of the Cook County Board of Commissioners who upset an incumbent Democrat in 2018 with support from Bernie Sanders’s “Our Revolution” PAC. Prior to entering politics, Johnson helped organize the 2012 Chicago teacher strike, and continued to draw a salary from the teacher’s union while holding office. Johnson’s most important contribution to the governance, or misgovernance, of the city was his “Just Housing Ordinance” which prohibited potential landlords or property owners from considering prospective tenants’ or homebuyers’ criminal histories. In other jurisdictions such a proposal would have been dismissed. In Chicago, it was signed into law in April 2019.
Johnson, with 20% of the vote, will now advance to face Vallas in the April 4 runoff. The election in many ways resembles the 2021 election for Seattle City Attorney. In that race, the incumbent Democrat, Peter Holmes, assailed from all sides, came third behind Ann Davison, a 2020 Republican candidate for Lt. Governor, and Nicole Thomas-Kennedy, a police abolitionist. In the runoff in heavily Democratic Seattle, Davison received the endorsements of both living former Democratic governors as well as the establishment papers. It was just enough to eke out a 51.5%-47.7% victory.
There is a racial element in Chicago’s runoff which did not exist in Seattle’s contest between two white women. Paul Vallas is white, while Brandon Johnson is black. African American candidates received around 52% of the vote in the first-round, with 14% going to Jesus Garcia, a former activist and far-left congressman who voted against funding Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system and condemning the “Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions” movement targeting Israel.
There is another way of looking at the results. Willie Wilson, an African American businessman, won nearly 10% running on a similar platform to Vallas, meaning that candidates to the right of Lori Lightfoot won a combined 44%, while those to her left won only 40%. Vallas would need less than 40% of Lightfoot’s vote to win. This explains why Collin Corbett, a political strategist told Politico, “This is a race where if the election becomes about the issues — about crime or education — you’ll see Vallas do well. If it’s a race about personality or politics, those ancillary things, then Johnson has a good shot.”
Chicago’s mayoral race is an important test. If Paul Vallas, a white moderate who advocates for school choice and stronger public safety, can defeat an activist like Johnson in a city which is only 31% non-Hispanic white, it will demonstrate a trend we have seen in Ilhan Omar’s near primary defeat and in elections in San Francisco and Seattle. Asian American, Latino, and even some African American voters have begun to turn on a Democratic Party which sees the major problem with crime being that society is too harsh on criminals, and the main problems with schools as being that teacher’s unions have too little power, and parents too much, not the other way around.
The first round gives real cause for hope. Going from 5% to 34% is a spectacular increase in four years, and a testament to how much American urban politics have changed after the unrest of 2020. If Vallas can go the whole distance, it might signal the start of a recovery for Chicago, and perhaps the American Heartland for which it once was the economic engine. With luck, it might someday be so again.
Daniel Berman is a frequent commentator and lecturer on foreign policy and political affairs, both nationally and internationally. He holds a Ph.D. in International Relations from the London School of Economics. He also writes as Daniel Roman.