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Chicago to elect new mayor as crime emerges as key issue

2023-04-04T11:04:32Z

The skyline is seen in Chicago, Illinois, U.S., October 19, 2017. REUTERS/John Gress/File Photo

Crime is the central issue in Tuesday’s mayoral runoff in Chicago, where voters are choosing between two candidates with contrasting approaches to public safety.

Former Chicago Public Schools CEO Paul Vallas calls for more cops; Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson calls for more mental health support and opportunities for young people.

The two are squaring off to run the third-largest U.S. city after incumbent Lori Lightfoot finished third out of nine candidates in the previous round when no one managed to cross the 50% line.

The nonpartisan race in the heavily left-leaning city has tested Democratic messaging on policing in the U.S., three years after widespread protests following the police murder of George Floyd and months after Republicans sought to bludgeon Democrats over the issue in the 2022 midterm elections.

Vallas says he will hire more than 1,500 police officers. Johnson says he will invest in youth summer employment programs for at-risk youth and spend more on mental health treatment.

“Other cities will watch – particularly mayors and incumbent mayors who want to stay in office – to really see how voters react,” said Nick Kachiroubas, a public administration professor at DePaul University in Chicago. “The question becomes which approach wins and what is the reaction to that new policing strategy.”

The candidate who comes out ahead will inherit a city in which the number of murders since 2018 has increased by 20%. In 2021, there were 804 murders, the most in a quarter-century.

Car thefts have doubled and other types of theft have risen by a quarter over the last five years.

Lightfoot, the first Black woman and first openly gay person to serve as the city’s mayor, was bidding for a second four-year term. But her handling of crime and a series of crises, including the COVID-19 pandemic, racial justice protests, and a protracted teachers’ strike, sapped her support.

In addition to hiring hundreds more officers, Vallas, a former Chicago budget director who grew up on the city’s South Side, wants to reinstitute a community policing model and create a victim and witness protection and services program, all with the intention to get tough on crime.

“We need more cops outright,” said Tim Lambert, a 50-year-old real estate professional on why he is a Vallas supporter. “When I lived in neighborhoods with beat cops, I knew the cops and that was a good thing. They have more of a vested interest in the neighborhood than being deployed in a widespread way.”

Johnson, a former Chicago teacher and union organizer, says he will promote 200 new detectives from the existing pool of police officers. He also wants to strengthen police accountability.

Bertha Purnell knows Chicago’s violence all too well. After her son was killed in a shooting in 2017 on the city’s West Side, she started an organization to support mothers of those killed in violent crimes.

“Johnson has asked people who are affected by violence, what is it they want to see, instead of telling us what we need. That is something very important,” said the 63-year-old former nurse, who is voting for Johnson, noting that he lives in the same neighborhood where her son was killed.

On day one, the winner will have a variety of other issues to address, including a struggling public school system, the city’s fiscal woes and the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic that closed many businesses and offices.

A poll last week by Emerson College Polling, WGN-TV and The Hill showed Vallas leading Johnson by 5 points, with 13% undecided. Other recent polls have shown a narrower margin.

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