Calling the Police: Lightfoot Needs A Lifeline

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As Chicagoans go to the polls Tuesday, Lightfoot’s fate may depend on whether enough other Black voters will listen to the last-minute appeal she’s making on the stump and in television ads, where she’s broadcasting a closing commercial assailing the African-American Johnson as a “radical” who’d “wreck our city with dangerous defunding of police.”

Four years after Lightfoot won what was her first bid for electoral office by forging a coalition of Blacks and liberal whites, many of them angry about the police killing of Laquan McDonald, her punch-left strategy offers a vivid illustration about the shifting politics of crime. The former president of the oversight-focused Chicago Police Board, who entered the race then before Mayor Rahm Emanuel even announced he’d skip a third term, is now weaponizing past pleas to defund the police.

Polling from the campaigns and outside groups shows that it’s by far the biggest driver of voters, with some surveys I’ve seen indicating that well over half the electorate call it the dominant issue facing the city. What’s more striking, and what’s at the heart of Lightfoot’s offensive, is that some of the same polls indicate that defunding the police is highly unpopular with Black voters.

This is hardly just a Chicago story.

With violent crime, and particularly carjackings, surging after the pandemic, questions of law and order have become central in cities across the country, helping to propel a former police officer, Eric Adams, to lead New York City and handing Republicans enough victories in New York state last year to claim the House majority.

“This is a national phenomenon,” Lightfoot told me after her rally Saturday, sitting in the Operating Engineers hall, but she quickly acknowledged that “for the person who’s scared in my city it doesn’t matter what’s happening anywhere else.”

And while that scared person includes many white voters who, as Lightfoot noted, “are feeling a touch of violence for the very first time,” crime is just as galvanizing to Chicago’s Black voters.

What Lightfoot is testing is if, in America’s third largest city, the rise in violence is enough to make calls to defund the police enough of a liability that she can overcome her deep unpopularity to eke into the runoff, which is to take place on April 4th.

The one candidate in the nine-person field who’s certain to make the runoff is the man who’s most effectively harnessed alarm about crime to propel his campaign, former Chicago schools chief executive and political journeyman Paul Vallas.

Two decades after narrowly losing the Democratic gubernatorial primary to Rod Blagojevich (yes, that Blago) and over 10 years after losing a general election bid as then-Gov Pat Quinn’s running mate, Vallas has resurrected himself as the tough-on-crime favorite of the Fraternal Order of Police.

Across the racially and economically stratified wards that make up Chicago’s sprawling, complex and deliciously parochial political map, that style of campaign has made him a favorite of the voters people here still unabashedly call white ethnics. Largely on the northwest and southwest side, these high-turnout voters, many of them city police officers and firefighters required by law to live in Chicago, have rallied to Vallas, who’s white, and all but assured he’ll be the top vote-getter Tuesday.

Progressive voters, mostly whites and Hispanics, initially turned to Representative Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, a Mexican-American political veteran who lost to Emanuel in 2015 before claiming a congressional seat.

Fearful that she would lose to him in a runoff, Lightfoot initially targeted Garcia, accusing him of negotiating a political peace with now-indicted former state House Speaker Mike Madigan, the sort of bargain that’s about as appealing to Chicago liberals as living in Joliet. The mayor’s attacks drove down Garcia’s standing in the polls, but now the question is whether she hit him too hard too soon and created a left-wing lane for Johnson, who she didn’t turn her fire on until recent weeks.

The son of a pastor who grew up in Chicago’s suburbs, as some of his critics are eager to point out, Johnson has caught on with the city’s younger and most progressive voters — the sort of person on the North Side’s Roscoe Street who has side by side “Johnson for Mayor” and “Black Lives Matter” signs in front of a million-dollar home.

Ominously for Garcia, though, Johnson is also catching on in the city’s younger, more left-wing Hispanic voters, a group of which gathered Saturday night in the Humboldt Park neighborhood. As an array of Hispanic Democrats took their turn at the microphone, they hammered Vallas and Garcia, largely ignoring the sitting mayor.

After the rally, Cristina Pacione-Zayas, a state senator who was on Lightfoot’s transition team in 2019, was delicate when I asked her about why she no longer was supporting the mayor: “The work is about relationships.”

That’s a polite way of saying that, for all the post-pandemic challenges cities are facing, Lightfoot has been her own worst enemy. Yes, she has the misfortune of being one of the rare big city mayors to seek re-election immediately after Covid (New York, Atlanta, and Los Angeles all elected new mayors). And, yes, between Fox News, if-it-bleeds-it-leads local TV news and Illinois Republican advertising in the governor’s race, Chicagoans have been inundated with crime stories.

But a sitting mayor — particularly one with as much, yes, clout as the one in Chicago wields — should not be at risk of missing a runoff. That she is, her allies and adversaries alike say, is because she’s alienated so many Democrats with her mercurial style.

Take Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker, the billionaire Democrat who’s eager to both bring the Democratic convention to Chicago in 2024 and continue his political climb thereafter. The affable Hyatt heir would, you’d think, be eager to nurture a relationship with a mayor who, as a gay Black woman, represents three of the party’s core demographics.

But the two have clashed so often that Pritzker has stayed out of the mayoral race so far and Lightfoot has made no attempt to repair their relationship. Nor, I’m told, has she made any effort to personally solicit support from Chicago’s own Barack Obama or the current Democrat in the White House.

President Biden, well-placed sources tell me, may endorse Lightfoot if she makes the runoff against Vallas, but that could prove of little comfort if she finds herself in third (or worse) Tuesday.

When I asked Lightfoot if she had regrets, she didn’t hesitate. “Of course, you can’t have lived through what we lived through and say I did everything perfect,” she said, conceding: “We made mistakes.”

Yet she was quick to say she learned from those errors and, perhaps recognizing the voters she needs to mobilize, said she was judged more harshly as a Black woman.

Chicago, she pointed out, is not exactly averse to profane pugilists occupying the fifth floor of City Hall.

“I remember Rahm Emanuel appearing on the cover of Time magazine, the headline was basically like: ‘Tough guy for Chicago,’” she recalled. “No woman or woman of color is ever going to get that headline.”

That the first Black woman to be mayor of this racially fractured city is judged more harshly by some than her white male predecessors is self-evident, look no further than the racist and homophobic tweets Vallas is now facing criticism for “liking.” The only other woman elected mayor here, Jane Byrne, also happens to be the last mayor who was defeated.

However, when I caught up with Representative Jan Schakowsky, the longtime North Side liberal, at an early voting site on Sunday and asked her about Lightfoot’s double-standard defense the congresswoman shook her head and then leaned in to recall perhaps Lightfoot’s most notorious, and vivid, outburst.

“She’s on tape saying, ‘I got the biggest dick,’” Schakowsky, who’s backing Garcia, shot back at me. “Come on, come on.”

The question now is if such episodes can be glossed over by what’s for most voters the more resonant issue.

The ad Lightfoot is airing now features Johnson, in a 2020 radio interview, saying police defunding is no mere “slogan” but “an actual real political goal.” He has dodged questions about his views today, telling reporters only that “we’re going to spend our money smart” on law enforcement.

Meanwhile, Lightfoot has taken to invoking Harold Washington, who 40 years ago became Chicago’s first Black mayor. Some prominent Chicago African-Americans worry “if Blacks lose this seat, I predict it will be twenty years before it becomes a reality again,” as publisher Hermene Hartman wrote in N’Digo, a Black-focused publication.

Speaking to an affluent group of African-Americans at a brunch Saturday morning in the Beverly neighborhood, Lightfoot invoked Johnson’s defund language and his hopes to raise taxes to argue that she’s “the only viable Black candidate.”

Lightfoot believes that, much like Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass did against her opponent last year, she can defeat Vallas in the runoff by framing him as a MAGA Republican, picking up Biden’s endorsement and then counting on the forces of polarization post-Trump and post-Dobbs to carry the day in a deep-blue city

However, Johnson’s biggest asset may be his support from the Chicago Teachers Union, an endorsement that could deliver enough Black votes to pair with his progressive white and Hispanic support and get him into the runoff.

He recognizes, however, that it’s one particular group of Black voters that may prove decisive on Tuesday.

Addressing a church service Sunday, Johnson said: “I understand it’s important for a Black woman to be in charge, I’m married to one. So just know this, when you vote for me a Black woman will still be in charge.”

#Calling #Police #Lightfoot #Lifeline
( With inputs from : )

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