Chicago voters want far more than just ‘lock ‘em up’ rhetoric

Ginning up fears about crime and promising to throw more money at the police just aren’t enough by themselves any longer to win races.

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Supporters wait for election results to come in on April 4 during Paul Vallas’ mayoral runoff election party at the Hyatt Regency’s Recency Ballroom.

Supporters wait for election results to come in on April 4 during Paul Vallas’ mayoral runoff election party at the Hyatt Regency’s Recency Ballroom.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times

A couple of Chicago mayoral race polling results from last month have been stuck in my head ever since they were released.

The BSP Research poll, taken March 15-23 for Northwestern University’s Center for the Study of Diversity and Democracy, found the two mayoral runoff candidates were running neck and neck. The poll was almost universally ignored by the city’s news media, yet it might’ve possibly contained an important nugget that could help explain at least part of Brandon Johnson’s win and Paul Vallas’ loss.

The poll found that 82% of Chicagoans supported the idea of increasing the number of police on the force. OK, no surprise there.

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Immediately after answering that question, however, 63% said they supported the idea of decreasing police funding and investing in addressing root causes of crime. According to the poll, 68% of Black people, 66% of Latinos and 59% of whites supported that idea.

“If that second result is even close to accurate, it upends everything we’re supposed to believe about this contest,” I wrote at the time.

Vallas heavily outspent Johnson on television ads, warning voters for weeks that Johnson wanted to “defund the police.” According to Vallas, Chicago crime was “out of control” and Johnson would only make things worse.

Almost Vallas’ entire platform centered around both hiring more police officers, which is something Chicago voters of all persuasions clearly said they wanted, and ridiculing Johnson for his past remarks on the topic of police funding. Johnson soft pedaled his past remarks but insisted that crime prevention and solving crimes should be at the top of the priority list.

I’ve often declared that voters “don’t do nuance,” but it’s been clear that pundits and many political reporters are the ones who’ve been far less nuanced about crime than voters over the past year in this state, and particularly in the Chicago metro area.

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As we saw in 2022, polls showed that suburban and Downstate voters simply did not view the crime problem as the over-arching issue portrayed by the news media and Republican political operatives.

Aurora Mayor Richard Irvin spent tens of millions of Ken Griffin’s money to use the crime issue in a spectacularly failed effort to capture the Republican gubernatorial nomination and prove his questionable Republican bonafides.

The Chicago Fraternal Order of Police aggressively attacked state Sen. Rob Martwick (D-Chicago) over his support for the SAFE-T Act in an attempt to nominate a candidate with Republican affiliations in a Democratic primary. That also failed miserably.

And then, of course, there were the endless TV ads from Dan Proft’s People Who Play by the Rules PAC last year, designed to depress the Democrats’ Chicago base and hurt Gov. J.B. Pritzker and wound Democrats in the suburbs. Nope.

A GQR poll released the day after Chicago’s mayoral election found similar results.

Likely Chicago voters were asked if they preferred 1) “Doing more to get tough on crime, like having stricter sentences for people convicted of violent crimes, maintaining strong bail laws to keep potentially dangerous people in jail, and giving police more support and resources”; or 2) “Fully fund things that are proven to create safe communities and improve people’s quality of life, like good schools, a living wage, and affordable housing, and do more to prevent crime by increasing treatment for mental health and drug addiction and cracking down on illegal gun sales.”

By a 58-39 margin, respondents chose the prevention angle over the tough-on-crime angle.

At least in this state, the Bill Clinton era sure appears to be over. Ginning up fears about crime and promising to throw more money at the police just aren’t enough by themselves any longer to win races.

In that bygone time, Vallas would’ve likely easily defeated Johnson with the message he used this spring, despite his affiliations with the far right in the recent past (including the ultra-radical Awake Illinois and Dan Proft). Today’s voters here want far more than just “lock ‘em up” rhetoric.

Not all of Clinton’s lessons are now passe, however. Vallas, who will turn 70 in June, constantly surrounded himself with older Democrats like former Secretary of State Jesse White, former Senate President Emil Jones, former U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush and U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin.

But that ignored one of Clinton’s most valuable and enduring political lessons: Don’t offer to be a bridge to the past; promise instead that you will build a bridge to the future. Johnson did that, Vallas did not.

Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter, and CapitolFax.com.

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