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Progressive win in Chicago mayoral race is a blow to GOP's crime rhetoric

To conservatives, Chicago has long been a lawless hellscape — and a convenient scare tactic. Brandon Johnson's win suggests the tactic might not be so effective.


Progressive union organizer and former teacher Brandon Johnson’s victory Tuesday in Chicago’s mayoral runoff election, in which he defeated a relatively conservative opponent in Paul Vallas, dealt a major blow to conservatives’ crime rhetoric. 

After incumbent Mayor Lori Lightfoot — a Democrat who’s a former federal prosecutor — lost her re-election bid in February, some people suggested that voters were primed to embrace conservative proposals on crime, which largely center around beefing up police forces (and budgets) and enacting harsher criminal penalties. 

In fact, Lightfoot was claiming Johnson couldn’t win her job even before she was ousted. That prediction is looking pretty awful this morning.

Although Johnson and Vallas are both Democrats, they differed significantly in their rhetoric around crime and policing. Johnson portrayed himself as a reformer, whereas Vallas embraced some controversial players in the criminal justice system to shore up support from conservatives. 

That includes Chicago’s Fraternal Order of Police, the city’s police union — whose president, John Catanzara, has called for violence against Muslims and has defended the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol. More recently, Catanzara said that if Johnson were elected, there would be “blood in the streets” and as many as 1,000 officers would walk off the job. (Johnson and Vallas both condemned those remarks.)

Nonetheless, it’s a damning indictment of Chicago police that voters called Catanzara’s bluff. Now, let’s wait and see whether Chicago police officers are truly willing to give up their jobs as their fearmongering leader suggests. 

But let’s not ignore the public implosion of yet another right-wing talking point.

But let’s not ignore the public implosion of yet another right-wing talking point. In the conservative imagination, Chicago — like other largely Black cities — has long been a lawless hellscape. 

“What about Chicago?” has essentially become a rote response for Republicans looking to deflect attention from progressive policy goals — anything from curbing anti-Black police violence to the potential for federal gun laws. In political debates, invoking the city’s name can be a convenient way for some to try to get listeners to align with purportedly “tough on crime” conservatives out of fear. 

Brandon Johnson’s victory suggests those scare tactics aren’t as effective as conservatives may think.