Progressives have struggled to develop a persuasive response. Some have suggested that the crime increase is mostly a right-wing talking point, but the statistics say otherwise. And voters evidently agree with the statistics:
In New York City, Eric Adams won the mayor’s race in 2021 by focusing his campaign on crime. In the Democratic primary, he lost only one of the city’s five boroughs: Manhattan, the wealthiest.
In New York State last year, Republican candidates in the midterms focused on crime and did much better than usual. Democratic candidates often tried to change the subject. “I think those who stated, ‘Don’t talk about crime,’ it was an insult to Black and brown communities where a lot of this crime was playing out,” Adams said after the election. Nancy Pelosi told The Times’s Maureen Dowd that Democrats might have maintained control of the House of Representatives if the party’s candidates in New York had taken crime more seriously.
Republicans also fared well last year in Oregon, where the largest city — Portland — has become a symbol of post-pandemic disorder. Between 2019 and 2022, murders nearly tripled, vandalism incidents nearly doubled and car thefts rose 69 percent.
The Bass model
Karen Bass, the recently elected mayor of Los Angeles, has developed arguably the most successful progressive message on crime. A former community organizer who spent 12 years in the House of Representatives, Bass defeated a more conservative candidate not by downplaying crime concerns but by talking about them frequently. Bass herself was a burglary victim last year.
She has tried to strike a balance by calling for both the hiring of hundreds of additional police officers and tougher punishments for abusive officers. “We must stop crimes in progress and hold people accountable,” she said in her inaugural address. “Let me be so bold as to add that we can prevent crime and community violence by addressing the social, the health and the economic conditions that compromise a safe environment.”
The Chicago runoff will become the next test of whether a progressive message on crime can win in an overwhelmingly Democratic city. As was the case in Los Angeles, the more progressive candidate — Johnson — is Black, while the more conservative one — Vallas — is white.
In the past, Johnson supported calls to defund the police but he has tried to avoid the subject during the mayoral campaign. He has instead emphasized his plans to build more housing, expand pre-K and increase funding for social services. He is likely to portray Vallas as a conservative who is out of touch with Chicago. The local police union, whose top official is a Donald Trump supporter, has endorsed Vallas.
“No matter where you live, no matter what you look like, you deserve to have a better, stronger, safer Chicago,” Johnson said at his election night party last night.
As the chief executive of the Chicago schools, Vallas expanded the number of charter schools. As a mayoral candidate, he has focused overwhelmingly on public safety, calling it “a basic human right for Chicagoans,” and promising an expansion of the police force, and described the city as being in disarray. He is likely to emphasize Johnson’s previous support for defunding the police.
“We will make Chicago the safest city in America,” Vallas said last night.
Related: Read The Times’s coverage of the election, and see the results for all nine candidates.