Crime tops Chicago voters’ concerns in mayoral election

(Reuters) – Chicago voters will cast ballots on Tuesday for mayor amid deepening worries about the city’s rising crime rate, with polls showing public safety is far and away the top concern among residents of the nation’s third-largest city.

The campaign has served as a test of Democratic messaging on policing in the United States, 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.

The Chicago race is technically nonpartisan, but every candidate identifies as a Democrat in the heavily left-leaning city. If no one reaches 50% on Tuesday – the expected outcome, given the number of candidates – the top two finishers will face off on April 4.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot, the first Black woman and first openly gay person to serve as the city’s mayor, is bidding for a second four-year term, but she may struggle even to make it to the runoff against a field of eight challengers.

Polls indicate there are three candidates leading the field in addition to Lightfoot: Paul Vallas, the former public schools chief in Chicago and Philadelphia who ran unsuccessfully for mayor in 2019; U.S. Representative Jesus “Chuy” Garcia; and Brandon Johnson, a Cook County commissioner and an organizer for the Chicago Teachers Union.

Lightfoot emerged as a surprise victor in 2019, campaigning as an outsider who would end corruption. But her handling of a series of crises, including the COVID-19 pandemic, racial justice protests, a protracted teachers’ strike and the spike in crime, sapped her popular support.

There were more than 800 murders in Chicago in 2021, the most in a quarter-century. The homicide rate dropped 14% in 2022 but remained nearly 40% higher than in 2019.

Lightfoot has said the 2022 drop in murders and shootings shows that her strategies, such as hiring more officers and focusing on illegal guns, are having an impact.

She has clashed with the police and teachers unions, both of which have thrown their support behind other candidates: the police are backing Vallas, and the teachers endorsed Johnson. Vallas is running to Lightfoot’s right, while Johnson is courting the progressive vote.

Vallas’ campaign website asserts the city has been “surrendered” to criminals, and he has vowed to hire more officers and increase community patrols.

His focus on safety has put him at the top of most polls, though Lightfoot has attacked him for telling an interviewer in 2009 that he was “more of a Republican than a Democrat.”

Lightfoot has also accused Johnson of wanting to “defund the police” in a recent ad, citing a 2020 appearance in which he described the slogan as a “real political goal” in the wake of the Floyd protests.

As a mayoral candidate, Johnson has responded by saying he wants to spend more resources on programs such as mental health treatment but does not intend to cut the police budget.

Garcia, considered a liberal member of Congress, has said he would increase the number of officers on patrol and fund more community-based anti-violence programs.

(Reporting by Joseph Ax; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Josie Kao)