Byron York: When a city plagued by crime votes for more crime
It was another weekend of violence and disorder in Chicago.
“At least 32 shot, 8 fatally, in weekend violence across city,” read one headline on the WLS-TV news website. Another headline said, “15 arrested in connection with Loop chaos after 2 teens shot.” That story went on to report that a “large disturbance” — more accurately, a small riot — took place in the city’s downtown area. Videos of the incident showed crowds of young people jumping on cars and buses. Later, at least one person pulled out a gun.
It was, in other words, just another weekend in Chicago. Except now, the city has a new mayor-elect who will be sworn in on May 15 after an election that turned on the issue of crime.
“Chicago mayor’s race dominated by concerns about city crime,” read an Associated Press headline in late February. It was a fight between Democrats — Republicans don’t have a chance in deepest-blue Chicago — and the question was who best can pull the city out of its crime crisis. Candidate Paul Vallas, with the endorsement of the police union, based his campaign on one principle: “We’ve got to restore public safety. Everything proceeds from that.”
Opponent Brandon Johnson, a Cook County commissioner and former teacher’s union organizer, was on the “defund the police” left. Johnson later claimed he never supported the idea of defunding the police, but on a Chicago radio appearance, he talked about “our effort and our move to redirect and defund the amount of money that is spent in policing.” And as a county commissioner, Johnson wrote a resolution to “redirect funds from policing and incarceration to public services not administered by law enforcement that promote community health and safety equitably.”
The election was April 4. The voters had a clear choice: Elect a new mayor who would be tougher on crime, or elect a new mayor who would be more lenient on crime. They chose the more lenient candidate. In a fairly narrow contest, Johnson prevailed with 52.1% of the vote to Vallas’ 47.9%.
It seemed baffling. There were analyses in the press trying to explain why Chicagoans had made such a choice. The New York Times talked to a Johnson voter who called Vallas “a Republican in disguise.” Several other voters expressed concern that Vallas was a “closet Republican,” that he wasn’t a real Democrat. Speaking to voters at polling sites, several said they “were largely swayed by a sense that Mr. Johnson was the true progressive in the race.”
So there was a reason. In a heavily Democratic city, a progressive Democrat city, it didn’t really matter which candidate might more effectively reduce crime. It was which candidate was on our team. And on that, Johnson won.
So now there is the recent weekend. It should be noted that Johnson is not the mayor yet, but he reacted in a way that suggested that when he does become mayor, he will not crack down on the rampant crime seen across the city in the last few days. Here is his statement:
In no way do I condone the destructive activity we saw in the Loop and lakefront this weekend. It is unacceptable and has no place in our city. However, it is not constructive to demonize youth who have otherwise been starved of opportunities in their own communities. Our city must work together to create spaces for youth to gather safely and responsibly, under adult guidance and supervision, to ensure that every part of our city remains welcome for both residents and visitors. This is one aspect of my comprehensive approach to improve public safety and make Chicago livable for everyone.
Johnson’s statement was carefully worded. He does not condone the violence and disorder. It is unacceptable and has no place in Chicago. But then came the big however. The violence and disorder is no reason to “demonize” youth — the perpetrators of the violence and disorder — when the real work should involve creating “spaces” for them to gather safely and responsibly.
Meanwhile, Chicago’s already terrible crime rate is becoming more terrible. According to the Chicago Police Department, every crime except murder is up from last year, which was up from the year before, which was up from the year before. Stolen cars are up 135% this year from the same period in 2022. Theft is up 22%. Robbery is up 15%. Burglary is up 6%. Aggravated battery is up 4%. Criminal sexual assault is up 2%. The only crime that is down is murder, which is down 17% from the same period in 2022. That’s some improvement, but it should be noted that those statistics do not include the most recent week and weekend, which will surely make the numbers worse.
Johnson’s reaction to the recent violence — don’t “demonize” criminals, create safe spaces for them — will surely frustrate those who see stronger law enforcement as the way to address Chicago’s crime crisis. But it is precisely what Johnson campaigned on, and precisely what Chicago voters chose. If more bad things happen in the future, the city’s voters will know who to blame: themselves.
Byron York is chief political correspondent for The Washington Examiner.
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