CHICAGO — Chicagoans picked two mayoral candidates on the opposite ends of the Democratic Party’s divide over policing, and it’s complicating President Joe Biden’s political calculus about whether to pick a favorite.
The president wants to fund the police — and he’s meddled in local affairs to elevate candidates and causes that help him project that Democrats care about tackling crime. He backed Karen Bass for mayor in Los Angeles over fellow Democrat, Rick Caruso — well after she supported hiring more cops. Biden also aligned himself with New York City Mayor Eric Adams’ tougher-on-crime approach and leaned on him as a Democratic messenger for that cause.
But in the nation’s third-largest city, Biden doesn’t appear likely to endorse at all. And national heavy-weights are taking more time to jump in, if at all, as they try to weigh how it will play with Biden’s reelection plans.
Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) supported Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot in last week’s election but hasn’t announced anything about the April 4 runoff. Illinois Democratic Gov. JB Pritzker and Sen. Dick Durbin haven’t weighed in on the race at all.
Some in the party say neither option is particularly compelling.
“Most Democrats look at the two choices and in an extreme sense they are choices between a Republican and a socialist,” said Pete Giangreco, a Democratic strategist and veteran of Illinois politics. ”There’s not a Joe Biden mainstream Democrat running for mayor of Chicago.”
The race to oust Lightfoot focused almost entirely on the city’s crime. And out of a field of nine candidates, Chicagoans last week picked Paul Vallas, a police union-backed former Chicago Public Schools executive, and Brandon Johnson, a progressive Cook County commissioner who has praised the “defund the police” movement.
Vallas has also been dogged by his past statements opposing abortion rights and his basic credentials of declaring himself a Democrat while some voters are turned off by the support Johnson is getting from the Chicago Teachers Union.
“Paul Vallas will say he’s a lifelong Democrat and Brandon Johnson will say the same thing. But that’s not what their records would show,” Giangreco added, comparing the dilemma confronting politicians to one facing many Chicago voters who don’t yet identify with either option. “There’s nobody who meets their politics who made the runoff.”
Neither Duckworth nor Durbin’s teams would say who or even if their bosses will endorse. Democratic Rep. Mike Quigley, who represents a portion of Chicago, said he’s “not sure” who he’ll support. And Pritzker, like the others, wants to see the race further play out.
For Biden, Chicago’s mayoral contest could influence his own political future, beyond setting a message about the party’s larger approach to policing and big-city crime. Chicago is a finalist for the 2024 Democratic National Convention. Both Vallas and Johnson have said they would support the convention in Chicago. But as Biden nears a decision to run for reelection, he’ll have to factor how their records might prod divisions in the party and how easily Republicans can weaponize the politics.
There was a chance the president might’ve endorsed in the mayor’s race in Chicago, where Biden’s blessing would have been a bigger coup than in Los Angeles given it’s home to former President Barack Obama. The president’s advisers had been in contact with Lightfoot’s campaign as well as others leading up to last week’s election and her team specifically asked for his endorsement, according to a person familiar with the conversations.
Vallas has yet to face the kind of sustained attacks on his ideology that Bass’ opponent in the race — wealthy developer Caruso, a former longtime Republican — did.
And even the appearance of Biden wading in could help.
Johnson traveled to Selma, Ala., over the weekend for an event commemorating “Bloody Sunday.” Johnson didn’t secure an endorsement, but he had a “brief discussion,” according to a person close to the campaign. Johnson was introduced to him by Rep. Jonathan Jackson (D-Ill.).
A few national figures are stepping up. Reps. Jim Clyburn, who’s fundraising for Johnson, and Jan Schakowsky are expected to endorse Johnson, the person knowledgeable about the campaign said.
As the candidates prepare for their first debate Wednesday, Biden himself is taking steps to appear stronger on crime.
He has already called for tens of billions of dollars to bolster law enforcement and crime prevention and is expected to seek more in his budget blueprint this week. Last week, Biden said he would not veto a GOP-backed bill to repeal changes local Washington, D.C., lawmakers approved to lower certain criminal penalties.
Congressional Republicans need to “commit here and now to joining with President Biden — not obstructing him — in fighting the rising crime rate he inherited,” Biden spokesman Andrew Bates said in a statement.
“They should forcefully condemn their colleagues who are calling for defunding the FBI and the ATF,” Bates said. “And they need to get with the program on gun crime by finally dropping their opposition to an assault weapons ban. … This isn’t a game, it’s life and death.”
In Chicago, Vallas’ push for stronger policing resonated with voters even as he took criticism in the deep-blue city for his ties to conservative-leaning outfits like Chicago’s Fraternal Order of Police. He wants to see hundreds more police officers on the street, a view Lightfoot and other candidates swung to ahead of the first round of the election.
“Defund is an issue,” said Ron Holmes, a political strategist in Illinois who has worked on several statewide campaigns. “But palling around with certain members of the FOP is an issue too, and therein lies the problem: They are both going to paint each other as extremists. So for those of us that didn’t vote for either during the first round, it’s critical that we have a substantive campaign to see who will govern on behalf of the majority of Chicagoans.”
Johnson, who is Black, has said his policy platform does not support defunding the police and instead calls for training and promoting 200 detectives. But his previous comments — including that “defund” isn’t just “a slogan. It’s an actual real political goal” — has spooked some national figures.
“They’re going to have to articulate and direct their message,” Pritzker said of Johnson and Vallas last week. “What is their primary message? And [is it] going to be, you know, focused on what are they going to do about education? What are they going to do about health care? What are they going to do about public safety? What are they going to do about creating jobs? Those are all important things that I don’t think have been fully fleshed out by either one of those candidates.”
Outside of the debate about public safety, Vallas’ team has sought to highlight past support he’s earned from Democratic stalwart organizations, including groups that advocate for abortion rights and same-sex marriage.
Aides to Vallas, who is white, argue that his close associations and prior work with well-known Chicago Democrats will diffuse concerns about his political affiliation. And endorsements like the one he got last week from former Secretary of State Jesse White — who is Black, and long considered the most popular Democrat in Illinois — will do more to help him win than touting national figures, Biden included.
“What we are focused on is the local support that’s growing everyday and it’s pretty diverse across the city,” said Joe Trippi, a Democratic strategist and adviser to Vallas.
Trippi added, the “defund” charges against Johnson should repel Democrats from closing ranks around him. “You do have someone who has talked about defunding and I just don’t know why any national people would get into that debate,” he said.
Jackson, who has also endorsed Johnson, acknowledged that Johnson needed to find a good answer to accusations from the right.
“He’ll have to make it clear, the spirit of it versus the actual words,” Jackson said in an interview. “Everyone knows we need safer streets. The spirit of it is to put more money into academic programs. In the short-term, we need to make sure we’re solving crimes. He stands for that.”
There are issues that extend beyond crime and personal loyalty, and race is playing out in the contest a well. And now, Vallas and Johnson are both trying to attract voters and endorsements from the establishment Black wards that supported Lightfoot.
Illinois Reps. Danny Davis and Delia Ramirez also have endorsed Johnson, but Trippi argued that the former secretary of state’s backing is “far more important than any national figure.”
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