Chicago’s next mayor will be a Black teacher and union organizer, voters decided in a runoff election on Tuesday. Brandon Johnson defeated former schools chief Paul Vallas to become the most left-wing mayor to take charge of a big U.S. city since Bill de Blasio was elected in New York City a decade ago.
His victory shows that residents of this heartland metropolis weren’t buying the narrative, popular among Beltway types, that cities have become burned-out slums that can only be brought to order by unrestrained policing. Instead, the results suggest, conservatives may be the ones who are vulnerable to voters’ concerns—about deteriorating public services and the perception that they have only one idea to reduce crime.
Well, sort of. Johnson squeaked by Vallas by 15,000 votes in a city of 2,700,000, so it’s fair to say that different people have different views of what ails Chicago and how to fix it.
Regardless, it’s Johnson’s show now. He has been dealt a tough hand: A slumbering central business district, a public school system that has lost a fifth of its students in 10 years, an unreliable public transit system, and a murder count that’s higher than it has been since the 1990s. Some of these issues he has in common with other big-city mayors still reckoning with the fallout from a tumultuous 2020.
But the first test for Johnson, in particular, will be with the police. Throughout his campaign, he argued that fighting crime required a new approach that “starts with reversing decades of under investment in our youth, mental health services, and victim support,” and had to re-assure voters that he did not literally plan to “defund the police.”
The police union endorsed his opponent. Police union head John Catanzara predicted that as many as 1,000 police officers would resign if Johnson won the election. In an interview with the New York Times last week, Catanzara said: “If this guy gets in we’re going to see an exodus like we’ve never seen before,” and predicted “blood in the streets.”
It sounds like a threat, and it might have been one. Other big-city politicians who have tried to oppose police priorities have found themselves with undeclared work stoppages on their hands. After two NYPD officers were murdered in 2014, police took some time off, with arrests falling by 66 percent and traffic policing all but suspended. In May 2015, the month after Freddie Gray died in the back of a police van in Baltimore, the number of arrests in Charm City fell to 1,117—from 3,801 in May 2014! After two Buffalo police were suspended for shoving a 75-year-old man to the ground in June 2020, sending him to the hospital for a month with a traumatic brain injury, the entire emergency response team resigned. And in San Francisco, residents and politicians suspect police started slacking off during the tenure of the progressive district attorney Chesa Boudin. Sure enough, in the months after he was replaced in a recall election, police stepped up enforcement by double digits.
The joke is, isn’t that what progressive politicians wanted from police in the first place? In Johnson’s case, the answer is: No. Johnson’s emphasis has been on new priorities, including promoting 200 officers to detective rank to solve serious crimes and establishing an illegal gun unit, not on getting police to spend more time on their phones. He’ll be wary of the precedent in Baltimore, for example, where crime rose significantly as police withdrew from their work.
In any case, the police work stoppage is only partly about showing politicians that crime rises when cops aren’t around. (It has to be—because sometimes crime does go up, but sometimes it doesn’t.) The lesson is bigger, and scarier: It’s that you may be the mayor, but we make our own rules.
Of course, maybe the Chicago police will do their best to help their new mayor bring down the incidence of murder and other violent crime. Maybe Johnson will so deftly handle Catanzara’s antics that even hardcore Paul Vallas supporters come around to his side. It’s not going to be easy, but then this is a mayor who used to teach middle schoolers.