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Lori Lightfoot’s defeat is a call to action for Democrats on crime

AP-Charles Rex Arbogast
Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot pauses during her concession speech as her spouse Amy Eshleman applauds during an election night party for the mayoral election Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2023, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s (D) stunning loss in her bid for reelection should serve as a warning to Democrats: Even in the most liberal areas, a perceived failure by those in power to address surging crime will bring undesirable electoral consequences for the party. 

It is essential to recognize that Lightfoot’s underperformance was not an isolated incident; rather, it was one of many instances over the last two years where voters in blue states and cities explicitly rejected ostensibly soft-on-crime Democratic candidates and policies. 

Unless Democrats course-correct by assuming a tougher stance on the issue at the national and local level — akin to the positions Joe Biden adopted when he was in the Senate, as well as those of current New York City Mayor Eric Adams (D) — the party could lose control of the Senate and the White House in 2024, while also solidifying their position as the minority party in the U.S. House.  

Democrats lost control of the U.S. House in November largely because of the failures of New York Gov. Kathy Hochul (D) and Democratic congressional candidates in the state to address public safety, a position which Former Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif) has candidly articulated.  

Indeed, Hochul, who barely paid lip service to the state’s crime problem, won her race by just under six points against a Trumpian Republican, Lee Zeldin, who made public safety the focal issue of his campaign. To put this in perspective, Democrats have a statewide registration advantage of 3.6 million voters in New York, yet Hochul won by just 325,395 votes. 

Progressive district attorneys have also come under fire in Democrat-run cities across the country for supporting policies that allow dangerous criminals to go free such as eliminating cash bail. Among them are Alvin Bragg in Manhattan, George Gascón in Los Angeles, and Chesa Boudin in San Francisco, who was removed from office in a recall election.  

To be sure, the warning signs were flashing for Lightfoot. Her tenure as mayor marked some of the bloodiest years in Chicago since 1981: The city saw a record 802 homicides and 3,555 shootings in 2021. Several high-profile companies, including Boeing and  Citadel Securities, moved their headquarters out of the city. Citadel cited rising crime as a factor in their decision. Accordingly, polling just prior to the election found that the majority of likely voters (59 percent) — including 54 percent of Black voters — named “reducing crime” as the most important issue for the next mayor to address.  

Paul Vallas (D), Lightfoot’s opponent, recognized the potency of pubic safety and undertook an aggressive tough-on-crime messaging effort, winning the endorsement of prominent police groups. Meanwhile, the CEO of Mcdonald’s has highlighted the difficulty that rising crime in the city has caused for businesses. 

On Election Day, Lightfoot received just 17 percent of the vote in a crowded nine-candidate race and didn’t even qualify for the April 4 run-off between the top-two candidates. Vallas received nearly double the incumbent mayor’s support, garnering 33 percent of the vote. For reference, just four years ago, Lightfoot ultimately secured 74 percent of the vote in the run-off election. 

There is little question that high crime rates in major cities are going to undermine Democratic candidates at the local level, as well as the party at the national level, absent a broader shift in messaging and policy.

For a model, Democratic candidates at the local level can look to New York Mayor Eric Adams (D), a former police chief who made combatting crime a hallmark of his campaign. In addition to pushing back against progressives’ calls to defund the police, Adams has underscored the reality that Black and Brown voters — the very groups progressive policing policies are ostensibly designed to benefit — tend to support stronger crime reduction measures in their communities. 

Having served in the Senate during the 1990s, when crime was also perceived by some to be rampant, President Biden recognizes the potency of this issue. Last week, Biden signaled that he would sign a GOP House bill — which is also supported by centrist Democrats — that would prevent the Washington, D.C. city council from passing legislation to reduce punishments for violent crimes, ranging from carjacking to homicides. 

Biden’s move, predictably, is opposed by the increasingly powerful progressive wing of the Democratic Party. He continues to struggle to balance his party’s leftward movement with the rightward shift of the country on issues like crime. 

The vast majority of Congressional Democrats (173) opposed the bipartisan bill. Further, after Biden’s announcement, an anonymous House Democrat unleashed a profanity-laced tirade against the administration, texting a reporter, “The White House f*****d this up royally … HEADS SHOULD ROLL AT THE WHITE HOUSE OVER THIS.” 

Despite the resistance Biden is likely to face from within his own party, the president should, for both practical and political reasons, work with centrist and center-left Democrats, as well as the handful of moderate Republicans, to advance a federal crime bill that increases funding and training for local police departments, while also seeking to remedy the historically unfair treatment of Black and Brown Americans by the system. 

Even if the effort fails, Biden will benefit from setting a moderate national agenda for the Democratic Party on crime and policing. If nothing else, it will undermine Republicans’ capacity to weaponize the issue against Democrats in 2024 and underscore to voters that the policies of Lightfoot and other progressives are the exception in the Democratic Party, not the rule.

Douglas E. Schoen is a political consultant who served as an adviser to President Clinton and to the 2020 presidential campaign of Michael Bloomberg. His new book is:  “The End of Democracy? Russia and China on the Rise and America in Retreat.” 

Tags Chicago Crime in the United States Crime prevention DC Crime bill Eric Adams Joe Biden Kathy Hochul Lori Lightfoot Nancy Pelosi Politics of the United States

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