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Same Approach, Different Face: No Real Options In Chicago Mayoral Elections

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Chicago voters go to the polls on February 28 for the mayoral election, with a likely runoff on April 4. According to a recent survey, a plurality of residents see crime as the most important issue facing the city. But only 26% said in the survey that hiring more police was the best solution; a majority preferred either “more job training and economic opportunity” or “more mental health resources,” consistent with the evidence that robust social services are the more effective way to reduce crime. 

Despite this, during the mayoral race, establishment politicians and the corporate media have shown an almost hysterical obsession with putting more officers on the streets. The current frontrunner, Paul Vallas — whose campaign is funded largely by wealthy donors and financial firms — has particularly distinguished himself with his hard-line, law-and-order proposals. Another prominent candidate, millionaire businessman Willie Wilson, has called on police to “hunt [suspects] down like rabbits.” 

The tenor of the mayoral race was shown in particularly stark terms during a bizarre candidate forum on February 9. Candidates tripped over themselves to propose law-and-order solutions, not just to address car thefts and robberies, but to fix almost every problem imaginable. Low student test scores? Hire truant officers! Projected shortfall in public transit revenue? Put armed police on trains! 

Who Is Setting The Agenda?

Of course, when city politicians advocate for more police, they present this as an answer to residents’ genuine concerns about violent crime, which temporarily rose during the COVID-19 pandemic. But the politicians’ supposed solution is not based on evidence or voter preferences. So why are so many prominent politicians clamoring for more cops? 

The reality is that in a capitalist society, in which news coverage is dominated by corporations and electoral campaigns largely financed by the rich, politics will tend to reflect the concerns of big business, not the general public. And over the past two years, business leaders have repeatedly called on Chicago to reduce crime. Since big business vehemently opposes new spending on the types of social programs that have been shown to bring down crime rates, this means hiring more officers. 

In addition, capitalists and their politicians frame the issue of crime in a highly distorted way. For example, economic losses from wage theft are far larger than those from robberies and similar crimes. But when the CEO of McDonalds complained last year about crime in Chicago, he obviously was not referring to the crimes of his own company, which has its headquarters in the city and has been repeatedly caught stealing from its employees in wage theft cases. He was instead referring to the crimes committed by poor people who – cut off from decent jobs, housing, and health care – are simply struggling to survive. 

Ultimately, in a capitalist society, policing is primarily about controlling the working class and protecting wealth, rather than public safety. In 2022, killings by police reached a record high in the United States, and the brutal murder of Tyre Nichols in January highlights the continuing role of police in terrorizing working people, and especially Black people. As capitalism falls increasingly into crisis, and workers continue to build movements to fight back, the ruling class will resort to law-and-order politics to protect its wealth and power. 

The Road Not Taken

But even if the political establishment fails to offer meaningful solutions, Chicago residents do have understandable concerns about public safety that should not be dismissed. Ironically, when running for office in 2019, current mayor Lori Lightfoot advocated some of the very policies that could reduce violence by getting at the root causes. She said she would cancel the plan for a $95 million police academy and instead use the money on mental health services, and also pledged to impose a tax on luxury real estate and use the money to fight homelessness. 

But since being elected, Lightfoot reneged on these promises, and has consistently worked to increase the city’s police budget. Under her administration, 60% of discretionary federal COVID-19 stimulus funds were put into the police, and her 2022 budget increased annual police spending to nearly $2 billion. Scandalously, four of the six Democratic Socialists of America members on the city council voted for the budget, despite the Chicago DSA chapter having made it a priority to defund police. The public may not have voted for toxic law-and-order politics, but they got it anyway. 

All this serves to further underscore the fact that, under capitalism, the power and wealth of the ruling elite tends to trump the preferences expressed by voters. It is still possible to win victories through electoral politics, if workers build independent parties with accountable elected officials, who use their position to mobilize the working class against the political establishment. Socialist Alternative’s campaigns in Seattle and Minneapolis, and our Irish section’s role in the abortion rights struggle overseas, serve as examples of what this can look like in practice. But the recent experiences in Chicago and the rest of the U.S. serve as a reminder that, when well-meaning people rely on politicians in the Democratic Party, their efforts to change society for the better will face systematic roadblocks. 

Brandon Johnson: A New Way Forward?

This year, in the Chicago mayoral race, Brandon Johnson has put himself forward as the left-leaning candidate. In contrast to many of the others in the race, Johnson has pointedly refused to say he will hire more police, instead arguing for new social programs funded by taxes on the rich – although the big business tax he proposed would only collect about $20 million per year, a tiny fraction of the revenue that would be generated by the Amazon Tax advocated by Socialist Alternative. The big question is: would Johnson fight for progressive policies in office, or capitulate as others have? 

One of Johnson’s distinguishing features is his long-standing relationship with the Chicago Teachers Union. In fact, CTU (along with its affiliated organizations) has largely financed his mayoral campaign. He is also sometimes described as a “union organizer” for CTU, although the reality is less inspiring: As a Cook County Commissioner, Johnson receives a $93,000 annual salary, and on top of this, he has also drawn a salary in excess of $100,000 per year from CTU as a “legislative” employee

This six-figure CTU salary represents money that the union could use to hire new organizers and empower the working class. But Brandon Johnson instead chooses to take that income for himself, on top of his already generous county commissioner salary, with the result that he makes about six times the median income of a Chicago resident. To win real victories as mayor, Johnson would need to use his office to help build fighting movements of working people, and to prioritize this over his own career aspirations and narrow self-interests. Given his history, it is far from clear he would do that. In fact, Johnson has already shown a willingness to capitulate in important fights: as a Cook County Commissioner, he voted for an austerity budget that reduced health services in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Johnson’s approach to campaigning provides an additional reason for concern. To help spearhead significant victories for working people, he will need to clearly name the enemies of our class, and build a relentless campaign to mobilize the public against them. This is the approach that won the Amazon Tax in Seattle. Unfortunately, instead of using his public platform in this way, Johnson has tended to rely on vague references to complex policy plans available on his website and has sometimes framed issues using the language of class collaboration. Overall, Johnson’s methods resemble the approach of the liberal senator Elizabeth Warren, who he endorsed for president in 2019. 

In the final analysis, even when a candidate is backed by particular sections of the labor leadership, this is no substitute for an independent workers’ party in which candidates take the average workers’ wage, are accountable to a mass membership, and are committed to carrying out a class-struggle program. Much of Chicago’s left is rallying around Johnson, but activists should carefully consider what they stand to gain from this, keeping in mind the way liberal Democrats have co-opted and undermined social movements in the past. 

Reject The Ruling Elite’s Dead-End Politics And Build Organizations To Fight Back

Chicagoans face real and deeply interconnected problems, including violence, unemployment, structural racism, and a dearth of affordable housing. This is the end result of decades of Democratic Party rule over the city, during which corporate taxes were eliminated and police budgets exploded, while schools and mental health centers were closed. 

Under the strain of the COVID-19 pandemic and the increasing stagnation of capitalism, the city has reached a boiling point, and this is reflected in the grim tone of Chicago’s mayoral race. The ruling class cannot offer a way forward. But there is enormous wealth in Chicago, and this can be used to ensure a decent life for everyone – if we build the fighting movements and organizations needed to defeat the ruling class.

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