Black Voters in Chicago Look for a Candidate and a Path Forward on Fighting Crime
With just weeks to go before the runoff for mayor, a choice between vastly different visions of policing.
CHICAGO — As Brandi Johnson left a restaurant recently in Bronzeville, long a center of Black culture on Chicago’s South Side, she did not hesitate before naming the issue that would determine her vote for the city’s next mayor: crime.
Her ideas for addressing the problem sprang from her own experiences growing up in Englewood, a violence-plagued South Side neighborhood. A new mayor should see that Chicago police officers receive more training to help them de-escalate situations, she said. He should expand after-school programs, creating an outlet for teenagers who have little to do but get into trouble.
What Ms. Johnson, a 29-year-old private security officer, has not decided is which of the two candidates for mayor will get her vote.
“The whole city of Chicago should feel safe,” she said. “I don’t know who can make that happen.”
Her conundrum is a common one among Black voters in parts of Chicago where violent crime is most concentrated, especially in neighborhoods on the South and West Sides.
These voters are being aggressively wooed with starkly different appeals by the candidates who made the April runoff. Paul Vallas, a former schools executive, is campaigning largely on a pro-police law-and-order message. Brandon Johnson, a county commissioner, has touted a plan that views crime as a problem with solutions that go well beyond policing.
In a city with roughly equal numbers of white, Black and Hispanic residents, many Black residents say their votes are largely up for grabs: Many supported Mayor Lori Lightfoot, the incumbent who was ousted from contention in the first round of balloting in February but still carried more than a dozen of Chicago’s wards that have majority Black populations.
Black voters on the South and West Sides arguably have the most at stake on the issue of crime in the election, following a campaign that has been propelled by widespread concern over a spike in gun violence, robberies and carjackings. And many are torn not just over which candidate to support, but over what vision of policing and public safety offers the most promise of reducing crime without victimizing Black neighborhoods and residents in the process.
Both candidates have promised to tamp down crime and make the city safer. But each has laid out a distinct approach, both in broad strokes and details.
Mr. Vallas frames crime as a fundamental threat to a “city in crisis.” He has vowed to hire thousands more police officers at the Chicago Police Department and persuade officers who have left the department in the last three years to return.
He has also included items in his platform that reflect a progressive agenda, including reinstituting a “community policing model” with a focus on restoring relationships with neighborhood leaders within police beats.
Mr. Johnson has called for expanding the detective ranks within the police department, opening more mental health clinics and encouraging partnerships between communities and law enforcement to prevent crime.
And he has questioned policing tools such as ShotSpotter — a system of street sensors that detect gunshots — saying he will end the city’s contract with the company if he is elected. He also pledges to shut down a gang database used by the Chicago Police Department that Mr. Johnson says is fundamentally racist. Before he was a candidate, Mr. Johnson expressed support for the movement to reduce funding to police departments, calling policies loosely grouped under the idea of defunding the police “a political goal.”
Though he has since distanced himself from the defund movement, many Black voters still associate him with the phrase — and are hesitant to embrace his candidacy for that reason.
“When you have someone running for mayor who’s on the side of defunding the police, that’s the wrong side,” said the Rev. Corey Brooks, a pastor in the Woodlawn neighborhood on the South Side. “We don’t need anyone talking about taking away more power and defunding the police in a place where we already have so much crime.”
In interviews over several days on the South and West Sides, many residents said they did not support the idea of reducing police funding, adding that they wanted more police presence in their neighborhoods, not less. But some said they favored redirecting part of the nearly $2 billion annual police budget in Chicago to mental health programs, or increasing training for police officers to engage with residents and stop racial profiling.
In neighborhoods with high crime, residents said they want to see criminals caught and prosecuted, but for police officers to follow the law in doing their jobs, without harassment or discrimination.
“We need a different way of doing things,” said Chiara Allison, 29, a dog trainer who lives in Humboldt Park on the West Side. She is troubled by the lack of connection between residents and police officers, she said. “I see police in their cars just driving around. They need to get out of their cars and talk to people.”
Willie Ganison, a resident of Bronzeville, was outside his apartment building on a recent afternoon, smoking a cigar. Mr. Ganison, 68, is a retired police officer and recalled that when he was on the force, a lot of the work was getting to know people on his beat.
“You don’t see that kind of policing any more,” he said, adding that he was unsure a single mayoral term was enough to address issues of gun violence. “Any mayor who gets in there is going to need more than four years to straighten this out.”
With early voting beginning next Monday, both Mr. Johnson and Mr. Vallas have rolled out high-profile endorsements from Black leaders.
Willie Wilson, a mayoral candidate who placed fifth but won several precincts with high crime rates, announced his endorsement of Mr. Vallas on Wednesday.
One former elected official, Jesse White, the recently retired Illinois secretary of state, also endorsed Mr. Vallas, saying in an interview that he has known him for more than 40 years and that he believed the two were “singing out of the same hymnbook” on their vision for the city.
“Our kids are getting killed on a regular basis,” Mr. White said. “It’s high time that we get a handle on that kind of nonsense.”
In Bronzeville, Pat Dowell, a City Council member, has introduced Mr. Johnson to residents in the neighborhood, stressing the candidate’s commitment to addressing crime — while acknowledging that his association with the defund movement was problematic.
“People are trying to define him as the defund the police candidate, and that’s not accurate,” she said. “We have to get the message out that his public safety plan is one that increases the number of detectives so we that can increase the clearance rate, and put patrol officers in places where there really is violent crime. We’re not going to arrest our way out of this problem.”
On the campaign trail, Mr. Johnson talks about a “better, stronger, safer Chicago,” a phrase that nods to the problem of crime without making it the center of his pitch to voters.
“We have to guarantee access to affordable housing, reliable transportation, good paying jobs,” he said this month, as he shook hands with residents who had gathered for a bingo event at an apartment building in Bronzeville. “These are not radical ideas. These are basic ideas that every single community should have.”
On the West Side, where Mr. Johnson lives, he has found a prominent supporter in the Rev. Ira Acree.
Mr. Acree drew a contrast between Mr. Johnson’s approach to public safety and Mr. Vallas’s message, which he views as designed for white voters, not Black residents in neighborhoods where crime is most acute. Mr. Vallas is white. Mr. Johnson is Black.
“‘I’m going to solve crime’ — that is going to appeal to the more conservative, law and order people,” he said. “Everybody is concerned about crime. But there needs to be some balance. People want an opportunity to have a level economic and educational playing field.”
Anthony Beale, a City Council member who represents a ward on the Far South Side, said he supported Mr. Vallas, in part because he would make the city friendlier to business by working to reduce crime.
“Public safety is going to be the biggest thing,” he said. “We want more police, but we want smart police, and we want police to respect us in the community. And we have to figure out a way to get more Black people on the Police Department.”
On the West Side last week, a Green Line train rumbled above Al’s Under the L, a tiny takeout spot serving hot dogs, Polish sausages and Italian beef.
Lunch business was brisk, and customers spilled out of the restaurant, near vacant lots that were strewn with trash and houses with windows covered in plywood.
Ms. Lightfoot won this precinct in the first round of balloting, leaving many voters unsure which candidate they would support now.
But they said that public safety was on the top of their minds.
Karen Smith, a school counselor, pulled up in an S.U.V. and stopped for a double cheeseburger, her weekly routine on “Stress Monday,” as she called it.
Ms. Smith had already decided to vote for Mr. Johnson, a fellow member of the Chicago Teachers Union, because she felt that as a resident of Austin, one of the most violence-plagued neighborhoods, he had a more natural feel for understanding the complexity of the city’s crime problem.
She sees how young people in Chicago try to resolve disputes with guns: Just the other day, Ms. Smith said, some of her students were seen firing at students from a neighboring school. Despite the campaign-trail promises from both candidates, she was left with a feeling that the problems were so entrenched, solutions were far away.
“Guns are everywhere now,” she said. “It just doesn’t seem like it’s going to be addressed on any level. I don’t know what can make it better.”
Audio produced by Jack D’Isidoro.