Chicago’s Leading Mayoral Candidate Wants to Take the “Handcuffs” Off of Police

Paul Vallas has said he’s “more of a Republican than a Democrat.” He has campaigned on a theme of “law and order” and welcomed the support of Chicago’s Fraternal Order of Police, the union led by the far-right, Trump-loving former cop John Catanzara. And he’s called for the “handcuffs” to be taken off of the police. 

He could also be the next Democratic mayor of one of the largest deep blue cities in the country.

Vallas, the former CEO of Chicago Public Schools, is currently the city’s front-runner in a race that has come to be dominated by concerns about crime. While he is unlikely to win outright in Tuesday’s vote, he appears all but certain to make the runoff, and it’s unclear which of his closest competitors—Mayor Lori Lightfoot, United States representative Chuy García, and Cook County commissioner Brandon Johnson—is best positioned to defeat him. Should Vallas ultimately take City Hall, he’s likely to usher in an even more aggressive approach to public safety in a city that still bears the scars of its ugly history of police brutality. Beyond that, his win could underscore the broad appeal of tough-on-crime messaging, even in Democratic-leaning areas like Chicago and New York, which elected former police captain Eric Adams mayor in 2021 on a similarly aggressive public-safety platform.

“I think [candidates] are pandering to what people want to hear,” Geneva Brown, a former public defender and a professor of criminology at DePaul University, says of the “tough on crime” rhetoric that’s become prevalent in the race. “You can understand why people respond the way they do, but that doesn’t help the overall city. That doesn’t help the communities that are suffering, that are truly the victims of crime.”

“I think it’s just a matter of the dog whistles of racial politics,” Brown says, “but also politics in general.”

To be sure, crime is a very real issue here—one that is acutely felt by residents of the South and West sides of the city, which have historically been neglected by the city’s power structure. “Communities are exhausted from the sporadic violence,” Brown says. But the issue has also long been exploited by Republicans, who have used Chicago to launch bad faith attacks against Democrats for being soft on crime: Donald Trump described the city as being “embarrassing” to the nation during his presidency, and Florida governor Ron DeSantis took aim at Chicago last week during a visit to Elmhurst, a suburb about 20 miles west of the city. “You have politicians putting woke ideology ahead of public safety,” DeSantis said in a speech to law enforcement officials, which was promoted by FOP. Vallas, who tried to distance himself from FOP after the DeSantis appearance, has been more measured than all that: While he’s promised to put more cops on the streets, he’s also called for police “accountability” and for investments in violence prevention. But his message is functionally no different: Police have been “handcuffed” by current leadership, and the city needs to “toughen” its approach to crime. “It is really time to make criminal activity illegal again,” Vallas said in December. 

He’s not the only candidate putting crime on the ballot. Lightfoot—who served as president of the Chicago Police Board and chair of the Chicago Police Accountability Task Force before her historic election in 2019—has attacked Johnson, the leading progressive in the race, for having expressed support for defunding policeSophia King, chair of the City Council’s Progressive Reform Caucus, has proposed expanding the Chicago police force. And Willie Wilson, a political gadfly here, said in a debate that police should be able to “chase [suspects] down and hunt them down like a rabbit.”

According to Chicago-based debate strategist Jason DeSanto, Vallas’s message has been more “reasonable” than that of Wilson—and he has tapped into where many Chicago voters are “emotionally” on the issue, especially compared with Lightfoot, who has tried to combat attacks from her opponents by citing some improving metrics on violent crime following spikes during the pandemic. “He’s had probably the best and clearest message,” DeSanto says. “And the mayor has struggled.”

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