Democrats Should Run on Progressive Approaches to Public Safety. Here’s Proof.
Brandon Johnson’s victory in Chicago and the failure of attacks on bail reform in Illinois show that voters want to address the root causes of crime. Democratic Party, take notice.
Will Tanzman and Tanya Watkins
On April 4, Chicago voters elected Brandon Johnson, who is set to potentially become the most progressive mayor in the city’s history. The result shocked many observers because it flies in the face of pronouncements by pundits and political consultants — including some high-level Democratic Party strategists—that Democrats have to be “tough on crime” or else will lose elections.
While Johnson called for an approach to public safety based on community resources and addressing the root causes of crime, his conservative opponent Paul Vallas ran a more traditional “law and order” campaign and attempted to paint Johnson as a dangerous “defund the police” candidate who would compromise residents’ security. But these efforts didn’t work, and Vallas ultimately lost.
The mayor’s race was the second recent election in the Chicago area that saw conservative forces attempt to use fear of crime to win. In the November 2022 elections in Illinois, Republicans relentlessly attacked Democrats for their role in ending money bail. In 2021, after a years-long campaign, a coalition of organizations across the state worked alongside Illinois Sen. Robert Peters to pass the Pretrial Fairness Act and end the practice of requiring people facing criminal charges to pay money in order to be released before trial. This change will lead to tens of thousands fewer people — mostly Black and Brown people — being incarcerated for weeks, months or even years while awaiting trial.
The GOP made this attack the party’s de facto central message, and spent more than $40 million in a massive misinformation campaign claiming that the end of money bail would mean “the gates are open and they’re going to be let out onto the streets,” according to Johnson County Sheriff Peter Sopczak. These types of attacks were unsuccessful, and Republicans lost big in the governor’s race and in legislative races across the state.
In both the 2022 and 2023 elections, grassroots organizers knocked on thousands of doors to have real conversations about the root causes of violence and about solutions focused on providing resources to communities: mental healthcare, housing, fully-funded schools and living wage jobs.
Early in 2023, polls showed that crime and violence were voters’ top issues, creating a real possibility for right-wing reaction to drive the mayoral election. Vallas, a former Chicago Public Schools CEO, quickly rose to frontrunner status and secured an endorsement from the Fraternal Order of Police by promising to “take the handcuffs off the police.” Other candidates — including progressive Illinois Rep. Jesús “Chuy” García— promised to hire more police to improve community safety. Brandon Johnson’s campaign, meanwhile, took a different approach, focusing on reopening closed mental health clinics, funding youth jobs programs, and expanding access to resources in communities most impacted by violence while explicitly rejecting the “tough on crime” strategies that have failed for decades.
As Johnson rose in the polls, candidates began attacking him for wanting to “defund the police.” While “defund” was not mentioned in Johnson’s campaign platform, he had played a significant role as a Cook County Commissioner in an effort led by grassroots community groups The People’s Lobby and Southsiders Organized for Unity and Liberation (SOUL) — organizations we represent — to reallocate funding in the County budget away from policing and incarceration and into public services in Black and Brown communities.
Johnson acted as a champion for this campaign inside the County Board. He lobbied colleagues and County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, spoke forcefully at County Board meetings, and introduced a non-binding resolution co-created with grassroots groups that supported demands for reallocation of resources to social programs. That resolution passed with “yes” votes from 15 out of the 17 commissioners on the board. At the same time, organizers mobilized thousands of people to push from the outside through street protests, public testimony at County Board meetings, calls and e-mails to commissioners, and more.
As a result of this inside/outside strategy, the County’s 2021 budget included a $25 million reduction in funding to the Sheriff and the launch of an $40 million “Equity Fund” Act to expand human services and non-carceral anti-violence initiatives in Black and Brown communities. When the County received American Rescue Plan Act funding in 2022, the County added money from that pot in order to further expand funding for non-carceral anti-violence initiatives to an unprecedented $75 million. While Johnson’s opponents attacked him for this effort by airing photos of Johnson standing with organizers at press conferences during this campaign, he pointed to it as a signature achievement and proof of his experience in moving real resources to concretely address the root causes of violence.
In the mayoral campaign, voters were given a clear choice between “tough on crime” fearmongering or providing resources to meet community needs. Johnson’s messaging on public safety was a key to his victory — in one poll by GQR and VeraAction, 82% of voters said that crime was their top priority, and 55% said they supported resources and violence prevention rather than stricter sentences and more funding for police. The People’s Lobby and SOUL in Action heard that message time and time again on the doors in both this year’s mayor’s race and the 2022 Illinois state elections. Everyone wants safe communities, but working people recognize that the “lock everybody up” approach has failed to keep people safe.
Many commentators are treating Johnson’s win as an anomaly, but if we look at the previous fall’s election, a pattern emerges. In 2022, Illinois Republicans and a few conservative Democrats seized on racist backlash to bail reform in their effort to unseat progressive Democrats in the legislature and Gov. J.B. Pritzker. The Fraternal Order of Police backed primary challengers to State Sen. Rob Martwick and State Rep. Lindsey LaPointe, who represented cop-heavy districts and had supported the end of money bail. In the general election, one of former President Donald Trump’s largest donors spent $40 million on propaganda including fake newspapers with multi-page spreads of mug shots of Black and Brown men who would supposedly be released under the Pretrial Fairness Act .
The People’s Lobby and SOUL in Action knocked on doors, made phone calls, and sent texts in districts where legislators were attacked for voting to end money bail in both the primary and general elections. SOUL hired a street team of people directly impacted by incarceration to talk with residents about the law. We spoke with thousands of voters and used our success to show Democratic leadership that they could successfully stand up to these attacks by calling out racist lies for what they were. This people-powered effort to defend bail reform was a major success, and Democrats actually picked up seats in the state legislature.
This year’s Chicago election results show a continuing pattern, with implications for the rest of the country. Progressives must speak directly to concerns about violence rather than ceding that terrain to the Right because we assume voters will not agree with our positions. When organizers engage in deep political education on the doors and beyond — and candidates act as bold leaders providing a real program for change — voters are open to an expansive and progressive set of solutions to violence.
Right-wing forces will continue to attack leaders like Chicago Mayor-elect Brandon Johnson and bold policies like the end of money bail, but if we push back and fight for real solutions, we can win.
Will Tanzman is Executive Director at The People’s Lobby.
Tanya Watkins is Executive Director of Southsiders Organized for Unity and Liberation.