What does Chicago – that small-ish, Midwestern city – have in common with New York City? If you’re Mayor Eric Adams, hopefully not its electoral politics.
Earlier this month, Chicago voters elected Brandon Johnson by a slim margin in the city’s runoff mayoral election, handing a victory to progressives and prompting questions about the forces that cause voters in a blue city to swing away from moderates.
Chicago’s mayoral election has featured some twists and turns. First, incumbent Lori Lightfoot got knocked out of the running by Johnson, a Black county commissioner and union organizer, who placed second in the Feb. 28 election, and Paul Vallas, a white moderate and former CEO of Chicago Public Schools, who placed first. Vallas and Johnson advanced to a runoff election on April 4, and in a reversal, Johnson outperformed Vallas by about 4 percentage points, winning the election.
Following Lightfoot’s loss, some of Adams’ critics drew prospective parallels to the New York City mayor’s bid for reelection in 2025. Adams, like Lightfoot, is an incumbent, first-term Black mayor in a large, diverse, Democratic city where public safety has become a top issue for many voters. Though Adams bested more progressive opponents in 2021, winning on a tough-on-crime agenda, Lightfoot won her election in 2019 on a promise to tackle police abuses. Over the course of her first term and in her bid for reelection, however, Lightfoot faced criticism for her lack of progress on that front, and was blamed for the rising crime in some categories. (Lightfoot and Adams happen to be scheduled to appear on a public safety panel hosted by Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network on Thursday along with several other mayors.)
But rather than the more moderate, law-and-order Vallas succeeding in Chicago’s runoff election, it was Johnson, who has championed a response to crime that prioritizes more money for social services rather than more money for cops.
Adams matches none of these Chicago politicians to a T, and there are limits to comparisons between elections in the two cities, as Adams’ former campaign spokesperson has said. “Chicago and New York are very different cities with very different elections,” Adams political adviser Evan Thies told City & State after Johnson’s win. “Only thing that’s the same is that the winner won on the strength of Black voters, who want their mayor to prioritize both safety and justice. That is why Mayor Adams has brought crime down by investing in public safety and making historic investments in youth, housing and community-based programs that also get at the root causes of crime.”
While Adams called Lightfoot’s loss a “warning sign” that public safety has to come first, he has generally publicly dismissed the idea that the election meant anything to him and New York. Asked by City & State after Johnson’s runoff victory if he had any thoughts on Chicago, Adams shrugged before replying: “New York.”
City & State reached out to experts and consultants to explore what bearing – if any – the Chicago election results could have on New York City’s 2025 election. Heather James, an assistant professor of political science at Borough of Manhattan Community College; Terrance Woodbury, founding partner at HIT Strategies; Lupe Todd-Medina, president of Effective Media Strategies; Rachel Noerdlinger, partner at consulting firm Actum; and John McCarron, a former contributing columnist at the Chicago Tribune and adjunct professor at DePaul University weighed in.
Responses have been edited for length and clarity. Editor’s note: Lupe Todd-Medina is a member of City & State’s advisory board.
Does the victory of the most progressive candidate in Chicago’s mayoral election spell trouble for Adams’ reelection in two years?
Heather James: Voters selected the most progressive candidate in the Chicago runoff partly as a referendum on Vallas. Vallas' Democratic Party loyalty was questioned along with his support from the police officers union. Adams also received progressive criticism over his support from the Police Benevolent Association. However, he has a sustained connection to the Democratic Party in a way that Vallas did not. Chicago voters had a choice between a progressive and a possible Republican in disguise so there's no real comparison. Adams will stake out a middle ground that didn't exist in Chicago.
Terrance Woodbury: Adams won on a tough-on-crime platform. However, the victories of smart-on-crime candidates throughout the country prove that Adams will need to appeal to those progressive values in his next primary. This year, there are plenty of opportunities for progressives to flex their muscles. I’m going to be looking at Democratic primaries for City Council and district attorney races (Melinda Katz in Queens in particular) to detect the impact of Johnson’s progressive public safety platform on New York’s electorate.
Lupe Todd-Medina: In all fairness, Mayor Lightfoot lost because she antagonized her supporters, her critics and lost the trust of the public by handling crime so poorly. Looking at the runoff, I give credit to Mayor-elect Johnson for his come from behind win. As a teacher, Johnson was in touch with the ground and was able to cut through the noise. His mantra of Treatment Not Trauma countered Vallas’ very pro-police, lock ’em up stance with community driven support for public mental health centers and crisis responses that don't involve police.
Rachel Noerdlinger: Johnson’s victory speaks more to the desire among communities of color to elect leaders who put equity, public safety and accountability first. His messaging around crime and public safety honed in on the fact that it can’t be solved with one single policy. That resonated with communities of color, who want leaders committed to addressing the root causes of crime and violence because they feel an increase first and the harshest. Mayor-elect Johnson talked about investing in youth employment and mental health services, which really hit home with a lot of folks. I think you saw New York City’s communities of color feel the same way two years ago when they elected Mayor Adams. Right now, a combined 92% of New York voters view crime as a serious issue right now, according to a recent Siena poll. New Yorkers want a safer city, and Mayor Adams is out there trying to deliver just that. Very similarly, he’s gotten into the nuances that we must look at the whole picture of safety and violence by confronting mental health and economic issues. You’ve seen this large coalition of Black and Brown New Yorkers, the business community and other stakeholders have his back on this issue, and I think they’ll continue to heading into 2025.
John McCarron: All future candidates for political office in large cities – not just Adams – can take a lesson from Johnson’s win over Vallas in Chicago. One reminder is that a new, college-educated generation of young urban voters is eager to take a flier on a progressive, tax-the-rich, share-the-wealth agenda. Johnson’s near-sweep of affluent North Side lakefront precincts (think Wrigleyville) was the critical difference in this election. Woke and oh-so-politically-correct young professionals embrace the hip urban lifestyle and (until their children reach school-age) should be courted as a key swing vote in urban elections that otherwise tend to divide along racial and ethnic lines.
What, if any, lessons should Adams take away from Chicago’s election ahead of 2025?
Terrance Woodbury: Johnson’s campaign pledged to “Invest in People” to tackle the root causes of crime, which are poverty and lack of opportunity. In my firm’s polling, we see this framework performs well in cities. In Atlanta, 72% of likely voters preferred economic programs over tougher criminal penalties to address crime. Those ideals can also resonate among a broader audience. We found that 62% of American adults preferred non-police responders and social services as opposed to maximizing police budgets. And Johnson didn’t just win New Hyde Park white liberals. Johnson’s margins came from his landslides in the 16 majority-Black wards. Communities plagued by violence believe in Brandon Johnson’s message. This progressive reform platform can work in Midtown and in Harlem.
Heather James: Mayors' campaign plans and political leadership are influenced by the significance attached to race and ethnicity. Adams can't attribute his victory to Black voters alone, but he did well with this important group. Lightfoot was the first Black woman and openly gay person to lead Chicago. A Black man will take her place. His team already knows it, but if there's a lesson for the Adams campaign, it's that the strongest primary challenge will come from the Black community in the outer boroughs.
John McCarron: Another lesson from Chicago is that turnout remains disappointingly low among Hispanics, a likely product of a large underage population, uncertain citizenship status and, among elders, a sense of political futility carried here from their countries of origin. Labor-intensive door-to-door voter registration drives are likely the only remedy, not more 30-second TV spots.
Lupe Todd-Medina: Because of fearmongering during the last election cycle, many residents – particularly in neighborhoods on Long Island – believed that New York City’s crime numbers had spiked like Chicago. New York City’s crime numbers are nowhere near Chicago’s numbers. Mayor Adams has rightly stopped visiting crime scenes nightly. That was not helpful as it was dictating the narrative on the evening news and shaping a perception of the city that just is not true. We are still one of the safest big cities in the nation. Let’s lead with that.
Rachel Noerdlinger: Coalitions matter. But I fully believe Mayor Adams already knows that. I think as he continues to push issues – whether it’s mental health, public safety, or education – those coalitions will remain vital.
Is Adams delivering on the promise that he won over many voters with in 2021: tackling crime in New York City?
Lupe Todd-Medina: The jury is still out. If crime is still a major challenge a year from now, then he will probably face more serious challengers. However, I’m not sure you can beat him from the left. In Black communities like Central Brooklyn and Southeast Queens, Mayor Adams has a wealth of support. He also just inked a contract with the police union – something other mayors were unable to accomplish. This will help him with the Democratic right. He also teamed up with Gov. Kathy Hochul to put more police in the subways which has shown results. If that isn’t enough, he is the incumbent.
John McCarron: Crime was the number one issue in Chicago, especially as an epidemic of carjackings and sidewalk muggings has moved into more affluent neighborhoods, all magnified by the near ubiquity of video cameras, whether mounted in store ceilings or on police officers’ vests. “If it bleeds, it leads” remains the unspoken mantra of local newscasts. What’s surprising is that Johnson’s softer approach (eg: pair social workers with cops) competed so well with Vallas’ more traditional law-and-order approaches (eg: hire more cops). Neither candidate broached the forbidden topic of personal or familial responsibility for anti-social behavior – a woefully missed opportunity, in my opinion.
Heather James: There's a lot of space between now and 2025. Adams can win, lose, and win voters back again before the general public even starts thinking about his reelection bid. Certainly, Adams will face criticism from the left and the right regarding his tough on crime policies – just as Lightfoot did. The difference is that this rhetoric won't be as damaging to Adams. Crime is a gendered issue. Female big city mayors are rare, voters are more accustomed to men running the show on the executive side, and surveys still show that men are perceived as tougher and more competent on crime. Lightfoot was accused of poor management of crime and COVID-19 and was more susceptible to challenges from the progressive wing as well as the conservative side.
Terrance Woodbury: Republicans’ tough-on-crime messaging hit Democrats particularly hard downstate in 2022, in part because Democrats don’t have great trust on this issue. It’s why Lee Zeldin made huge inroads in Asian communities like Sunset Park, Brooklyn, building on Curtis Silwa’s advances in the 2021 mayoral race. Adams must stop the bleeding here by offering progressive policy solutions that legitimately contrast with the GOP’s platform. He has plenty of options. He could increase funding for peer mediators to reach New York’s youth. He could further fund mental services and drug addiction treatment to head off crimes of desperation.
Rachel Noerdlinger: Judging a player in the middle of a game is tough. We don’t rank folks based on the score in the second quarter – only once the clock is up. Mayor Adams has taken steps already to tackle crime. He’s talking about how we should confront it, instead of whether or not we should. The mayor believes we can have both safe Black and brown communities that don’t come at the expense of accountability. Let’s not forget that public safety in New York is a multifaceted issue. There are five district attorneys in New York City, each with their own policies. Albany is the ultimate arbiter of many of our laws. So when you take all of that into consideration, I think Black and brown voters see and appreciate the work Mayor Adams is putting in to lower crime rates in their communities.