CHICAGO — The mayoral runoff in Chicago between Paul Vallas, the former Chicago public schools chief, and Brandon Johnson, a progressive Cook County commissioner, includes idiosyncrasies that have nothing to do with ideology: a white candidate against a Black one, the police union against the teachers, even the question of which man is the true Chicagoan.
But it is the crystal-clear ideological contest set up after Tuesday’s initial mayoral balloting that will play out on a national stage, whether Chicagoans want it or not, because the two finalists stand on polar opposite sides of two of the hottest issues facing the nation: crime and educational choice.
And as former President Donald J. Trump and Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida size each other up for the 2024 G.O.P. presidential nomination, the mayor’s race between two Democrats in the city of broad shoulders could also sharpen an argument among Republicans over the former president’s record and test Mr. DeSantis’s ability to peel away Trump loyalists.
“Oh, it’s going to be good,” Christopher Z. Mooney, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said of the runoff contest, which will culminate on April 4. “It’s going to get pretty rancorous, and underlying all of it will be the racial subtext.”
Crime has already emerged as a potent weapon for Republicans as they try to win back the suburbs and chip away at Democratic gains among urban professionals. It has also divided Democrats between the liberal left and a resurgent center.
In New York City, a moderate Democrat, Eric Adams, harnessed the surge of violence that hit cities across the country, exacerbated by the pandemic, to win the mayoral race in 2021. A Republican-turned-Democrat, Rick Caruso, leaned on the issue of crime last year to force a runoff in the nation’s second largest city, Los Angeles, though he ultimately lost the mayoralty to the more liberal candidate, Karen Bass.
In San Francisco, Chesa Boudin, the liberal district attorney of a city once synonymous with liberalism, was recalled last year by voters infuriated by rising disorder, and similarly progressive prosecutors from Philadelphia to Chicago have become lightning rods in conservative campaigns against supposedly “woke” law enforcement. Michelle Wu, the newly elected mayor of Boston, was forced just this week to respond to criticism of her handling of violence, after Black leaders accused her of ignoring their safety.
And amid a disappointing showing for the G.O.P. in November’s congressional elections, one bright spot for Republicans came in victories in New York and California that were fueled by advertisements portraying Democratic cities as lawless. Former Speaker Nancy Pelosi has said her Democratic Party may well have held onto control of the House in November if candidates had a better answer to Republican attacks on crime, especially in New York.
Add to that the issue of education, and the mayor’s race in the nation’s third largest city may play out exactly as Republican presidential candidates would want. Ever since Glenn Youngkin recaptured Virginia’s governorship for his party in 2021 with an education-focused campaign, Republicans have made problems in the nation’s schools a centerpiece of their attempted national comeback, especially in the suburbs.
And that has included a pitch for more school choice, whether through charter schools or vouchers to help public school students attend private schools. Again, Mr. Vallas and Mr. Johnson represent polar opposite positions on the issue: Mr. Vallas, as Chicago’s schools chief, expanded charter schools, then virtually eliminated neighborhood public schools when he took over the New Orleans school system after Hurricane Katrina. Mr. Johnson, a former schoolteacher and teachers union leader, stands firmly against that movement.
“This is a microcosm of a larger battle for the soul of the nation,” said Delmarie Cobb, a progressive political consultant in Chicago, “and being the third largest city, it’s going to get all the national coverage. This is going to be an intense five weeks.”
For the national parties, those five weeks will be tricky. The runoff between Ms. Bass and Mr. Caruso in Los Angeles forced the Democratic establishment to get behind Ms. Bass, a known quantity with a long career in the House of Representatives. If the Democratic establishment rallies around Mr. Johnson, the outcome of the Chicago mayor’s race could mirror Los Angeles, come Election Day.
But Mr. Johnson’s ardent progressivism, including his outspoken skepticism of policing as the answer to rising crime, could make him toxic to Democrats with national ambitions, including Illinois’ billionaire governor, J.B. Pritzker.
Likewise, Mr. Vallas’s pledge to beef up Chicago’s police force and unshackle officers from the controls put on them after high-profile police shootings like the killing of Laquan McDonald could make him a hero of Republicans eying a run at the White House next year. But their endorsements would run counter to Mr. Vallas’s ongoing efforts in the nonpartisan mayoral race to persuade Chicagoans that he really is a Democrat.
Though Mr. Johnson’s 20.3 percent on Tuesday put him well behind Mr. Vallas’s 34 percent, he enters the runoff perhaps as a slight favorite. Mr. Vallas was the only white candidate in the field, while Mr. Johnson had a half dozen Black competitors, including the incumbent mayor, Lori Lightfoot. Many Latinos who voted for the only Hispanic in the race, Representative Jesús “Chuy” García, are likely to gravitate to Mr. Johnson.
But events over the next five weeks — a mass shooting or other horrific crime — could reshape the debate. Regardless, national Republicans, eager to make the crime debate central as they joust with each other for their party’s presidential nomination in 2024, are not likely to stay quiet.
“They may want to exploit the situation,” said Marc H. Morial, a former New Orleans mayor who now heads the National Urban League.
Last week, Mr. DeSantis swung through New York City, the Philadelphia suburbs and a bedroom community outside Chicago to speak to police unions about crime, and to lambaste what he called “woke” urban officials who he contends have eased up on policing and criminal prosecutions.
“They just get put right back on the streets and they commit more crimes and it’s like a carousel,” Mr. DeSantis, an as-of-yet undeclared candidate for president, said Tuesday night during a speech in The Villages, a heavily Republican retirement community in Central Florida.
Next, Mr. DeSantis is taking his critique of big cities on a national tour, including stops in states with the first three Republican primary contests, and will promote his new book, “The Courage to Be Free: Florida’s Blueprint for America’s Revival.”
Though Mr. Trump erected a gleaming skyscraper on the Chicago River, he has made the city his No. 1 example of what is wrong with urban America.
“It’s embarrassing to us as a nation,” Mr. Trump said on a visit in 2019. “All over the world, they’re talking about Chicago.”
Criminal justice could be a centerpiece in the coming fight between Mr. Trump and Mr. DeSantis for the 2024 nomination. As president, Mr. Trump signed the “First Step Act,” a bipartisan criminal justice law that has freed thousands of inmates from federal prison. As a House lawmaker from Florida, Mr. DeSantis supported Mr. Trump’s bill in Congress in 2018, but as governor in 2019, when the state passed its own version of that federal legislation, he opposed a measure that would have allowed certain prisoners convicted of nonviolent felonies to be released after serving at least 65 percent of their sentences.
The Trump measure was opposed by some Republicans, including Mr. Trump’s own attorney general at the time, Jeff Sessions, and the former president has since appeared eager to distance himself from the law.
During the past two years, Mr. Trump has spoken more about the need for tougher criminal justice laws, renewing his widely criticized proposal to execute drug dealers, and less about the benefits or outcomes of the First Step Act. Speaking to New Hampshire Republicans last month, in the first public event of his latest presidential campaign, Mr. Trump said he would have a tougher response to civil rights protests if elected to a second term.
“Next time, it’s one thing I would do different,” Mr. Trump said.
A Republican intervention in the mayoral runoff here would not be helpful to Mr. Vallas, who has repeatedly assured skeptical Chicagoans that he is, in fact, a Democrat. He was forced to denounce Mr. DeSantis’s appearance in Elmhurst, Ill., last week lest he be tied to the polarizing Florida governor ahead of Tuesday’s voting.
But Mr. Johnson almost certainly represents too perfect a target for Republicans to sit this one out. He may have walked back earlier comments on “defunding” the police, but last month, he was the only mayoral candidate who refused to say he would fill the growing number of vacancies in the Chicago Police Department.
“Spending more on policing per capita has been a failure,” Mr. Johnson said at a news conference outside City Hall last month.
“Look, I get it,” he continued. “People are talking about policing as a strategy. But, keep in mind, that is the strategy that has led to the failures we are experiencing right now.”
A substantive debate on the best approach to public safety could be good for Chicago and the country — if it stays substantive, Mr. Morial said. Policing is not only about the number of officers, he said, but about the accountability of the force and the trust of the citizens.
Mr. Morial expressed doubt that Mr. Trump or Mr. DeSantis would keep the debate focused that way. But the nation will be watching, starting with the Chicago mayoral runoff, he said.
“I’m watching this race closely,” he said. “I think it’s going to become a national conversation, which I think is going to be good.”
Jonathan Weisman reported from Chicago, and Michael C. Bender from Washington.
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