The City of the Big Shoulders is carrying heavy baggage these days. Chicago’s crime rate has skyrocketed since the George Floyd protests in 2020, with carjackings, robberies, and organized theft of retail stores especially rising. Important companies, from Boeing and United Airlines to the hedge fund Citadel, are pulling up stakes. The CEO of McDonald’s recently complained about the conditions in the city, possibly presaging another Fortune 500 departure. If firms needed further incentives to leave, Chicago’s pension plans remain vastly underfunded, signaling future tax hikes.
All this helps explain why Mayor Lori Lightfoot is in dire straits for Chicago’s first-round mayoral election on February 28. A recent poll shows her running fourth in a field of nine; the top two candidates will enter a runoff. She has presided over the city’s decline, and her prickly personality, which alienates even some of her natural allies on the Democratic Left, does not help her prospects.
Nevertheless, Illinois governor J. B. Pritzker and State Attorney Kim Foxx are more responsible for Chicago’s woes. Pritzker’s modus operandi is to give ever more power to public-sector unions—the mainstay of the state Democratic Party—thereby raising the cost and degrading the efficiency of public services. He stonewalls any pension reform, ensuring that the prospect of future tax increases will deter companies from moving to Chicago. He eagerly entrenches union power, having backed and signed a bill that removed control of the schools from the mayor and gave it instead to an elected independent board, over which unions exercise far more sway. To her credit, Lightfoot strongly resisted this bill and others supported by the governor—such as one empowering the teachers’ union to bargain over matters other than salary and benefits, affording them greater leverage over school policy.
Lightfoot also is not responsible for prosecuting criminals—Foxx is, yet shirks that duty. Foxx has declared that she will prosecute shoplifting only for goods over $900, with other heists becoming, at most, misdemeanors. No surprise that retailers such as Macy’s are deserting Chicago, including its Magnificent Mile. Lightfoot opposes Fox’s decision to forgo charging serious alleged crimes and backs her chief of police, who argues that Foxx’s policies have emboldened criminals.
Unfortunately, two of the candidates leading Lightfoot in the mayoral race would represent downgrades.
One, Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, a 66-year-old House representative, favors the usual left-wing causes, though he outpaces many of his fellow progressives in support for anti-Israel positions. He has zero managerial experience running a large organization in either the public or private sector. He shows no command of policy but a keen interest in grandstanding. In the recent hearing on the collapse of FTX, most members of the House Financial Services Committee, both Democratic and Republican, asked FTX's post-bankruptcy CEO substantive questions. Not Garcia, who opened his remarks with a rambling denunciation of cryptocurrency. The reason has recently become clear: he was the recipient of substantial donations from Sam Bankman-Fried, the head of FTX and an alleged fraudster. Lightfoot has been running campaign commercials attacking Garcia for this connection, as well as for his ties to Michael Madigan, the indicted Illinois Democratic powerbroker and former assembly speaker. Even if Lightfoot does not succeed in getting herself into the runoff of the top two candidates, she may help prevent Garcia from doing so. Nothing would then so become her political life like the leaving of it.
Meantime, Brandon Johnson, a Cook County commissioner, complains that Garcia isn’t progressive enough. A former organizer for the Chicago Teachers Union and recipient of the most public-sector union endorsements, Johnson promises to hike taxes on the corporations that already have reason enough to depart. Just this week, he proposed another tax hike: a 3.5 percent city income tax on anyone earning over $100,000. Watch the exodus of Chicago’s tax base if he gets elected.
In the past, Johnson has supported taking money away from the police. His current crime program aims to end effective strategies in favor of vague notions of social uplift. He wants to eliminate ShotSpotter, which quickly relays the location of shots being fired and which the police find useful in Chicago, as in many other cities. Instead, he hopes to reduce crime by curtailing “inequity.”
More encouragingly, Paul Vallas, the candidate currently leading the mayoral polls, would be better than all three competitors. Unlike Garcia and Johnson, he has substantial managerial experience, having done a decent job under difficult circumstances when he served as CEO of the city’s public schools. He expresses interest in improving the safety of the public transit system, which is essential to luring workers and companies to Chicago. And what he says he won’t do is important, too: he is not focused on raising taxes.
Assuming that Vallas is one of the two candidates who makes the runoff, he may struggle to defeat either Garcia or Johnson, or even Lightfoot, who will consolidate the progressive vote. But Vallas may benefit from Chicago’s obvious decline. Even the gentry liberals living along the lakefront may realize that they cannot afford to indulge their utopian impulses any longer. Nevertheless, whoever is elected mayor will face the bleak reality that Governor Pritzker and State Attorney Foxx remain in office.
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