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When the race for Chicago’s Mayor began, Brandon Johnson was polling at 2 percent. On Monday, he will be sworn in as Chicago’s next mayor with a mandate to reimagine community safety. With conversations about gun violence dominating the race for Chicago’s mayor, many were convinced that voters would reject Johnson and his holistic approach to community safety. While his win may have surprised pundits, a closer look at recent Illinois elections shows a pattern emerging. 

Conservative candidates attempted to win races in the last two election cycles by aggressively pushing so-called tough-on-crime messaging and spreading false narratives about criminal justice reforms. On both occasions, Illinois voters rejected these claims and embraced candidates aligned with a more nuanced view of public safety focused on addressing the root causes of harm and violence. This proved true in progressive strongholds in cities and more moderate suburban communities.  

During Chicago’s 2023 mayoral race, conservative democrats and the right-wingers supporting Paul Vallas repeatedly claimed that Brandon Johnson wanted to defund the Chicago Police Department (CPD). Millions of dollars were spent trying to convince voters that Johnson would make Chicago less safe because of his association with community organizations leading the charge to redirect money from policing to resources like mental health care, substance use treatment, and violence prevention programs. Vallas’ supporters failed to leverage fear to convince marginalized communities that crime would worsen if Chicago adopted a more holistic approach to public safety — one centered on preventing crime before it happens instead of simply responding afterwards. 

The United States experienced the largest protests in our history in the summer of 2020. These historic demonstrations represented a high-water mark in the Black Lives Matter movement launched in 2012 the wake of Trayvon Martin’s murder. In response to these calls for racial justice, the Illinois Legislative Black Caucus passed several monumental omnibus bills addressing the systemic racism that permeates all levels of government, including the criminal legal system. 

In 2021, communities across the country experienced spikes in certain kinds of crime. This was true both for communities that embraced reforms and those that increased police spending or did not implement reforms. Rather than acknowledging a national trend caused by the economic and emotional fallout of the pandemic, many treated these upticks as local anomalies. This hampered conversations about how increased violence could be addressed. Many outlets and elected officials declared that the movement for Black lives had “gone too far” and that it was time to return to the law-and-order policies of old. 

Although the mayoral election results were undoubtedly close, it’s important to note that the communities most likely to be victimized by violence and Vallas’ proposed aggressive policing strategies embraced Brandon Johnson. For anyone that has lived or worked in these communities, this doesn’t come as a surprise. The communities most impacted by crime are also those most impacted by mass incarceration, including Chicago’s specific history of police violence and torture. Carceral policies have not only failed to stop violence, in many cases they’ve exacerbated it. For example, pretrial jailing destabilizes entire households prior to conviction. When people inevitably return to their communities following periods of incarceration with a felony on their record, they find it difficult to find housing and employment. 

Some commentators have tried to treat Johns​​on’s election as an anomaly, but a pattern emerges when the previous election cycle is taken into consideration. During the fall election cycle, mailboxes across Illinois were inundated with fake newspapers warning that the “end of days” was coming in January when the Pretrial Fairness Act and the end of money bail was set to take effect. Social media was flooded with warnings that “the Purge” was going to take place and jeopardize public safety. By spreading fear about pretrial justice reforms, Republicans were convinced that they could unseat House and Senate members who voted for the legislation, and if they were lucky, perhaps even the governor. But across Illinois, Illinois voters in both urban and suburban districts stood by the legislators who passed the SAFE-T Act. 

Mayor-elect Brandon Johnson speaks at the inauguration of Chicago's newly created Police District Councilors, a majority of whom ran on progressive platforms, at a ceremony on May 2. | Photo by ANF Chicago for The TRiiBE®

In Illinois, conservatives are learning the hard way that fearmongering will not motivate voters to go to the polls and maintain the policies of mass incarceration that have failed to keep our communities safe. Democrats across that country should take note of what is happening in Illinois: elected officials here are proving they do not need to abandon progressive visions of criminal justice reform in order to win elections. Constituents are ready to redefine public safety. 

Polls throughout both election cycles showed that crime in general and gun violence in particular were top issues for many voters. Election results show that voters recognize policies like wealth-based incarceration do not improve community safety and that if we really want to build safe communities, we must begin to address root causes. Illinois elected officials are working toward creating real community safety, for all people, which requires every community to have the resources to thrive. The election of Brandon Johnson as mayor is just further proof that the people of Chicago understand what it really takes to address those tough issues.

is Pastor of the Faith United Methodist Church and Chair of the The People's Lobby Education Institute board of directors.
is the president of SOUL and an institutional antiracism consultant, workshop facilitator, and justice organizer.