April 5, 2023 - 6:00pm

Forty years ago this month, Congressman Harold Washington became Chicago’s first African American mayor with 51.7% of the vote. The 1983 mayoral election was not only one of Chicago’s closest but also one of its most racially inflamed. In fact, so central were the city’s ethnic divisions to its politics that the Wall Street Journal christened Chicago ‘Beirut-on-the-Lake’. 

Yesterday, Brandon Johnson was elected mayor of Chicago with nearly the exact same share of the vote as Washington. Johnson, a progressive African American, defeated a white moderate, Paul Vallas. Yet Johnson is no Harold Washington: the two opponents clashed not over race but ideology. Both Democrats, Johnson and Vallas represent the party’s Left and Right. They offer substantially different visions of the kind of policy agenda that the Democrats should champion, which also reflects the looming divisions within the party.

The two areas of starkest disagreement in Chicago were over education and crime. Crime has featured centre stage in many recent mayoral elections, but it is a particularly acute problem in Chicago. Nearly two-thirds of Chicagoans don’t feel safe in the city, and in February close to half of voters in the first round of the mayoral election cited crime as their most important issue. This almost certainly cost incumbent Lori Lightfoot her mayoralty.

Since Lightfoot’s election in 2019, more than 700 Chicagoans have been murdered every year, excepting last year’s total of 695. Before that, only one out of the previous 20 years broke the 700 deaths threshold. Even more notably, property thefts have surged, with over 21,000 vehicles stolen in 2022, compared to 10,000 in 2018. Tens of thousands of people are leaving Chicago as a result. 

Both candidates promised to tackle crime, but with fundamentally different emphases. Vallas pledged more police officers and tougher penalties for non-violent crimes. Johnson said he would prioritise addressing the root causes of crime, such as poverty and poor healthcare, a core demand of the ‘defund the police’ movement. 

In a city that voted 82% for Joe Biden, voters were split down the middle on these two solutions. And while Chicago is not representative of the United States electorate more broadly, these two visions do reflect a central divide within the Democratic Party. Does the party embrace a high-tax, redistributive, pro-union message? Or should Democrats present themselves as the ‘sensible’ party of sound fiscal management, which will take a tough approach to crime?

Other cities have faced a similar dilemma. In 2021, voters in New York City backed Eric Adams, who took the latter approach. Adams was elected by an even narrower margin than Johnson, showing that there appears to be no consensus. While Joe Biden is naturally pulled to the more moderate position, he has been careful not to alienate the Left of the party, incorporating some of their key demands in his policy agenda through bold executive actions on drug amnesty and university loans.

But, after Biden, the battle to choose the next party leader will be bitter. There is no clear heir apparent, and the President has so far done a poor job of nurturing a successor, partly due to his own insecurities about his grip on the nomination next time.

Once Biden and Trump (who has strengthened Democratic unity), are out of frame, whether that is one or four years from now, the ‘negative partisanship’ holding Democrats together will weaken. In Chicago and other strongly blue cities, where there is no viable Republican threat, the debate is already taking place. It could be a preview for a national battle for the direction of the Democratic Party in the years to come.

Richard Johnson is a Lecturer in US Politics and Policy at Queen Mary University of London.