Chicago’s Feb. 28 mayoral primary is well worth watching for the nation’s crime- and mismanagement-weary city dwellers — along with the politicians that serve them.
The progressive politics that have dominated the Windy City for decades have arrived at an inflection point, with headline after headline heralding violence and government failure at every level. It even greets travelers stepping off airplanes, as the recent images of sprawling homeless encampments within O’Hare International Airport confirm. Mayor Lori Lightfoot is bracing for the very real possibility of a stinging voter rebuke, facing challenges both from moderate Democrats and candidates much further to her left.
The election could serve as a signal both in Chicago and to other major urban leaders that their citizens may be far more moderate than the politics they begrudgingly tolerate. The election of a Chicago centrist would mark a serious threat to the entrenched power structures currently coursing through big-city politics – especially the outsize influence of public-sector unions.
At the turn of the 20th century, Chicago was one of the fastest-growing cities in the world. Its population peaked in 1950 with 3.6 million residents and a booming economy.
Today, there are 1 million fewer Chicagoans, with out-migration accelerating in recent years. The primary reason is no mystery: A new poll found “nearly two-thirds of Chicagoans planning to cast a ballot in this month’s municipal election don’t feel personally safe from crime.”
Public education, too, has faltered. Nearly 90,000 students – roughly 25% of the city’s total – have left Chicago’s Public School (CPS) system since 2010, as families opt for private schools or flee the city entirely. Those still in public districts are struggling: Nearly 80% of Chicago 11th graders could not read or perform math at grade level, according to state data from 2022. Meanwhile, half of CPS students are chronically absent.
Chicago isn’t the only city dealing with these problems. But it’s the only one with an election right now. And what happens in Chicago could easily set the tone for what happens elsewhere regarding crime, public education, and public money in politics.
Hence, buckets of cash are flowing into this race. Lightfoot has about $2.75 million on hand, compared with about $3.8 million for former CPS CEO Paul Vallas – viewed as the race’s leading moderate – and $2.5 million for leftist U.S. Rep. Jesus “Chuy” Garcia. Polls show all three are running neck-and-neck.
Public-sector unions – who are funded by taxpayers in the form of the dues harvested from public employee paychecks – are pumping money into the race on the progressive end. The American Federation of Teachers, the Illinois Federation of Teachers, and the Chicago Teachers’ Union (CTU) have put more than $2.3 million behind CTU operative Brandon Johnson. In total, his campaign has over $3 million – and Lightfoot clearly considers him a threat.
Corruption and machine politics have always been part of Chicago’s story, and the CTU is the unquestioned ringleader of the current machine. It is, first and foremost, a political organization – and its politicking never rests, even when employees are supposed to be on the job in schools.
Take John Kugler. In an interview for the new documentary “Local 1: The Rise of America’s Most Powerful Teachers Union,” the licensed educator — who formerly served as a CTU field rep — said that he “was assigned to do political campaign calls during the workday. I have the emails.”
And those politics aren’t just focused on education. Often, it means fighting for things like defunding banks, defunding the police, changes to the tax code, and backing candidates who will parrot their left-leaning agenda.
“I think, ultimately, [the Chicago Teachers Union would] like to take over not only Chicago Public Schools but take over running the city government,” Mayor Lightfoot told The New York Times in 2021.
They’re well on their way. CTU has funded the election campaigns of 34 of Chicago’s 50 current aldermen. But that’s parred for the course with teachers’ unions. The American Federation of Teachers, the parent affiliate of both CTU and the United Federation of Teachers, the local representative of teachers within New York City Public Schools, spent over $35.7 million on politics and lobbying in 2022 nationwide, according to a report filed with the U.S. Department of Labor.
Parents got a taste of what that money can do during the pandemic, as teachers’ unions from LA to Chicago to New York successfully delayed start dates or kept schools remote for months on end. New York City schools were home to some of the most far-reaching COVID policies, with students forced to masks until last March.
Meanwhile, as the CTU gets its way, crime spikes, the cost of living explodes and educational outcomes plummet. Forty-five thousand people left Chicago in 2021. San Francisco lost 55,000, and New York City lost 305,000 – the most of any major city in the U.S. Officials in both Chicago and New York City correctly points out that murders dropped in 2022 compared with 2021, but overall crime in both cities jumped over 20%, driven primarily by burglaries and robberies. And Chicago murders are still at their highest levels since the 1990s.
What do all those cities have in common? An addiction to big government, along with close ties to progressive special interests and their cash.
Enough. Governing to the whims of ideologues and public-sector unions has been exposed as a disastrous recipe in America’s big cities. Mainstream voters want and deserve better and Chicagoans have the earliest opportunity to cast their ballots for a new direction. True, mayors in New York and Los Angeles may still be early in their administrations. But like the rest of America, they should heed the headwind coming out of the Windy City.
Matt Paprocki is president and CEO of the Illinois Policy Institute. The Institute launched the documentary “Local 1: The Rise of America’s Most Powerful Teachers Union,” on Feb. 13. View the film at chicagoteachersunion.com.