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What Law and Order Really Means

If Chicago mayoral candidate Paul Vallas wins, he may owe it all to his law-and-order message. Meanwhile, the North Carolina Supreme Court and promoting partisan gerrymandering, Doug La Follette steps down and more.

Chicago mayoral candidates Brandon Johnson, left, and Paul Vallas shake hands
Chicago mayoral candidates Brandon Johnson, left, and Paul Vallas shake hands before a debate in Chicago on March 16, 2023. (Chris Sweda/Chicago Tribune/TNS)
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What Law and Order Really Means: Nearly two-thirds of Chicago residents feel unsafe in their city. Forty-four percent believe that crime is the city’s most important issue, far and away the largest single concern, according to a recent poll. They have reason to worry. Although murders ticked down in 2022, there were still nearly 700 homicides in the city. Just last year, car thefts more than doubled and thefts in general increased by more than 50 percent.

All of this has provided rocket fuel to the mayoral campaign of Paul Vallas. He does discuss infrastructure and economic development and the like, but law and order has been by far his dominant message. "I want to restore public safety,” he said during a debate last week. “It's time to get serious about public safety if you want to be a serious candidate for mayor.”

Vallas, who is white, came out on top in the first round of voting earlier this month, well ahead of Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson, who is Black. Vallas took 33 percent of the vote to Johnson’s 22 percent, while incumbent Lori Lightfoot was eliminated. If Vallas wins next Tuesday, it will represent an astounding political resurrection. Vallas has served as the budget and schools chief in Chicago – as well as running school systems in Philadelphia, New Orleans and Bridgeport, Conn. – but he’s never been elected to anything. Over the past 20 years, Vallas has lost elections for governor and lieutenant governor. In Chicago’s mayoral election four years ago, he finished a distant ninth.

If he does win, he’ll owe it all essentially to his law-and-order message. “There’s an argument to be made that law and order has been one of the most effective political slogans in American history, or at least recent American history,” says Timothy Lombardo, a historian at the University of South Alabama.

Lombardo points out that political use of the phrase began with the civil rights movement roughly a century ago, with calls for law and order in the face of lynching and segregation. Over time, the message has been turned on its head. During the 1960s, it represented a call not only for public safety but reaction against the civil rights movement. Some hear similar echoes now, with the backlash against Black Lives Matter. “That’s why I think it still resonates today, because it applies to whatever people hear,” Lombardo says.

Lightfoot is not the only Black woman mayor who’s lost her job to law-and-order candidates lately. The list also includes the former mayors of Shreveport, La.; Flint, Mich.; and Gary, Ind. “All of them lost to male candidates who focused on the crime problem and the need for public safety and law and order,” says Sharon Wright Austin, editor of a forthcoming book on Black women mayors.

In Chicago, Johnson has been on the defensive, trying to explain away past remarks that conveyed sympathy if not downright support for the notion of defunding police. Chicago’s heavily Black South and West Sides, which were not hot on Vallas in the initial round of voting, are suffering from the city’s worst violent crime rates. While saying he supports police, Johnson is promoting other solutions for addressing crime, including mental health and community services.

None of this means that Vallas will win in a walk – or even that his victory is guaranteed. Over the past couple of years, progressive Black candidates have beaten more conservative white opponents in mayoral races in cities such as Cleveland, Los Angeles and Milwaukee, with Black voters successfully joining forces with progressive white voters. In Chicago, Johnson may also be helped by his endorsement last Friday from Congressman Jesús "Chuy" Garcia, an unsuccessful mayoral candidate this year, along with other Hispanic leaders. Latinos make up nearly 30 percent of the city’s population.

Lombardo is the author of a biography of Frank Rizzo, who was elected mayor of Philadelphia in the 1970s on a law-and-order platform. A statue of Rizzo – who once called on residents to “vote white” – was vandalized before it was taken down in 2020. He lost his bid for a third term and was unable to stage a comeback during repeated runs during the 1980s. Many of his supporters by that time had left the city, Lombardo notes. “Law-and-order Democrats are appealing to populations that have mostly moved to the suburbs,” Lombardo says. “I don’t know how much space there is for them anymore.”
The vandalized Frank Rizzo statue in Philadelphia before it was removed in 2020
The vandalized Frank Rizzo statue in Philadelphia before it was removed in 2020. (TNS)
If Johnson does win in Chicago, it will be a testament to how liberal cities have gotten, even at a time when crime is a real and serious issue.

Promoting Partisan Gerrymandering: What does it mean to have free elections? That’s the question Michael Morgan, a justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court, raised in a hearing last week. Having free elections, he suggested, implies having fair and meaningful elections, not show contests where the election has already been predetermined.

Morgan made the comment in the context of a redistricting case that was getting a do-over. Last year, the court struck down a congressional map drawn by the Legislature as an unconstitutional partisan gerrymander. Legislators appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, but they subsequently convinced the state supreme court itself to hear the case again. The reason isn’t hard to divine. Republicans won a majority on the state court in last year’s elections, so it’s now in the business of reconsidering past decisions the new majority doesn’t like. “It took this court just one month to send a smoke signal to the public that our decisions are fleeting, and our precedent is only as enduring as the terms of the justices who sit on the bench,” Democratic Justice Anita Earls wrote last month when the court agreed to revisit the case.

Phil Stratch, an attorney representing the Legislature, argued that there were not clear metrics that could determine when partisanship in redistricting violated the state constitution. Earls asked him if that meant courts could play no role if the Legislature, for example, adopted a rule that any map had to guarantee a certain number of seats for the GOP. Basically yes, Stratch said. “Some things, your honor, are beyond the power of this court,” he said.

That was essentially the logic in the U.S. Supreme Court decision in a 2019 case called Rucho v. Common Cause, which found that partisan gerrymandering was a question beyond the reach of federal courts. Multiple state courts, however, have found various maps to be unconstitutionally weighted toward one party or other. State constitutions have stronger provisions regarding free and fair elections than the U.S. Constitution, notes Michael Li, a redistricting expert at the Brennan Center for Justice.

Still, he concedes, the handwriting has been pretty clearly on the wall in North Carolina ever since its new majority agreed to reopen the case. “The Legislature is trying to nudge the court into behaving like a legislature and shift when partisan control shifts,” Li says. “There are a lot of indications that the court is going to go along with that.”

It would be a move with national implications. For one thing, the Legislature’s original map would likely have resulted in an 11-3 advantage for Republicans in North Carolina’s U.S. House delegation, compared with the 7-7 split produced in November by the court-ordered map. Four additional seats would go a long way toward bolstering the GOP’s slim House majority.

The U.S. Supreme Court had already heard oral arguments in the Legislature’s challenge to the state supreme court’s original decision. Moore v. Harper was a potential blockbuster, perhaps greatly restraining or eliminating state courts’ ability to oversee redistricting and other election laws. But now the court isn’t sure it needs to decide whether to overturn a lower court’s decision when that lower court itself is re-examining its own decision. Briefs from all parties concerning that question were due at the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday. “It’s very hard to predict how the Supreme Court will come out,” Li says.

How far would legislators be prepared to push their advantages if unfettered by the courts? Last week, a bill was introduced in North Carolina that would eliminate redistricting in the state Senate. Instead, each senator would represent two counties, regardless of population. The bill isn’t expected to go anywhere, but it’s a clear violation of Reynolds v. Sims, one of the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark redistricting cases from the 1960s that established the requirement for “one person, one vote.”
Wisconsin Secretary of State Doug La Follette standing by a bust of his great grandfather’s uncle
Wisconsin Secretary of State Doug La Follette standing by a bust of his great grandfather’s uncle, Robert La Follette, who was a governor, U.S. senator and founder of the Progressive Party. (Facebook)
Odds and Ends: Doug La Follette was the longest-serving statewide elected official in America. He decided to step down last week as Wisconsin’s secretary of state. La Follette – a Democrat who was a scion of one of the state’s great political families – was first elected in 1974.

La Follette won election just last November, perhaps motivated to hold the office for his party. Republicans called for a special election, but Democratic Gov. Tony Evers announced Friday he was installing former state treasurer Sarah Godlewski in the seat. "After many years of frustration, I've decided I don't want to spend the next three-and-a-half years trying to run an office without adequate resources and staffing levels,” La Follette wrote in his resignation letter….

Iowa’s government is about to undergo a complete makeover. Last week, the state House and Senate each passed a mammoth bill that will reduce the number of executive agencies from 37 to 16. The bill has been a top priority for GOP Gov. Kim Reynolds. The legislation also gives the sole power to prosecute election-related crimes to the state attorney general, while also allowing that office to prosecute crimes of any nature without the county attorney requesting assistance….

This will be a big year for school board elections. How big? More than 24,000 seats are up, representing more than a third of the total seats in 35 states, according to Ballotpedia….

It’s common these days for legislators to make initiatives more difficult to get on the ballot or pass. Back in 2020, Arkansas legislators wanted to make signature-gathering requirements stricter, but they believed they had to amend the state constitution to do so, which meant getting sign-off from voters. Voters handily rejected the proposal.

Now, the Legislature has gone ahead and made an even more restrictive change by statute anyway. Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders has signed the idea into law. “I think the ultimate goal is to make it harder for citizens to challenge what their government does,” state Sen. Bryan King, one of three Republican lawmakers who opposed the proposal, told Bolts.

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Alan Greenblatt is the editor of Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
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