By Joe Trippi
Brandon Johnson and his campaign ran an inspiring campaign and won a hard-fought victory in Chicago to become the next Mayor of America’s third-largest city. Kudos to Mayor-elect Brandon Johnson and his campaign. It was both a big win for progressives and hopefully a cautionary tale of how important it is to bury the rhetoric of the “Defund the Police” slogan.
Former President Barack Obama was right when he said in December 2020, “If you believe, as I do, that we should be able to reform the criminal justice system so that it’s not biased and treats everybody fairly, I guess you can use a snappy slogan like ‘Defund The Police,’ but, you know, you lost a big audience the minute you say it, which makes it a lot less likely that you’re actually going to get the changes you want done.”
A few days later, Brandon Johnson would question those words of the former President, saying, “I don’t look at it as a slogan; it's an actual real political goal,” and went on to talk about “our move to redirect and defund the amount of money spent on policing.”
I saw firsthand in the 2020 election just how harmful that slogan, no matter how well intended, was to Democrats across the country. We lost a lot of places we could have won.
Yes, Brandon Johnson won in Chicago. But Chicago isn’t the state of Illinois, or Pennsylvania, or Georgia, or Arizona or Montana.
What was remarkable about Brandon Johnson was that by January of 2023, it became clear that he understood what former President Obama had meant. Johnson began to aggressively move away from the slogan and declared he would not cut one penny of police funding if he was elected Mayor.
He made the case for investing in the root causes of crime and won.
The punditry always reads far too much into what the results of an election mean. Yes, Brandon Johnson was a big win for Progressives. But Brandon Johnson almost lost because of his past embrace of “defund the police” rhetoric. He won because he and his campaign successfully pivoted away from that rhetoric and clearly got what former President Obama had tried to explain to all progressives just over two years ago: The slogan turns people away.
I was on the losing side of the Chicago Mayor’s race, where we focused on fully funding the police department and on community policing so that officers know the community and the community knows the officers serving and protecting them.
The lesson for Democrats going into 2024 is that we need to do both: address voter concerns for their safety today and do the work of reforming the criminal justice system so that it is not biased and is fair to all. It is not either/or — it’s both.
No one wants to defund the police. We all want public safety and a criminal justice system we trust. That’s the message. Not a snappy slogan that loses elections at a time when Democrats are the only party fighting to save democracy and abortion rights and end gun violence.