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2 Democratic candidates are competing in April runoff to be mayor of Chicago

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The Chicago mayor's race is down to two candidates. Incumbent Mayor Lori Lightfoot is out. Two challengers made it into the next round. Paul Vallas is one, and the other is on the line. Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson, welcome to the program, sir.

BRANDON JOHNSON: Hey, good morning. Thank you for having me.

INSKEEP: And congratulations. We have been told that this race is down to a choice for, effectively, the Democratic Party, Democrats being the majority in Chicago. You've got a centrist candidate, and you're a progressive candidate. Do you see it that way?

JOHNSON: Well, it certainly is a little bit more dramatic than that. In fact, you know, my opponent has self-identified as more of a Republican. In fact, he made that very distinction clear right after we elected the first Black president, President Barack Obama - someone who said that he fundamentally opposes, you know, abortion, reproductive rights. And he is supported by leadership that is in - very much in complete support of the January 6 insurrection. So this is really about not just a progressive Democrat - that's, you know, who I am and the wing of the party that I reflect - but someone who is aligned with the most extreme radical end of the Republican Party.

INSKEEP: I think that he's going to paint you as extreme, particularly on questions like how to handle crime, which people are concerned about in Chicago.

JOHNSON: Well, I live in a community on the West Side of Chicago. It's a neighborhood. It's called Austin, and it is a very beautiful, dynamic community. But it certainly is one of the more violent neighborhoods. And my wife and I, we're raising three children here. And we certainly have a tremendous incentive to make sure that our communities are safe. And so what I call for is a very sweeping public safety plan that gets at the root causes of violence, but we also did with the immediacy of the violence in the city of Chicago.

So we're promoting 200 more detectives within the rank and file. We're spending to make sure that we implement the consent decree with all expediency. But we're also going to hire young people, and we're going to make those positions year-round because there's a direct correlation between hiring young people and violence reduction. Opening up our mental health clinics and making sure that our first responders, our social workers and EMTs - because nearly 40% of the 911 calls that come through are mental health crises. So we're attacking the root causes, but we're also dealing with the immediate crisis - public safety.

INSKEEP: I want to make sure that I understand something you're telling me, because Paul Vallas is supported by police unions and has said he wants to increase funding on police. You're described as not committing to increased funding police, but you just told me you want 200 more detectives. Is it correct that you want to increase some parts of the police department while cutting the budget for others? Is that your stance?

JOHNSON: So basically, we're doing what works, right? Safe American cities all over the country have one thing in common, and what that is is they actually invest in people. So, of course, we've heard, you know, feedback from rank-and-file members who want to make sure that we have, you know, a national averages of supervisors and rank-and-file members, which the national average is around 10 to 1. We're incredibly bloated. We can make sure that those services are deployed in an equitable way, but more importantly, that we do it in a smart way.

If we're going to have a safe city, we do what safe American cities do around the country, and that's invest in people - so promoting detectives within the rank and file, making sure we're spending to make sure that the consent decree is actually enacted. But again, our mental health centers have to be reopened. We need to have front responders that can respond to the 911 calls that are mental health crises. These are all dynamics and presentations that are sweeping. And this is what, you know, the city of Chicago has called for, and I'm glad to be in a position to build a better, stronger, safer Chicago.

INSKEEP: On the - in the few seconds we have left, are we discussing the right issue here? Is it correct that crime is the thing that is on a lot of people's minds in Chicago and the thing the next mayor must address?

JOHNSON: Well, it's definitely a serious problem. As I said, you know, my wife and I, we're experiencing it every single day right outside our front door, raising our three children. So, you know, absolutely. But our campaign has caught fire. We're going to make history - elect a teacher to the fifth floor. And I'm looking forward to leading a better, stronger, safer Chicago. And if folks want to join that fight, they can go to brandonforchicago.com.

INSKEEP: Fifth floor - of course, that's Chicago City Hall, the office where Mayor Richard Daley once ruled, if that's the right word. Brandon Johnson, thanks so much.

JOHNSON: Oh, thank you so much.

INSKEEP: Good to talk with you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.