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What do Chicago voters want? Competence and accomplishment.

Chicago voters think their city is worse off than other cities on vital issues, according to a recent poll, and nearly 4 in 5 think their leaders need to be tougher than those in other cities.

But these perceived differences mean Chicago is well positioned to continue a trend that arose in municipal elections across the country over the past year: a nonideological desire for competence, integrity and accomplishment on the everyday problems they face.

The recent Harris Poll survey of eligible Chicago voters draws a road map to City Hall for whichever of the seven mayoral candidates, including Mayor Lori Lightfoot, can best address these voter concerns in February’s election.

What is it that Chicagoans want? When we asked about the most important factor in their voting decision, a half-dozen top answers emerged, almost all of which focused on character and competence.

In the former category, the two most frequent answers were trustworthiness and honesty — each was identified by 15% of those who plan to vote in the election as their top factor — while integrity (10%) rounded out the top six. The third- and fifth-most popular attributes they were looking for were executive competency (13%) and leadership experience (11%). (“Stance on specific issues” came in fourth with 12%.) Traits such as passion and likability (1% for each) and political party affiliation (4%) hardly registered with voters.

Voters, in other words, are looking for candidates who can lead and make progress for the city rather than passionate ideologues. Save the partisan war-making and scorched-earth approach for national politics; voters want the elected officials closest to their daily lives to get things done. In this, they are akin to New York voters who embraced Mayor Eric Adams’ pragmatism last year and those in cities such as Buffalo, New York, and San Francisco who have rejected crusaders.

In the survey, which we conducted in June, voters identified public safety as the top issue facing the city, with 99% of respondents calling it “important,” including 85% who said it was “very important.” No surprise: While homicides and shootings are both down this year, we’re still on course to top 600 killings in 2022. The next most important issues, according to likely voters, were related: 96% identified “taxes and fees” and “ the local economy” as important (with 74% and 65%, respectively, identifying them as very important). This is no surprise after Citadel, Boeing and Caterpillar all announced they will be moving their headquarters from metro Chicago.

The poll paints a portrait of an electorate unhappy with the state of its city. An overwhelming majority of likely voters said that Chicago is worse than other US cities when it comes to taxes and fees (78%) and public safety (70%). Most are glow about our future too. Looking out five years, at least 3 in 5 likely voters predict Chicago will be the same or worse off when it comes to taxes and fees, public safety, income inequity, race relations and affordable housing, as well as environmental health, access to social services, education and health care. They’re optimistic about only one concern — the pandemic. That’s not a prediction of doom but instead reflects a feeling of gloom. It’s little wonder that 4 in 5 respondents said Chicago’s leaders need to be tougher than leaders in other American cities.

But while the mayoral field is already seven deep, none of the candidates has emerged as a natural choice to assume this mantle of political pragmatism. That’s not great news for Chicago voters, who deserve better. But it’s also not too late for another candidate to jump in or for one of those already running to meet voters where they are.

And that includes Lightfoot. Our poll shows that she is embattled: 3 out of 4 likely voters said, in fact, that Chicago would be better off with a new mayor. Her support is stronger among Black voters, but more than half of them also agreed that someone else should be running the city. But she does not face insurmountable odds: Her profile as an outsider willing to fight entrenched interests may align with the public desire for integrity.

There is a path forward and a new coalition waiting to be drawn together. For Chicago’s sake, someone needs to step up and take charge.

Will Johnson is CEO of The Harris Poll, one of the world’s leading public opinion research firms.

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