Brandon Johnson took office Monday and faced an influx of immigrants in desperate need of refuge, pressure to build support among skeptical business leaders and summer months that historically bring a spike in violent crime.
Progressives saw Johnson’s election as evidence that bold stands lead to victory at the polls. Now, his first term at the helm of the nation’s third-largest city will test the former union organizer’s ability to turn those proposals into solutions to lingering problems made worse by the coronavirus pandemic, including public safety, economic growth and security. housing affordability.
“There is no honeymoon in mayoral politics or city government,” said Dan Gibbons, executive director of the City Club of Chicago and former staffer to the city’s longest-serving mayor, Richard M. .daley. «Everyone has your phone number, they blame you and they don’t give you credit.»
Johnson, 47, a former organizer for the Chicago Teachers Union, was little known when he entered the mayoral race in 2022 and has no experience within city government. But the two-term Cook County commissioner gradually rose to the top of a crowded field with the support of the influential union he once worked for, the backing of Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, and local progressive groups to remove the incumbent mayor, Lori Lightfoot, and win a tough runoff in April.
Since then, he has tried to appeal to those who did not back him in the election, filling his transition team with familiar names from Chicago corporations and philanthropic organizations, as well as leaders of organized labor and progressive groups. He selected a Chicago emergency management agency veteran as his chief of staff and a retired police major who is popular with rank and file officers as acting leader of the Chicago Police Department.
There is no question that public safety will remain the city’s top concern, and Johnson’s response will shape his relationship with business leaders, other elected officials, his base of progressive activists, and residents of all Chicago neighborhoods.
«Mayor-elect Johnson’s top priority continues to be building a better, stronger and safer Chicago where all residents can live and work free from the threat of violence,» spokesman Ronnie Reese said in a statement.
Asiaha Butler, co-founder of the Greater Englewood Residents Association on the South Side, said she hopes Johnson remains committed to his pervasive approach to crime, and that Chicagoans give him the chance to make a difference. Butler said that improving security on her own block took 10 or even 15 years of cooperation with neighbors and other community groups.
“Knowing the desperation our city sometimes faces, it’s going to take a while to lift that cloud,” Butler said. «I wouldn’t put anybody up to that job in a term.»
Chicago has a higher per capita homicide rate than New York or Los Angeles, but the most recent federal data shows it is lower than other Midwestern cities such as St. Louis and Detroit. Still, the number of homicides in Chicago hit a 25-year high in 2021 at 804, according to the Chicago Police Department.
That number decreased last year, while other crimes, such as robberies and car thefts, increased.
Chicago business leaders overwhelmingly backed Johnson’s opponent, former Chicago Schools CEO Paul Vallas, usually swayed by his speech to strengthen surveillance or Johnson’s various tax proposals that hit big business and the rich.
Corporate groups or key individuals have been impressed by the mayor-elect’s quick outreach following his victory, said Farzin Parang, executive director of the Chicago Building Owners and Managers Association.
The trade group represents the commercial office industry that drew 600,000 people daily in the city center before the pandemic, but now reports at most 40% of that number. Efforts to attract new tenants are regularly hampered by Chicago’s «incumbent weaknesses,» particularly public safety and property taxes, Parang said.
“You really lose a group of people who don’t even consider Chicago,” he said. «So I think even small moves to address some of those weaknesses have big benefits.»
The mayoral race was dominated by questions about how to tackle crime, with Johnson arguing that a police-first approach has failed.
Instead, he proposed increasing mental health treatment, hiring more detectives, expanding youth employment programs and raising taxes on the sale of properties over $1 million to support more affordable housing. Johnson will also have the final say on the appointment of the city’s next police superintendent, although for the first time an appointed citizens’ commission will select three finalists.
Andrea Sáenz, president and CEO of the Chicago Community Trust, said she is hopeful Johnson can unite philanthropies, businesses, police officers and activists to create a comprehensive strategy to prevent violence now and remove the conditions that enabled it. to flourish.
“It seems like this is a moment, the moment, to have those conversations, for a mayor to bring everyone to the table,” Saenz said.
Johnson has shown no sign of backing down on his campaign strategies. When violence erupted when teenagers flooded the streets of downtown Chicago in mid-April, he issued a statement calling on people not to «demonize young people who have otherwise been deprived of opportunities in their own communities».
Paying for his campaign promises, including the public safety response, hinges on a series of tax increases targeted at high-income earners and large corporations likely to put up a political fight. Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker, the state’s most influential Democrat, has already refused to back the mayor-elect’s proposal to tax financial transactions, which would require approval by state legislators.
Johnson is also taking on a growing immigration crisis. Chicago is among US cities already struggling to provide shelter and other aid to hundreds of people arriving from the southern border, with adults and small children sleeping in the lobbies of police stations. The flow of new arrivals is expected to increase now that pandemic-era restrictions on migrant crossings have ended.
Illinois State Representative Kam Buckner a Chicago Democrat who also ran for mayorHe said Johnson will have to use the same strategy that won him mayor to achieve his many priorities.
“I think what Lori Lightfoot learned is that in Chicago, your defenders can quickly become your haters,” Buckner said. “We want our leaders to be authentic, to have conversations with us about the future. As long as he continues to do that, I think people will give him a chance.»