Johnson Walks Political Tightrope in 1st 100 Days as Allies Press Him to Deliver and Critics Seize on Missteps

Video: Mayor Brandon Johnson appears on “Chicago Tonight” on Aug. 24, 2023. (Produced by Acacia Hernández)

Mayor Brandon Johnson spent his first 100 days in office walking a political tightrope, facing intense pressure to deliver victories for the progressive voters who launched him into office while critics question his ability to lead a badly fractured city struggling to recover from the ravages of the COVID-19 pandemic that served to spotlight Chicago’s deeply entrenched problems of crime, poverty, homelessness and inequity.

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Johnson, a former middle school teacher, told WTTW News on Thursday’s “Chicago Tonight” that he would give his administration an A-minus “at least for style,” with much more work to be done.

“What we have been able to do effectively is to bring people together,” Johnson said. “It’s what I campaigned on and what I promised.”

Poised to be the most progressive mayor in the city’s history, Johnson has also sought to make good on his campaign promise to create a “Chicago for all” by building consensus before making tough decisions — an approach that has confused and frustrated some Chicagoans long accustomed to mayors governing by fiat and asking for neither permission nor forgiveness.

“I’m not a dictator,” Johnson has said repeatedly after taking office when pressed by reporters about criticism that he is not moving decisively enough to address Chicago’s woes.

Johnson said his approach has paid off with more summer jobs for Chicago teens and a quick response to flooding that inundated the West Side in early July. 

“This dynamic that has existed in the city of Chicago for so long that has left schools closed, mental health clinics shut down, a transportation system that, quite frankly, has not been reliable and safe, you have systems that have not been built around care,” Johnson said. “The same old tired politics that we have moved away from, that’s what the city of Chicago is embracing in this moment.”

For much of his first months in office, Johnson has used the bully pulpit to serve as the city’s hype man, frequently proclaiming Chicago the “greatest freaking city in the world” and extolling the “soul of Chicago.”

Johnson has embraced the spotlight at events like Lollapalooza and the Sueños music festival, often deploying his deep, resonant laugh while greeting Chicagoans. But he has also deflected tough questions with talking points and canned phrases, routinely promising to make Chicago a “better, stronger and safer” city without offering details.

Johnson’s work addressing the colossal challenges facing Chicago is a work in progress: Several high-profile appointments are pending, and Johnson has less than two months to craft his first spending plan, which he has said will include a down payment on promises to invest in working-class Chicagoans.

The mayor has said he is looking for department heads who are “competent, collaborative and compassionate” — but offered few specifics.

Johnson — the city’s 57th mayor and only the second Black man to be elected to lead Chicago — took office in the midst of a humanitarian crisis, with thousands of migrants arriving in Chicago from the southern border on buses paid for by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican.

Johnson has spent much of his first 100 days in office grappling with the daily arrival of dozens of migrants looking for food and shelter at a time when the city’s shelters are bursting at the seams, straining the city’s social safety net and exacerbating tension between Chicago’s Black and Latino communities. In all, more than 13,000 migrants have made their way to Chicago since the buses began arriving on Aug. 31, 2022.

When Johnson took office in mid-May, approximately 500 migrants, who are all in the country legally after requesting asylum, were being forced to sleep on the floor of police stations across the city. Since Johnson took the oath of office, more than 90 buses filled with as many as 50 migrants each have arrived.

In mid-July, Johnson vowed to move the 950 people living at police stations into permanent shelters as quickly as possible during an ongoing probe into whether more than one officer assigned to a West Side police station had sexual contact with at least one of the migrants. Officials have yet to substantiate that complaint or identify a victim.

There are more than 1,000 people living in the lobbies of Chicago’s police stations, even though Johnson has opened 10 new shelters, which are now housing nearly 6,400 people, according to data provided by Ald. Andre Vasquez (40th Ward), the chair of the City Council’s Immigrant and Refugee Rights Committee.

Johnson also pushed through a proposal crafted by Lightfoot to use $51 million from the city’s 2021 budget surplus to help care for the migrants after an intense debate on the floor of the City Council that featured racist abuse.

Johnson said he was proud that Chicago was “living out” the legacy left by former Mayor Harold Washington, who issued an executive order in 1985 declaring Chicago a sanctuary city and prohibiting city employees from enforcing federal immigration laws.

Johnson praised mutual aid groups that have been helping provide the migrants with basic necessities, including food, water and clothing, and thanked county, state and federal officials for helping craft sustainable solutions to the crisis.

“We’re moving with great expediency,” Johnson said, acknowledging that the city will need to open more shelters.

As the humanitarian crisis continued with no end in sight, Johnson scrambled to respond as more than 8,000 Chicago homes and businesses — most on the West Side — flooded during severe storms between June 29 and July 2.

Johnson blamed the “failed policies of the past” for making Chicagoans vulnerable to strong storms, and said he would act where other elected leaders had not to address the impact of climate change. Johnson’s 2024 budget is likely to re-establish a Department of the Environment to lead that effort.

New Era for City Council

Johnson spent much of his first months in office building a rapport with members of the City Council, most of whom spent the last four years at war with former Mayor Lori Lightfoot and were poised to declare their independence.

Instead, Johnson convinced them to step back and pushed through what he called a “unity plan” that empowered some of his closest allies, including Ald. Carlos Ramirez Rosa (35th Ward), but did not punish those who campaigned against him.

Johnson also banked a significant amount of good will among alderpeople by pushing through a measure to allow restaurants, bars and cafes to serve customers outdoors permanently by agreeing to give members of the City Council the final sign-off on the permits. Lightfoot resisted that demand, stalling its approval.

But progress on the rest of Johnson’s legislative to-do list has been slow — by design, as part of an effort to stop, collaborate and listen, Johnson said.

That process began in earnest in July, with two high-profile hearings on the cornerstones of Johnson’s progressive agenda: efforts to reopen Chicago’s mental health clinics, an initiative known as Treatment not Trauma, and hike taxes on the sales of properties worth $1 million or more to fight homelessness, known as Bring Chicago Home.

At the same time, Chicagoans who sell properties for less than $1 million would see a 20% cut in the transfer taxes under the proposal Johnson supports and plans to ask the City Council to put on the March 2024 ballot for approval.

“Protecting the interests of working people is top priority for me,” Johnson said.

Johnson also vowed to require city crews to clear not just Chicago’s roads but also its sidewalks of snow and ice during winter storms, casting it as a basic city service older Chicagoans and those with disabilities need to move around the city of Chicago.

Before the City Council’s annual August recess, Johnson’s allies introduced proposals that would require all Chicago businesses to pay their workers the same minimum hourly wage, regardless of whether they earn tips, and give their employees 15 days of paid time.

Key votes on all four measures are expected this fall, even as negotiations begin over the city’s 2024 budget. 

New Rhetorical Approach

Some of the harshest criticism Johnson has endured came after he responded to unrest triggered by “teen trends,” large gatherings organized on social media and popular among teens and young adults.

In April, Johnson condemned what he called “destructive activity” that led to three people being shot and 15 people arrested — but called on city leaders not to “demonize youth who have otherwise been starved of opportunities in their own communities.”

By contrast, after similar events, Lightfoot called for Chicago Police to step up arrests and blasted the teens’ parents for not keeping better track of the young people.

Johnson endured days of criticism that he was giving violent teens a free pass, a pattern that would reoccur in August after another large gathering erupted into chaos. Forty people were cited by police, including 32 teens.

Johnson objected when a reporter referred to the incident as a “mob action.”

“This is not to obfuscate what has taken place, but we have to be careful when we use language to describe certain behavior,” Johnson said at the time. “There’s history in this city. I mean, to refer to children as, like, baby Al Capones is not appropriate.”

While taking pains to highlight the multiple times he has condemned criminal behavior, Johnson said many Chicago neighborhoods, including his own Austin, “have been mired with disinvestment, and as a result of that disinvestment, trauma has set in, and the manifestation of trauma oftentimes is violent behavior.”

Public Safety Challenges

As Labor Day approaches, with it the end of summer and the end of what is often the most violent months of the year, crime continued to decline after a surge that peaked at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Murders have dropped 6% during the first seven months of 2023, as compared with the same period a year ago, according to police data. The number of shootings, carjackings and crime on the CTA are also down, officials said.

Johnson also won praise from across the political spectrum for his pick of Chief Larry Snelling to serve as the city’s next top. Snelling is likely to be confirmed easily by the Chicago City Council next month.

That would make him the fourth person to lead the Chicago Police Department in less than six months, capping a period of intense turmoil for the department.

It will also start the clock ticking on Johnson’s central campaign promise: a vow to reimagine public safety in Chicago by addressing the root causes of crime and violence by increasing funding for youth employment programs and expanding mental health services.

“If we’re not serious about getting at the root causes of the violence that we are seeing in the city of Chicago, it doesn’t do us any service to demonize individuals that are essentially living in circumstances they did not create,” Johnson said.

As part of that effort, Johnson added 2,000 jobs to the city’s teen summer jobs program for a total of 22,000 positions. But 46,000 applied, making the scope of the demand clear — and highlighting the challenges facing Johnson during the next 100 days, and beyond.

Contact Heather Cherone: @HeatherCherone | (773) 569-1863 | [email protected]

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