Chicago Mayor-elect Brandon Johnson hasn’t even taken the oath of office, but when he does on Monday, he will be in charge of America’s third-largest city, which is currently under a state of emergency over an influx of refugees seeking asylum that have settled there, sleeping in police stations and creating a humanitarian and health crisis the city cannot support.
He’ll also be faced with a rampant crime problem that has driven several big businesses out of the area, as well as a volatile economy.
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Johnson, a Democrat, defeated outgoing Mayor Lori Lightfoot, also a Democrat, in the general election and then Paul Vallas, the former CEO of Chicago Public Schools, in a runoff challenge, earning 51.4% of the more than 500,000 votes cast to become Chicago’s 57th mayor.
His to-do list is already lengthy, with voters also concerned about taxes, affordable housing, economic inequality, and education. They aren’t new problems, but they are his for the next four years as residents look to him and his administration for answers.
It may be an uphill battle.
A recent Chicago Tribune poll, conducted in late April and early May, revealed widespread doubt that Johnson would be able to tackle the issues head-on and better than his predecessors. While three-quarters of the people who voted for him think he’s got a fighting chance, they aren’t in the majority. Most Chicagoans didn’t vote in the April runoff election or voted for his opponent Vallas. If they are included in the mix, the number of people who think Johnson’s got what it takes drops to 35%, with 25% already holding a negative view of the soon-to-be mayor. Thirty-eight percent are either neutral on Johnson or have no opinion.
Johnson is also facing some tough odds when it comes to education.
Chicago public schools have been facing a decline in enrollment coupled with sky-high truancy rates. Chronic absenteeism rose nearly 45% in 2022, according to state data, which is well above the statewide rate of 30%. When it comes to the city’s low-income students, the rate is just shy of 50% missing at least 10% of their schooling.
Many are hoping Johnson’s being a teachers union organizer, former middle school teacher, and the parent of children attending public school will make him amenable to the problems plaguing the system. His union-friendly perspective rejected many of the education ideas that had once dominated Democratic politics, and on the campaign trail, he said he was able to experience firsthand “the painful impact of disinvestment on my students and their families.”
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“This personal experience, seeing children endure inequity, fuels my commitment to building a stronger, safer, and more equitable Chicago,” he said.
When it comes to tackling crime, Johnson has already promised to be “smart” as well as “tough.”
Chicago has been struggling to control violence for years, with safety concerns accounting for at least three large companies relocating and taking thousands of jobs with them. Lightfoot, the only Chicago mayor in 40 years to lose reelection after her first term, failed to find a fix for the city’s crime problem. Johnson raised more than a few eyebrows when he warned against vilifying minors during a chaotic two-night “Teen Takeover” in April that led to 15 people being arrested, lots of property damage, and physical assaults.
“It is not constructive to demonize youth who have otherwise been starved of opportunities in their own communities,” Johnson said. “Our city must work together to create spaces for youth to gather safely and responsibly, under adult guidance and supervision, to ensure that every part of our city remains welcome for both residents and visitors.”
During his victory speech in April, Johnson said his win signaled “a new chapter in the history” of Chicago. He has already made a few power moves, signaling a different approach to a job his predecessor struggled with during her first term.
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In March, just days before the April 4 runoff election, 34 aldermen approved a resolution to adopt the rules the incoming City Council members would follow, which included the expansion of committees to 28 from 19, and the appointment of the aldermen who would chair those committees without the influence of the incoming mayor. But after Johnson won, the City Council’s independent reorganization had been gutted with one of the effort’s leaders, Alderman Scott Waguespack, being cast aside.
Waguespack will not chair a committee and will be replaced by Alderman Pat Dowell, a Democrat and an early backer of Johnson. Democratic Alderman Jason Ervin, who also endorsed Johnson, will take Dowell’s spot as chairman of the influential Budget Committee. Dowell had led the committee for four years under Lightfoot but jumped ship to Johnson during the mayor’s race in February. In another move that caused a seismic shift in Chicago politics, Alderman Carlos Ramirez Rosa, one of Johnson’s biggest and most influential backers, will now head up the powerful Zoning Committee, according to Crain’s Chicago Business, which cited two sources familiar with the plan.