On a Wednesday afternoon in early August, Chicago Ald. Nick Sposato, 38th Ward, had a bone to pick with Mayor Brandon Johnson.
A self-characterized “praise in public, scold in private” politician and one of the city’s most conservative council members, Sposato texted the mayor — he needed to air a grievance about what he saw as Johnson’s defense of a teenage gathering near downtown that turned violent.
“I just think that [Johnson] just needs to get a little bit tougher on these kids with these flash mobs,” Sposato said. “So I texted him, and he called me back in like 30 seconds after I texted him about his comments … I mean, it was like I could talk to him.”
Sposato told the mayor he was upset that Johnson derided a reporter for using the phrase “mob action” to describe the incident and that, as an Italian American, he was offended when the mayor said it’s not appropriate to refer to kids as “baby Al Capones.” The dust up led to inflammatory headlines by ring-wing outlets, such as “Chicago’s woke new mayor Brandon Johnson scolds reporters.”
But Johnson’s handling of the backlash with Sposato illustrates exactly what has endeared him so far to former opponents and nonprogressives: Johnson’s ability to pick up the phone and find common ground.
Johnson’s first 100 days have been peppered with meetings, some perhaps more superfluous than others: a meeting with rapper Lil Durk four days after taking office, lunch at a luxury hotel with former NBA star Dwyane Wade, but also recurring meetings with the Chicago Police Department, one with the Fraternal Order of Police soon after his election, two with the NFL Bears organization and a meeting, lunch or ward visit with at least 46 of the city’s 50 council members, according to his daily calendar as of last Wednesday.
Since taking office on May 15, Johnson has worked to make good on his promise to be a mayor “for all of Chicago,” but at times that has meant governing to the middle in ways that may dissatisfy his progressive base, one veteran progressive political strategist said.
And while Johnson has been quick to focus on building bridges, his first 100 days have not been marked by the robust legislative and executive order checklist mayors past have ticked through in an attempt to prove their ambition. Slow to fill out his cabinet as well, Johnson has thus far appointed just four new department leaders.
But as he embarked on a media blitz ahead of his first 100 days in office Tuesday, Johnson defended what he calls a deliberative approach to governing.
“The amount of excitement that people feel in the air, it’s a remarkable testament to a new form of politics being the more prevailing form of governance,” he said in an interview with WBEZ on Friday. “We’re bringing people together as the standard and not the divisive nature that, unfortunately, has dogged us for too long in this city.”
With ongoing crises and his first budget season fast approaching, Johnson’s first three months have left some supporters wanting more and wondering whether he will be as bold as his campaign suggested.
“He has a real opportunity to be a better leader,” said Rebecca Williams, a strategist who has worked to elect progressives in Chicago and Cook County. “He has a more cooperative City Council than I think the last two mayors have had … I don’t think there’s any reason that he shouldn’t be able to be really bold in his leadership.”
Police relations and crime
Chicago’s warm, summer months that historically see a spike in crime were an early test for Johnson. Since June 1, homicides, shootings and carjackings are down by double-digit percentages compared to the same time last year.
While Johnson has been reticent to lay out timelines for his goals, one he did outline more specifically as mayor-elect was his intention to double the number of young people the city hired this summer as a way to prevent violence and crime.
With the budget already set by the previous administration, and the summer starting just two weeks before he took office, it was an ambitious goal that Johnson did not come close to meeting.
The demand was there, with roughly 46,000 people applying for spots. But as of late June, the city wasn’t able to find the 20,000 positions it would have needed to double the program’s ranks. Instead, just 2,000 more job positions were added. Johnson’s administration has said they expect the growth to be ongoing.
Much of Johnson’s crime prevention plan on the campaign trail included addressing the root causes of violence and will require legislative action that has yet to hit the council chambers. Another piece of his plan — hiring 200 new detectives — will start to get underway with newly announced police chief Larry Snelling, Johnson said Friday.
“Part of our discussions have been how do we identify and train individuals who are best positioned to help grow that particular division of the Police Department,” he said.
Choosing Snelling may prove to be one of the most defining decisions of Johnson’s term, said Delmarie Cobb, a longtime Democratic political consultant. The CPD veteran faces questions of whether he can be more successful than former Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s pick of an outsider at reducing violent crime, bringing the department into compliance with the federal consent decree and boosting officer morale.
“Snelling seems to have a lot of community support and that could set the tone for the rest of the administration, because as we know with Lori Lightfoot, that is what haunted her,” Cobb said.
L. Bowers, a Hyde Park resident who wrote into WBEZ’s People’s Agenda survey during the mayoral election, said it’s important Johnson’s superintendent pick has been made. But it gives her pause that Snelling comes from within the department’s ranks. Bowers said she hopes Snelling will prove he can separate himself from an entrenched “code of silence” culture.
“If this internal pick is going to make CPD greater, better than I’m happy. I’m thrilled. We all will be thrilled,” Bowers said, later adding: “But we’ll see.”
Coming off a campaign where he was painted as an anti-police “defunder,” without enough experience to lead the city, Johnson has relied on veteran public safety officials including his chief of staff Rich Guidice and his interim police superintendent Fred Waller. He has been calculated in his comments on police and has surprised some people in the relationships he has built with the Police Department thus far.
Johnson’s choice in Snelling, for instance, has gotten a nod of approval by tough-on-crime politicians, including his former mayoral challenger Paul Vallas, who said Snelling “would certainly have been on my shortlist as a potential superintendent.”
Sposato praised Johnson’s approach with officers.
“Friends of mine that are high-ranking police officers, these meetings they have with the mayor and the interim superintendent, are just like a pleasure to go to,” Sposato said. “In the past, nobody wanted to go, they were worried about getting demoted. Now, it’s just like, ‘Hey, what do you got going on? Let’s talk about stuff.’ And it’s a pleasure to go to.”
While Johnson’s comments in early August scolding a reporter for referring to the mass gathering as a “mob action” led to criticism from the right, Johnson also had praise for the police, who made 40 arrests, as a result of the incident: “The level of sensitivity and patience that our officers expressed, I’m appreciative of that. That is constitutional. That is a system of care.”
The mass arrest of young people is “something a year ago, he would have decried,” Williams, the political strategist, said, criticizing Johnson.
“We’re seeing him wobble in a really weird way … He won on a very progressive platform. As a leader, it’s incumbent upon him to make the case for that platform and to implement it.”
Legislative agenda and business community outreach
Perhaps Johnson’s biggest legislative accomplishment thus far is passing his preferred council structure that will eventually help him reach larger policy goals. It’s a routine practice for Chicago mayors, but one that could have been made more difficult by a push for independence by council members over the past few years. Instead, a large majority of them fell in line with Johnson’s proposal to pick his own committee chairs.
Johnson has thus far celebrated minor policy accomplishments, such as expanding and solidifying the city’s al fresco dining program, which Lightfoot laid the groundwork for, and an ordinance that furthers an effort to make the city responsible for plowing sidewalks.
By comparison, Lightfoot in her first three months passed what would become one of her proudest accomplishments: the so-called “fair work week” ordinance that gave workers more advanced notice of changes to their work schedules. Lightfoot had also formed a coalition of 40 leaders who would eventually establish her signature neighborhood development program, Invest South/West — then created it shortly after her first 100 days.
“[Johnson is] a little less surefooted than what we saw with Lightfoot, who was really ambitious in her first 100 days,” Williams said. But that quick pace came with backlash, she added. “She paid for being so ambitious, right? For forcing so much, for moving so much so quickly … By the first 100 days, the alderman had already organized [against her] from both the progressive and conservative side of the spectrum.”
There are signs Johnson is readying to move more forcefully on some of his major campaign promises.
Under Johnson, progressive City Council members have been able to hold hearings on long-sought legislative proposals that under Lightfoot failed to launch, such as for proposals to expand mental health experts responding to crises without police or an increase of a tax on the sale of high-end homes to fund homelessness prevention.
“We’ve started to pave the road to pass major legislation that is going to be of a tremendous benefit to average Chicagoans, whether that’s Treatment Not Trauma, Bring Chicago Home, One Fair Wage — hearings that previously languished under the prior administration, hearings that could not even occur. We’ve now brought the people of the city of Chicago into City Hall,” said Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa, 35th Ward, Johnson’s hand-picked floor leader.
According to his calendar, one of the first policy meetings Johnson took in May was on CARE, or Crisis Assistance Response and Engagement. It’s the city’s program that sends health care professionals to respond to 911 calls involving a mental health crisis. Some teams include a police officer while others do not.
Tweaking that program to cut out police altogether is a core piece of Treatment Not Trauma, which is perhaps Johnson’s biggest legislative promise and priority. Johnson meets semi-regularly with his chief of staff to discuss the CARE program.
Another core tenet of Treatment Not Trauma is reopening the city’s shuttered mental health clinics. AFSCME Council 31 is the union that represents city employees, including those in public health, and has long advocated for shuttered mental health clinics’ doors to be reopened. Last month, they published a roadmap for Johnson’s administration to reopen 14 additional mental health clinics in phases over the course of the next four years.
Anders Lindall, director of public affairs for AFSCME Council 31, which endorsed Johnson in the mayoral runoff, said Johnson’s first budget will be “a natural first place for us to look to see real progress in the right direction.”
Former Finance Committee chair Ald. Scott Waguespack anticipates alderpersons will need to critique the fiscal impacts of Johnson’s ideas, “because many of them are just sort of off the cuff policy issues that haven’t really had a budget put forward and really haven’t been vetted yet.”
Johnson’s budget forecast is expected to come out by September and will give the public the biggest sense yet of his capabilities as mayor, including whether he’ll be able to keep a key campaign promise not to raise property taxes while making major investments in social services. On Friday, Johnson did not answer whether a property tax raise is on the table, saying instead “investing in people is on the table.”
Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Jack Lavin said the group has been encouraged by Johnson’s willingness to collaborate, and pointed to the expansion of outdoor dining, connecting youth with summer jobs and appointment of Snelling as positive steps.
But Lavin said in a statement that proposals, like an increase in the real estate transfer tax, will hurt Chicago’s economy and businesses.
“Moving forward, we hope to have the opportunity to work with Mayor Johnson and his administration to find a common ground on these harmful proposals, address our city’s pension crisis in a holistic and comprehensive way, and pass a balanced budget that is sympathetic to the challenges both residents and businesses continue to face,” Lavin said.
Meanwhile, Dillin Ravenscraft, executive director of the LGBT Chamber of Commerce – Illinois, said Johnson has more inroads to make with the business community. Ravenscraft said his organization, which endorsed Vallas in the mayoral election, hasn’t yet gotten a chance to meet with Johnson to discuss how to support LGBT businesses and workers despite repeated attempts at outreach.
“It’s been a struggle trying to work with our business owners in different ways and get them supported when we don’t have the support of our mayor,” Ravenscraft said.
Building a cabinet, slowly
While Johnson has named four deputy mayors and has filled key positions in his office, he’s still in the throes of solidifying his cabinet as he’s embarked on an appointment process that has been slower than his predecessor’s.
After giving Lightfoot holdovers a three-month trial period, several have headed for the exits — whether through resignations, retirements or even firings. Among those that have left are the commissioners of the housing, transportation, planning and development, public health and human resources departments.
Johnson did not answer a question about when he would like to have department leaders in place, saying instead: “We have a full-functioning government right now. And there are people in position, in place to carry out government.”
Lindall said that contemplative approach has given city workers a chance to be heard. AFSCME representatives have been part of Johnson’s transition committees and pension working group, and it’s an opportunity to help guide the city that Lindall said is a testament to Johnson’s inclusive nature.
“We really believe that whatever differences anyone may have had, the city is going to succeed, all its people are going to succeed, when Brandon Johnson succeeds,” Lindall said, “and so we just want to encourage everyone to have that patience and latitude and grace.”
Still, others see the elongated timeline as a “missed opportunity to set the tone” for the administration.
“That’s not necessarily a hallmark of good leadership, when you leave your 28 departments flailing in the wind waiting to see if they’re going to be on the chopping block or not,” Ald. Raymond Lopez, 15th Ward, said. “And there are a lot of issues that we know that departments need to be taking a look at and dealing with.”
For former health commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady — who Johnson abruptly fired earlier this month — that trial period allegedly included being discouraged from speaking publicly on an emerging health crisis caused by smoke from Canadian wildfires.
When asked about the firing at a news conference, Johnson did not elaborate, saying only that Arwady’s termination came after a thorough review. When asked about her allegation regarding air quality publicity, Johnson said Friday it’s “morally wrong” to discuss the nature of an employee’s firing.
A week earlier, Johnson was asked about another administration controversy: Did he know about past domestic abuse allegations against his interim superintendent, Fred Waller? Johnson said the investigation was “settled and solved” and instead praised Waller for his service to the city.
This type of indirectness has come to characterize many of Johnson’s news conferences, as he has dodged reporters’ questions, at times contentiously. The opaqueness around his administration’s decisions has come as an unpleasant surprise to Williams.
“He’s known for being an organizer who is thoughtful and a respectful leader, and he’s refreshingly direct and attentive at the same time. So it’s surprising to see him in this role as mayor not having that kind of same ability to establish rapport … It’s kind of already leaving a bad taste in people’s mouth, he’s coming off as inauthentic or that he’s concealing something in his decision by not directly answering the question.”
One of the immediate emergencies Johnson inherited was the influx of asylum-seekers that have arrived to Chicago and bussed from other states, such as Texas.
In addition to more regular updates to City Council on the administration’s plans, Johnson created a new position of deputy mayor of immigrant, migrant and refugee rights — one of four new deputy mayor positions he’s named in the areas of neighborhood and business development, community safety and education, youth and human services. And under Johnson, the council’s committee on immigration has started meeting again.
Since last August, more than 13,000 asylum-seekers have arrived in the city. Close to half of the nearly 200 buses that have been sent to Chicago arrived since May 12, shortly before Johnson assumed office.
The constant clip of new arrivals has strained the city’s shelter system and led to a fierce debate between city funds going toward recently arrived immigrants compared to long-disinvested communities in the city.
As of Thursday morning, 6,465 asylum-seekers were spread out across 15 city shelters. But there were still 1,080 people waiting for a spot. Of those, 945 are living in police station lobbies, 130 are at O’Hare Airport and another five are at Midway Airport, according to city figures.
Johnson’s administration has pledged to move away from using police stations as a point of intake, and those calls were given more urgency last month after allegations surfaced that police committed sexual misconduct against at least one migrant who had been housed at the 10th District police station.
Johnson’s office had said the allegation involved sexual misconduct against a minor new arrival and quickly moved migrants out of the 10th District police station. The police oversight body and Bureau of Internal Affairs are investigating the allegations, but as of last month the Civilian Office of Police Accountability said no victims have come forward.
Adding more shelters is essential, not just to aid migrants, “but also making sure that we’re providing support services for those who are currently unhoused,” Johnson said Friday, pointing to steps taken toward implementing a tax on the sale of high-end homes to fund homelessness prevention, known as Bring Chicago Home.
When asked if revenue generated from the real estate transfer tax hike would go toward aiding asylum-seekers, Johnson on Friday did not address the question, instead reiterating his commitment to bring all levels of government together and continuing to advocate for federal aid. Johnson did not say how much of his forthcoming budget will be dedicated to the crisis generally, nor has he given a timeline for moving migrants out of police stations completely.
Ramirez-Rosa reiterated the theme of Johnson’s first 100 days — that the scale of the issues Johnson is up against aren’t going to be solved overnight.
“You’re not going to undo three decades of neoliberalism overnight. You’re not going to undo three decades of disinvestment overnight. Three decades of privatization is going to take time to address, but I trust that we have the right people there,” Ramirez-Rosa said. “And I know that they’re working hard every single day.”
WBEZ’s Mariah Woelfel and Tessa Weinberg cover city government and politics.