Here’s What A Joe Biden Presidency Could Mean For Chicago And Illinois

A Democratic administration could usher in more federal economic relief, a centralized pandemic response and new agendas for criminal justice reform and education funding.

Photo of Joe Biden
Former Vice President Joe Biden finishes speaking at a drive-In rally at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Monday, Nov. 2, 2020. Biden defeated President Donald Trump to become the 46th president of the United States on Saturday, Nov. 7, positioning himself to lead a nation gripped by historic pandemic and a confluence of economic and social turmoil. Andrew Harnik / Associated Press
Photo of Joe Biden
Former Vice President Joe Biden finishes speaking at a drive-In rally at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Monday, Nov. 2, 2020. Biden defeated President Donald Trump to become the 46th president of the United States on Saturday, Nov. 7, positioning himself to lead a nation gripped by historic pandemic and a confluence of economic and social turmoil. Andrew Harnik / Associated Press

Here’s What A Joe Biden Presidency Could Mean For Chicago And Illinois

A Democratic administration could usher in more federal economic relief, a centralized pandemic response and new agendas for criminal justice reform and education funding.

The White House will go from Red to Blue in January 2021 after the Associated Press called the presidency for Democrat Joe Biden, a change of political party leadership that could have big implications in Illinois.

Since Republican President Donald Trump took office in 2016, he’s repeatedly singled out Chicago and Illinois as targets of his vitriol – and Democratic leaders here have answered in kind.

So as Democrat Joe Biden prepares to ascend to the Oval Office, here’s what the change in power could mean for Chicago and the rest of Illinois.

Chicago

Chicago’s frosty relationship with the White House is sure to thaw once President-elect Joe Biden is sworn into office in January. Mayor Lori Lightfoot campaigned for him during the presidential race and has said she has “great confidence” in Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris.

“A new administration is going to be walking into a lot of deep problems, COVID-19 being one of them, an economy that is on the verge of collapse, a loss of standing in the world, environmental hazards – I mean the list is really, really long,” Lightfoot said at a news conference on Thursday.

“The thing that gives me hope is … that they will govern with empathy,” she said. “That means a lot particularly given what we’ve been through the last four years.”

Lightfoot has butted heads with President Donald Trump since she took office in 2019, but the war of words has escalated since the pandemic began and civil unrest swept the country.

The president has repeatedly – though vaguely – threatened to send in federal authorities to quell gun violence and looting in the city, and ultimately did deploy more federal agents here. He also tried to withhold public safety funding from so-called “sanctuary cities” for undocumented immigrants, including Chicago. The city may not face such penalties under a Democratic administration.

“Chicago is on [Trump’s] favorites list of places to hate or to criminalize or to demonize in a way that also is very racially charged,” said Chicago Ald. Maria Hadden, 49th Ward. “An administration change definitely means leadership that’s looking to serve and represent the entire country and to understand that we’re all on the same team.”

The city did see a big windfall of cash from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act – or the CARES Act – passed by Congress earlier this year. But Lightfoot and mayors across the country have been clamoring for another COVID-19 stimulus package, citing the devastating effect pandemic business restrictions have had on local economies. Trump has characterized that as a “bailout” for poorly-run, Democratic-led cities.

The mayor’s floor leader, 36th Ward Ald. Gilbert Villegas, expects a Biden administration will mean potentially more federal help for the city and a recognition that large cities are important economic engines.

“‘You cannot have New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago failing, you just can’t,” Villegas said. “These are large urban areas that create a lot of economic activity.”

Villegas said he expects Biden to invest more in the country’s infrastructure, referencing the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act passed in 2009 under Democratic President Barack Obama. That massive capital spending bill helped the country bounce back from the 2008 recession.

Chicago’s 2021 budget proposal does not rely on any new federal stimulus money, but it does include $1.2 billion worth of state and federal grants, much of which are carried over from the CARES Act. The budget also includes $15 million in furloughs for non-union employees and possible layoffs that could come in March. Lightfoot and other top aides have said they won’t do layoffs until March, to give labor leaders time to find other savings and allow a new Congress and new president to pass a second stimulus.

Even so, the City Council will have to pass a budget before Biden is sworn in, so his win gives aldermen and the mayor little time to make sweeping changes to the 2021 budget. However, a friendlier relationship with Washington could help in 2022 when Chicago will be in an even tougher financial position as pension payments balloon again and debt service payments grow.

Cook County

Like the City of Chicago, Cook County government hopes a Biden win could mean more federal dollars – and some stability.

With a proposed budget of nearly $7 billion next year, the county runs one of the biggest public health systems in the U.S., as well as the county jail and circuit court system.

Cook County has received about $670 million in CARES Act funding to help offset costs related to COVID-19. And the government has distributed some of the money to help small businesses survive during the pandemic, residents who lost their jobs, and others who are struggling to pay their bills.

“We need help specifically to bridge the gap next year to be able to continue these recovery efforts especially, because that’s going to help … get the economy on track as much as we can,” Ammar Rizki, Cook County’s chief financial officer, said during a recent WBEZ interview.

Even under a Biden presidency, there still could be a big gut punch to Cook County. The U.S. Supreme Court could strike down the Affordable Care Act, which has insured some 20 million Americans and helped buoy the county health system’s finances.

More than any other hospital in the region, the government-run Cook County Health system treats many patients without getting paid for it. It’s a public service mission, but one that cripples the health system’s finances.

Under the ACA, Illinois was among states that expanded who qualified for Medicaid health insurance. That’s a government program for people who are low-income or disabled.

Cook County launched its own Medicaid health insurance plan, called CountyCare, because of the ACA. CountyCare has become a key money-maker for the health system – and therefore helped stabilize the county’s overall budget – because it gets paid a fixed amount of money per enrollee per month. This helps subsidize the medical care Cook County provides for no pay.

CountyCare insures just over 375,000 people. About 94,000 of them became newly eligible for Medicaid under the ACA and would lose that insurance if the ACA was gone, said Debra Carey, interim CEO of the county health system. CountyCare also has become a lifeline during the pandemic, Carey said, with about 50,000 people enrolling since March as people lost their jobs.

Besides CountyCare enrollees, the health system also treats patients who joined other Medicaid plans under the ACA.

The financial hit for still treating patients who became eligible for Medicaid under the ACA – who then would become uninsured — would be at least $1.4 billion a year, Carey estimates.

She didn’t even include other groups of patients who might lose other benefits created by the ACA, yet still could show up at Cook County Health. This includes people who bought plans on the government health insurance exchanges created under the ACA, and young people who have been able to stay on their parents until their mid-20s.

Even people with private insurance through their jobs would be affected if the ACA went away. Their annual check-ups with family doctors are now free, for example.

“There really isn’t a back up plan,” Carey said for how to make ends meet if the ACA is struck down. “We’re the masters of stretching a dollar to make certain we can get as much care going to those in need, but even we have our limits.”

Carey said she worries about other so-called safety net hospitals, too, if they have to take care of more uninsured patients. Like Cook County Health, these hospitals are anchors in their communities for low-income patients of color – and they also struggle financially.

“I don’t know that they can actually survive that,” Carey said.

One of those medical centers, Mercy Hospital in Bronzeville on the Near South Side, plans to close next year after years of losing money and patients.

Illinois

Tensions in the early days of the pandemic between Democratic Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker and Trump were measurable, starting with the White House’s unreliability in getting sufficient supplies of COVID-19 protective gear and tests to the state.

Pritzker, in talking about states competing against one another for those supplies, once said, “In the midst of a global pandemic, states were forced to play some sort of sick Hunger Games game show to save the lives of our people.”

Having Biden in the White House could mean a more centralized, national role in decision-making about the pandemic, which could come into play in Illinois when the feds begin distributing hundreds of thousands of vaccine shots. A more clear-cut federal role in how to do that could mean less pressure on Pritzker’s administration to figure out the massive logistics involved in such an operation.

Pritzker has said he wanted to vet the efficacy of any vaccine offered by the Trump administration.

Because Republicans may retain control of the U.S. Senate, the state’s ability to secure billions of dollars in federal pandemic aid is in much more doubt than if Democrats were in control of that congressional chamber. The uncertainty around a reliable flow of federal funds into the state is of more dire consequence given the failure of Pritzker’s push for a graduated tax amendment to the state Constitution, which was estimated to bring in an extra $3 billion to the state each year.

Pritzker’s personal ties to Biden aren’t as well documented as his relationship with 2016 Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, whom the governor regards as a friend. Still, since last summer, Pritzker contributed $1 million to a Biden-supporting political action committee and another $5,600 directly to Biden’s presidential campaign fund. Additionally, Pritzker’s sister, Penny Pritzker, served as commerce secretary under Obama and endorsed Biden last January.

Criminal Justice

While Lightfoot and Trump have often been at odds, the city’s top cop, Superintendent David Brown, has not really clashed with Trump’s Justice Department since taking over earlier this year. Brown welcomed an influx of federal agents in July to address gun violence as part of Operation Legend, and has talked often about the valuable partnership between the Chicago Police Department and federal prosecutors.

One place of clear division is police reform. Brown is strongly in favor of an overhaul of the department as laid out in the court-enforced reform plan known as a consent decree. Trump and the U.S. Department of Justice are opposed to policing consent decrees, which were a common tool of the Obama administration.

The consent decree governing CPD is based on an investigation by the Justice Department under Obama, but after Trump’s election the feds backed away from having any role in police reform. That makes it unlikely the Biden administration will have any official role in the consent decree in Chicago, but the Justice Department could be a resource during the years-long reform process.

“When you think about our consent decree and how … we lost the DOJ support for our consent decree when the Trump administration came in. I think we can expect some of those basics again,” said Hadden, the 49th Ward city council member. “But I don’t have super high hopes on how they’re going to lead the country [on] police reform.”

Biden’s election also makes it more likely the Justice Department will resume investigations of police departments and police shootings more broadly. Officials in Waukegan have said the feds are looking into last month’s fatal police shooting of Marcellis Stinnette and new leadership could impact the scope and vigor of that review.

As president, Biden would be in charge of choosing the U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois, the top federal law enforcement official in Chicago. That could mean keeping or replacing the current U.S. Attorney, John Lausch.

Lausch was a Trump appointee but his selection was supported by Illinois’ Democratic senators. The position is an essential one, as the U.S. attorney sets priorities for the region, including helping with violent crime and investigating public corruption.

Illinois U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin told WBEZ on election night that Lausch has solid credentials and a good reputation, but stopped short of saying that Lausch should stay on.

Durbin did say Lausch should be given time to complete the sprawling corruption investigation into Commonwealth Edison’s lobbying activities in Springfield.

“We know that he has a major investigation underway … and I don’t know where it stands at this moment,” Durbin said. “He needs time to finish his work, it’s a reasonable request. I’ll stand by it. It does take some time to pick a successor anyway. So I want him to finish his work, whatever it may be.”

Education

Decisions about public education in the U.S. — and the dollars to pay for it — are mostly a local matter. But a Biden presidency could still change the education world in Chicago and Illinois.

Biden would like to see schools reopen during the pandemic but he’s advocating a much different approach than Trump. His campaign said a nationwide mask mandate and additional federal funding would help schools reopen safely, though they also stress local risk factors should be taken into consideration.

There are a few key policy decisions before the U.S. Department of Education and Congress that would affect Illinois students during the pandemic.

One issue is whether Illinois students must take federally-mandated standardized tests this year. Another question is whether Congress will pass another federal coronavirus relief bill that includes extra money for schools. Chicago Public Schools, for example, is relying on $343 million in help from Congress to balance its budget for this school year.

For Chicago Public Schools, a Biden presidency could potentially mean a change in leadership. CPS CEO Janice Jackson’s name has been floated as a candidate for U.S secretary of the education.

More broadly, Biden’s K-12 and higher education agenda is vastly different than Trump’s. Biden is pushing for universal preschool, boosting teacher pay and dollars for low-income students and making public colleges and universities free for families earning below $125,000.

An earlier version of this story questioned whether school funding could drop if the number of students eligible for free and reduced lunch declined in Chicago. However, the Illinois State Board of Education says registration for free or reduced price meals does not affect the district’s funding.

WBEZ reporters Becky Vevea, Tony Arnold, Dave McKinney, Kristen Schorsch, Patrick Smith and editor Kate Grossman contributed.