Mayor Brandon Johnson campaigned on a promise to be the likable consensus-builder that Lori Lightfoot wasn’t.
He touted lessons learned as one of 10 siblings in a home with one bathroom, along with his previous work as a paid organizer for the Chicago Teachers Union. Listening, negotiating and collaborating is part of his DNA.
And yet, Johnson’s relationship with Gov. JB Pritzker is off to a rocky start not all that different from the tension between Lightfoot and Pritzker that worsened during the pandemic and became a hallmark of her single term.
Don’t be fooled by Johnson’s winning smile and soaring, preacher’s son rhetoric, nor by Pritzker’s make-nice statements from the podium.
There is real frustration behind the scenes on both sides, stemming from the migrant crisis, Chicago’s crime wave, a tug of war over leadership of the Democratic National Convention, and the parade of tax increases and costly mandates being imposed on Chicago’s business community.
It’s also at least tangentially tied to Pritzker’s presidential ambitions and his fears that Johnson’s executive inexperience, painfully slow decisionmaking and progressive political tilt could be detrimental to Chicago’s long-term financial health and somehow undermine the governor’s political future.
As convention host, Chicago will be under a magnifying glass next summer — hardly a moment for the governor and mayor to be at odds.
Chicago’s recent arrivals bring Johnson-Pritzker divide into focus
The migrant crisis serves as the most glaring example of their political differences.
After enduring months of social media potshots from Johnson’s allies, Pritzker rode to the rescue with $160 million in state funding to build a winterized base camp on a contaminated abandoned industrial site at 38th Street and California Avenue in Brighton Park, to open a brick-and-mortar shelter at a shuttered CVS pharmacy in Little Village, and to create a so-called intake center where arriving asylum-seekers can be processed.
But Johnson stole the governor’s thunder. During a November news conference held to celebrate City Council approval of Johnson’s $16.77 billion city budget, the mayor teased that state help was on the way. The city’s budget also turned up the heat on the state by budgeting only $150 million for the migrant crisis in 2024.
At his own news conference the next day to announce that help, the normally genial Pritzker uncharacteristically took aim at Johnson. Pritzker said he was taking over because temperatures were plummeting and the city hadn’t “moved fast enough” to set up the base camps the city had proposed in September as it raced to get migrants off the floors of Chicago police stations, O’Hare Airport and tiny tents outside those crowded facilities before winter.
“When have you ever heard J.B. Pritzker do that? Not even in the worst of COVID did he criticize Lori Lightfoot like that. He doesn’t like to do that. He’s not comfortable being an aggressive guy,” said a veteran political observer, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of alienating both sides.
“It must have been the governor’s frustrations and not wanting to own the mayor’s failures.”
Johnson and his team were concerned the state’s announcement would look like they were rescuing the city. He was also told that would almost certainly be the media spin if he was not standing next to the governor to announce the plan. Even so, Johnson opted out of the news conference, with his team citing scheduling conflicts.
A surprising public scolding
Veteran political strategist Peter Giangreco, who advised former 4th Ward Ald. Sophia King’s unsuccessful mayoral campaign, said Pritzker’s complaint about the slow pace of Johnson’s migrant efforts raised eyebrows.
“That’s usually something that happens behind closed doors. This [tension] is out in the open,” Giangreco said.
Senior mayoral adviser Jason Lee refused to comment on rising tension between the mayor and the governor. The governor’s office released a statement saying, “The Governor and Mayor have a good relationship and the Governor is committed to working together to lift up Chicago. The State of Illinois succeeds when our largest city succeeds.”
Another City Hall observer faulted Johnson for his reluctance to call out the governor and demand more of him. Instead, Johnson played the good cop and relied on his progressive City Council allies to take the lead in criticizing the state.
“Brandon wants to be liked by everyone. He wants to be the anti-Lori. He thinks Lori was too combative, that she made too many enemies. And so he’s just going to be nice to everyone and hope that results in better relationships,” the veteran political operative said.
“While there’s some truth to that, politics is also not beanbag,” the political operative added. Johnson “really set himself up for failure with the migrant mission by refusing to be more of a leader on the mission. He should have done briefings months ago where he was standing up there, explaining to the city what the plan was, what the city was doing and saying, ‘Here are the gaps. Here’s where we need the state to fill in.’”
State legislators are miffed about social media potshots at the state lobbed by the Council’s most progressive members and by Chicago Teachers Union President Stacy Davis Gates. The criticism came even though the state has already committed $478 million — all without Johnson directly lobbying Springfield for help.
During Lightfoot’s tenure, the governor’s office frequently heard from lawmakers on her behalf. Former Mayor Rahm Emanuel lobbied lawmakers himself.
Picking a fight on the convention
Fissures in the relationship between the mayor and governor also deepened when Johnson pushed his pick, Keiana Barrett, to lead the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Sources said the newly elected mayor told Pritzker and U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., that his choice needed to be interviewed and selected for the job of executive director of the convention’s host committee, and that no other candidates should be considered.
That came even after Johnson was given extra time and space to deal with the convention after taking office. The mayor’s hardline stance was viewed as being disrespectful to Duckworth’s interim pick, her former chief of staff, and to Pritzker, who, along with Duckworth, took a lead role in securing the convention.
At one point, a neutral candidate — recommended by convention chair Minyon Moore — was brought in who was not part of the Pritzker, Duckworth or Johnson circles. But the mayor still pushed for his choice.
Ultimately, Pritzker won the personnel battle, with a top aide, Christy George, picked as DNC host committee executive director. Barrett ended up with the consolation prize of senior adviser.
Johnson’s battle for convention stewardship was viewed as starting out on the wrong foot with a governor and a senator — both of whom stayed on the sidelines during the mayoral election — whose support could be critical to his legislative agenda. The relationships have suffered since then.
Yet another concern is the impact Johnson’s ambitious progressive agenda will have on Chicago’s business climate.
During the first six months of the new mayor’s administration, Johnson’s Council allies have phased out the subminimum wage for tipped employees in the restaurant industry and approved the nation’s most generous paid leave policy.
They also moved to put a binding referendum on the March primary ballot that would quadruple the city’s real estate transfer tax on property sales over $1.5 million and more than double the tax on sales over $1 million. There would be a nominal reduction in the tax on sales under $1 million. The estimated $100 million in annual revenue from those tax increases would create a dedicated funding source to combat homelessness.
Far apart on some issues
Johnson’s first budget included none of the $800 million in tax increases he championed during the campaign to help bankroll the $1 billion worth of “investments in people” that form the cornerstone of his anti-violence strategy.
Pritzker has opposed many of those ideas, including a proposed financial transaction tax, a revived employee head tax and legislative approval of the real estate transfer tax. That’s why Johnson was forced to go the referendum route on the homelessness fund, an initiative known as “Bring Chicago Home.”
Giangreco said he has no idea how the tension between Johnson and Pritzker compares to the Lightfoot-Pritzker infighting.
Nor does he know how that evolving relationship will ultimately stack up with those between Emanuel and former Gov. Pat Quinn; ex-Mayor Richard M. Daley and former Gov. Jim Edgar; — and, of course, the cold war between Emanuel and ex-Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner.
He only knows Chicago’s role as host of the Democratic convention in August “raised the stakes” dramatically.
“The governor has spent a lot of time, effort and money on national politics … The folks in the Pritzker administration don’t want to be embarrassed by a city that doesn’t really seem to have a plan,” Giangreco said. “All [Johnson] seems to say is, ‘I need Washington or Springfield to fix this for me.’”