As Johnson begins his term as Chicago mayor, he faces two immediate issues: an influx of migrants and potential summer violence.
Chicago now has a new mayor.
Brandon Johnson was sworn in as the city’s 57th mayor Monday, kicking off what he has promised will be four years of reform, progress and history making, amid complex challenges that await him at the door.
In remarks, Johnson reiterated campaign promises to reopen shuttered mental health clinics, not raise property taxes, boost resources for homeless residents and “invest in people.”
“I believe what truly makes us great is our people. And not just the names that show up in our history books. But the ones that show up in our schools, on the beat, at the worksite, at the concert hall, and of course in the boardrooms and of course at the respite center looking out for strangers in need,” Johnson said after he took the oath of office.
Thousands of spectators watched as Johnson was sworn in by Cook County Chief Judge Timothy Evans at the Credit Union 1 Arena at the University of Illinois at Chicago on the city’s Near West Side. He was sworn in alongside the new City Council — which includes 13 freshman members, many of whom campaigned on pushing the body further to the left, and who also will increase the racial and LGBTQ+ diversity of the council.
“People of Chicago are counting on us to work together,” Johnson said, after turning around to applaud the new council. That gesture was in stark contrast to former Mayor Lori Lightfoot, who in 2019 sarcastically turned to the council when speaking about her intentions to root out corruption in Chicago politics during her inaugural speech.
Lightfoot welcomed the crowd “to a peaceful transfer of power” as she called the inauguration ceremony, which doubles as a formal City Council meeting, to order. She watched as Johnson took the oath of office, as is customary for inaugural ceremonies. Over the weekend former Mayor Rahm Emanuel sent Johnson well wishes from his outpost in Tokyo, where he serves as U.S. ambassador to Japan.
Lightfoot has been particularly reserved in the months since her stunning defeat in a contentious February election, holding few news conferences. The crowd applauded Monday as Lightfoot and Johnson embraced on stage.
Rev. Otis B. Moss III gave the invocation. Moss is senior pastor at the Trinity United Church of Christ and is known for his activism on racial justice.
Top Illinois officials attended the inauguration, including Gov. JB Pritzker, and leaders of the unions that helped propel Johnson to the mayor’s office, like Chicago Teachers Union President Stacy Davis Gates.
Monday’s inaugural was open to the public, but there was a waitlist for a free ticket as of last week. The arena — also the site of one of Johnson’s most energized campaign events with Vermont U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders in March — seats 9,500 people. The crowd frequently stood and sang along to the choral music and Black national anthem that kicked off the festivities during Monday’s ceremony.
Johnson started the day in Austin, where he lives with his wife and three kids, and later Monday afternoon he’s set to greet the public at an “open house” at City Hall. In the evening he’ll be back on UIC’s campus to celebrate the day’s festivities at “The People’s Ball.”
The inauguration capstoned weeks of preparation as Johnson took office amid multiple complex challenges facing the city, chief among them being an anticipated spike in violence over the summer and a burgeoning crisis of asylum seekers being sent to Chicago from Texas and Colorado.
Those will likely be Johnson’s first tests as mayor, and he addressed both in his inaugural remarks.
“There’s enough room for everyone in the city of Chicago, whether you are seeking asylum or you are looking for a fully funded neighborhood,” Johnson said.
Johnson will immediately need to figure out how to make up for the drastic lack of funding for migrants as the federal government and the state has denied tens of millions of dollars Chicago officials requested to deal with the problem.
The City Council is expected to approve $51 million in emergency funding for the crisis next week, but that funding will only last through the end of June, according to estimates from the city’s budget office under Lightfoot. And it’s far less than the more than $100 million the city says it needs to staff existing shelters while also opening more shelters and providing food to an increasing number of asylum seekers in the next two months.
Days before the inauguration, Lightfoot said the $51 million is meant in part to give Johnson breathing room to get his arms around the issue. More than 100 migrants are coming to the city each day, with that number expected to grow.
Debates about funding for migrants have been contentious both at City Hall and in predominantly Black neighborhoods where some shelters have been temporarily set up, and Johnson will have those sentiments to overcome.
“Take care of your homeless first,” a woman in the crowd yelled as Johnson spoke of providing safe harbor to asylum seekers. Johnson added it’s not a “zero sum” game.
Johnson will also contend immediately with what’s likely to be a spike in violent crime historically seen in Chicago each summer. There are around twice as many shootings here on days over 85 degrees compared to days under 50 degrees, according to the University of Chicago’s Crime Lab.
First responder officials in recent weeks have detailed plans for boosting patrols and streamlining communication between departments to deal with so-called “teen takeovers” of downtown that have turned violent, and often increase over the summer when kids are out of school. In April, two teens were shot and fights broke out during a gathering.
Johnson has promised to double the number of young people hired in the city to provide them the support needed to avoid mischief and crime. But he faces significant hurdles in doing so — the deadline to apply for a summer job supported by the city is just two weeks after he takes office, the program has struggled to bounce back to pre-pandemic levels, and Johnson will be locked into a budget set by the former administration.
He will need significant buy-in from philanthropic and corporate partners to boost the number of kids hired from around 20,000 to 40,000 in his first summer in office, and it’s unclear if he’ll get it.
In his speech Monday, Johnson said philanthropic and corporate partners are meeting “as we speak” to boost opportunities for kids this summer.
Johnson will be aided by Chief of Staff Rich Guidice — a veteran city employee who comes from leading the Office of Emergency Management and Communications — and his deputy chief of staff, Illinois State Sen. Cristina Pacione-Zayas.
Giudice and Pacione-Zayas note they first met each other while coordinating resources for Puerto Rican residents displaced due to Hurricane Maria in 2017, when Pacione-Zayas led the organization the Puerto Rican Agenda.
“[Guidice] was tasked with standing up the multi agency resource center that would provide the case management and wraparound support,” Pacione-Zayas said in a recent interview with WBEZ. “And so we worked hand in glove to make sure that that operation was not only effective, but obviously transitioned folks into our city.”
In the longer term, Johnson also has a hefty list of progressive promises he will look to make good on in his first year in office, including passing the so-called “Treatment Not Trauma” ordinance that includes the task of reopening city-run mental health clinics that were shuttered years ago. He’s also promised to reinstitute the Department of Environment, and has said he hopes to do so in his first budget. And during his campaign, he advocated for raising several different taxes — some of which he will need support from state lawmakers in order to implement.
Saqib Bhatti, the co-executive director of the Action Center on Race & the Economy, known as ACRE, said organizers are willing “to hold his feet to the fire” to make good on those promises and ensure progressives have a seat at the table during Johnson’s tenure.
A forthcoming report from ACRE and People’s Unity Platform identifies about $7 billion in new revenue and $5 billion in savings the advocacy organizations hope to see Johnson pursue. While several of the proposals are ones Johnson campaigned on — others go further, like calling for a city income tax on households that earn more than $100,000. Johnson steered clear of supporting any city income tax during the campaign.
“You can only cut so much before you’re really devastating communities,” Bhatti, who also serves on Johnson’s transition subcommittee on economic vitality and equity, said of prior administrations. “And so it’s really exciting to see that Mayor Johnson is looking at raising revenue in progressive ways by making the wealthy and corporations pay their fair share.”
In his April victory speech, Johnson also vowed to make good on his progressive promises while mending and managing relationships with those who voted for his opponent, Paul Vallas, in the race for mayor. On that front, some of the aldermen who endorsed Vallas have praised Johnson’s hiring of Guidice.
But dissimilar to Lightfoot — who was swept into office with 75% of the vote — Johnson, who won with 52%, has a large portion of the city to win over.