Greg Hinz: Bigger hurdles await as Johnson tries to put the start-up blues behind him

Greg Hinz, Crain’s Chicago Business | April 30, 2024

For both fans and critics of Mayor Brandon Johnson, the last half of April has been revealing.

Johnson won City Council approval of a $1.2 billion bond issue to fund housing and economic development projects of his choice with minimal council controls, but so far has been unable to kill a plan allowing individual aldermen to keep the controversial ShotSpotter program in their wards.

He patched up a dispute with U.S. Sens. Dick Durbin and Tammy Duckworth over how to revitalize a critical terminal modernization and expansion project at O’Hare International Airport, but Gov. J.B. Pritzker and legislative leaders soundly dissed his plan to keep the Bears in Chicago with billions in taxpayer subsidies.

Meanwhile, on the crime front, Johnson had to find the right tone in dealing with both the murder of a popular young cop and the 96-bullet police shooting of a motorist who shot at them after being stopped for failing to use a seat belt.

So it has gone for Chicago’s rookie mayor as the anniversary of his first year in office rolls by in mid-May. The record is mixed — very mixed.

The question now: Will he get through his start-up blues and successfully handle the even bigger challenges that face him and the city in his sophomore year?

Despite some nasty fights and the unexpected influx of tens of thousands of refugees from the Southern border, Johnson has pretty much had his progressive way with the City Council. Allies such as Chicago Teachers Union President Stacy Davis Gates and Chicago Federation of Labor President Bob Reiter say they are pleased with his performance. Notably, so does anti-violence crusader Arne Duncan, who almost ran for mayor against Johnson. Beyond that, Johnson has shown signs of at least soothing some wounds with an irate business community, beginning to recognize that focusing on jobs and economic development is a win-win proposition, as Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce chief Jack Lavin puts it.

Chicago Teachers Union President Stacy Davis Gates has been a consistent ally to Brandon Johnson as a candidate and now as mayor.

But Johnson suffered a humiliating defeat when voters rejected his vaunted “Bring Chicago Home” plan to hike real estate transfer taxes to fund affordable housing programs. He fumbled the ShotSpotter issue, canceling and then temporarily renewing the program. And though some of his appointments have drawn wide praise — Chicago Police Department Supt. Larry Snelling and city Planning Commissioner Ciere Boatright, in particular — there is a sense among friends and foes alike that the administration of a mayor whose previous public service was limited to holding a seat on the Cook County Board of Commissioners has been too slow to staff up, too reliant on a tiny core of advisers, and too much in political debt to the CTU to survive and thrive in a diverse city with enormous needs.

“It’s like the dog who caught the fire truck,” says one City Council ally who asked not to be named. “You have to have a fast learning curve in this job. He’s got to step up his game.”

One of those key insiders, senior adviser Jason Lee, rejects such criticism and says better times are on the way. (Johnson himself was unavailable for comment for this column. Former Mayor Lori Lightfoot declined comment, and Johnson electoral foe Paul Vallas released a statement terming him “a failed teacher turned union organizer with no management skills.”) Given that Johnson had to and did deal with an unexpected influx of migrants that stressed the city’s resources, “I’m encouraged at what we’ve accomplished,” Lee says. “Of course, there’s more work to do.”

Lee points to successful approval of key progressive items, including mandatory time off, shifting priorities in the city budget and the abolition of the sub-minimum wage for tipped restaurant workers — so do key allies, such as Reiter and Gates. The latter declares Johnson has done “an amazing job,“ and denies frequent rumors that she’s a near-daily presence at City Hall. Gates even shrugs off gripes from others that there is nothing progressive about subsidizing billionaires like the Chicago Bears-owning McCaskeys, quipping, “A lot of people work in stadiums.”

Mayor Brandon Johnson stands behind Chicago Bears CEO Kevin Warren on April 24 as the team presents its plan for a lakefront stadium to the media.

Some, perhaps, unexpected applause — full-throated applause — comes from Duncan, a former Chicago Public Schools chief and U.S. Education secretary whom many business leaders strongly pushed to run for mayor in the 2023 election.

Johnson’s decision to shift from a police-heavy anti-crime strategy and better fund preventative anti-violence programs has made Duncan “more hopeful than I’ve ever been” that Chicago has turned a key public safety corner. “We’re in the ballgame in a way we’ve never been. But we have to keep at it. There’s no guarantee of success.”

Such sentiment does not appear to have sifted down to voters — at least not yet. The latest opinion poll, taken for a group headed by strategist Greg Goldner as part of the campaign against Johnson’s “Bring Chicago Home” referendum in March, found the mayor’s ratings well underwater, with just 26% of Chicagoans approving of his job performance and 54% dissatisfied. “It’s clear (Johnson) is doubling down on an agenda I’m not sure he ever had a mandate to pursue,” says Goldner.

Lee says the mayor is doing better in his own polls. He declines to release figures. However, interviews with key figures who say they want Johnson to succeed but have their own power bases, indeed, are mixed. One of those figures is Near South Side Ald. Pat Dowell, 3rd, a veteran official and former city planner whom Johnson made chairwoman of the powerful City Council Finance Committee, once the longtime power base of former Ald. Ed Burke.

“I think the mayor has done a better job than his predecessors of engaging aldermen” in decision making, Dowell says. But staffing up the administration has been “a little slow,” she added. Asked whether Johnson fully realizes that as mayor he now has to represent the entire city and not just his progressive base, Dowell replies, “No,” pointing to the tax referendum and Johnson’s decision to cast a tie-breaking vote in favor of a Gaza cease-fire resolution that was bitterly called unfair by the city’s only Jewish City Council member, Deborah Silverstein, 50th.

An equally nuanced appraisal of Johnson’s first year comes from Derek Douglas, president of the Commercial Club of Chicago and its Civic Committee, which has served as the voice of the city’s big-business community for more than a century.

“It is in all of our interest for the mayor to be successful, and it is in that spirit that we have looked for areas of alignment where we can partner with the city. A good example is public safety,” Douglas says in a written statement. “We also have been pleased to see some of his recent moves to revitalize the downtown area through the LaSalle Street (Reimagined) project and to streamline city processes for business like the ‘Cut the Tape’ initiative.”

“At the same time,” Douglas continues, “we spoke out against his decision to cancel ShotSpotter and have deep concerns about the CPS Board’s guidance to shift away from selective enrollment schools. But the lines of communication with the mayor are open.”

Says Johnson ally Ald. Andre Vasquez, 40th, co-chair of the Council’s Progressive Caucus: “There’s room for improvement.” His advice: “Focus on the things that aren’t going well” and spend less time pushing stadium plans that are “definitely concerning” to progressives.

Indeed, how the Bears stadium plays out — as well as related efforts by the White Sox to get city help in building a new stadium in the South Loop — will say much about whether Johnson really is turning a corner as a leader. So will successfully delivering on an O’Hare gates deal that does not trade the city’s long-term economic future for short-term political gain, assuring the upcoming Democratic National Convention does not give the city a 1968-style black eye, and not burdening Chicago home and office owners with an unaffordable new CTU contract.

If Johnson can do that — land a good O’Hare deal, keep the Bears and Sox in town at a reasonable cost to taxpayers, deliver a successful convention for President Joe Biden and promote a CTU contract that recognizes Chicago’s fiscal realities — his mixed start will be forgotten. It might help if he went public more often to make his own case.

If not, Chicago will have to buckle up for a bumpy next three years.