Mayor Johnson at 6 Months: The Biggest Challenges to His Administration
Chicago’s ever-evolving migrant crisis remains the most significant challenge facing Mayor Brandon Johnson at the six-month mark of his tenure, according to political analysts interviewed by The Chicago Defender.
With the Winter season approaching, his administration has had to quickly institute measures to sustainably support new arrivals in a humanitarian crisis not of his own making.
By now, the story is well known. In March 2021, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott instituted an operation that he says was launched to address border security concerns in his state. What resulted is the bussing of migrants, primarily from countries like Venezuela, to sanctuary cities like Chicago, New York, Los Angeles and Denver.
In the city, migrants continue to sleep on police station floors, tents and temporary shelters while the city plans to develop base camps to house them during the colder months.
On Friday, the city instituted a 60-day shelter limit for these new arrivals, meaning they would be limited to about a two-month stay at a facility before seeking permanent housing under Mayor Johnson’s plan.
Gov. J.B. Pritzker announced he would spend an additional $160 million to help support the migrants, only a reprieve that demands hundreds of millions more to address over a sustained period.
The Defender interviewed Ameshia Cross and Ted Williams III about how Mayor Johnson is doing at the six-month mark of his tenure. In part 2 of our report, we go in-depth about Johnson’s immediate and longer-term challenges.
Ted Williams III: This migrant crisis is his major issue. When I think about where he is and what has been challenging for him, there is no issue more difficult.
He’s an educator. He’s a member of the faith community. Those groups are very connected to the African-American community. But African Americans feel very threatened by this migrant issue and are upset that he has announced that [the city] is opening 10 new migrant shelters.
They’re opening a shelter downtown, and they found the funding for that. There are people in the African-American community who say, “Wait a second, how can you find the money for this right now, and we have these 68,000 homeless people in Chicago right now?”
To me, that’s his issue. If he handles this well, he can get re-elected. If he does not handle this well, he will be a one-term mayor. And I hope that is not the case. I think he is a decent mayor and a decent human being.
If he gets half of what he wants to get done, this will be a very different city. Yet, when I say challenging, you never necessarily get to choose in politics what your crises are going to be, right? – Ted Williams III
Ameshia Cross: They’re the same things that have challenged administrations before his. I would argue that crime is definitely one, crime and violence. Even though certain types of crime have gone down, what has resulted is an uptick in certain crimes, like what we’ve seen in carjackings, which isn’t solely exclusive to Chicago. It has taken place in [Washington, D.C.]; it has taken place in New York and it has taken place in Memphis. Those crimes are up no matter where you are in this country at this point. Part of that is due to the pandemic woes and an economy that has not reached back to everyone equally. And we’ve seen an uptick, particularly among young people, getting involved in those levels of crime, like teenagers and middle school kids.
Brandon Johnson’s administration is working to respond to a crisis that, again, is not a crisis exclusive to Chicago. It is a crisis that we’ve seen across the country.
However, we also know that this requires a different way of policing. And he has spoken to this multiple times, where it’s not just looking towards the police as your first line of defense. It also looks at the root cause of why we’re seeing these upticks in certain types of crimes.
It is also paying attention to what police officers need. We don’t have enough people on the force. There are people retiring faster than we are replacing them. In the same way, we are seeing what is happening with the teacher workforce, and we’re seeing it with the pipeline for police officers.
As an example, one of the things that [Washington, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser] did was to increase police officer pay, in addition to providing them certain levels of housing subsidies, so that they can actually afford to live in the city. You’re going to have to incentivize, particularly for that force, for individuals to want to enter it and stay. It is a very difficult job. And it is one that has, at least at this point in our nation’s history, gone through many ebbs and flows.
We can talk about police changes and police reform and also talk about the need to have police officers in their roles while not expanding those roles to make them the first line of defense when there’s a mental health issue or the first line of defense when a parent has a young person who is having a disturbance.
Some cases require wraparound resources and services that are more clinical than they are policing. One of the things that [Brandon Johnson’s] administration is working very hard on doing is making that distinction.
Mayor Johnson’s Main Challenges in the Short, Medium and Long Term
Williams III: I think his biggest challenge is communication. People have no idea what’s being done on the fifth floor of City Hall. I’ve met with some of the folks in his administration and had this conversation, and they have agreed that they have not done well in talking about the money going to benefit people experiencing homelessness in the city of Chicago; this [“Bring Chicago Home“] referendum that is going forward; the new positions that focus on issues that have not been dealt with for generations. The desire, if you will, to bring community groups to the table and have them move forward with initiatives dealing with crime and violence and more economic opportunities. What he really has is a communication and perception issue.
We live in a world where sound bites are king. And so, Brandon Johnson gets on television after some kids riot and says don’t demonize young people. People run with that. They start using that on social media, talking about, “He has no sense of accountability for these folks.”‘
That’s not what he was saying at all. He was talking very clearly about how we have to stop using language that divides us, and we have to figure out how we move forward together, that we can do both. We can fund businesses and support businesses in the community.
We can take care of our homeless. We can also deal with migrants who are coming across the border, and we can also deal with our schools. There’s a real “both-and” effort similar to what Dr. King was talking about, rather than the “either or.” So, he has to be able to tell his message better and get his message out. And that just has not happened.
Cross: In the short term, obviously, the migrant crisis. That’s not going to go away anytime too soon. The other thing is there’s an anticipation of an uptick in violence close to the holidays. If there are more robberies and violence, that would be problematic in the short to medium term.
Probably, a longer-term issue is going to be the business community [in Chicago]. The business community has, in many senses, turned its back on or has made it very difficult for Brandon.
I think it would be that way for anyone who pushed for a progressive agenda or anyone who pushed for an agenda that defined equity as its landmark, as its north star. There have been way too many people who have become millionaires and beyond in Chicago off the backs of Black and Brown communities, particularly the Black community, and have not shared the wealth.
This is a Mayor who is calling on them to do more. This is a Mayor who is trying to build a city of inclusivity, and that does not sit well with a lot of people. His policies are being met with almost a war. And it’s sad because he ran on the very things he is working to do now.
And did he expect to have all those things check the box by the end of his first year? Absolutely not. But I do think he is working in earnest to get them done.
And to do that, to basically create a totally seismic shift on the way Chicago has operated for generations, away from what I would argue has been very hurtful to the Black community, but other communities of color as well, that takes time. That takes effort, and that takes a whole hell of a lot of courage. And he is bringing all of that to bear at the same time.
He is making sure that Chicago is the standing city on a hill, not only for wealthy White people. – Ameshia Cross
Describe Mayor Johnson’s Tenure in a Word or a Phrase
Williams III: Promising yet challenging. If you look at what’s on paper, what he is desiring to do. He wants to develop a permanent youth council through the public schools where students are getting some level of access to governing and leadership roles.
He talks about guaranteeing college funding for kids born in Chicago. He campaigned on building a public bank to address the lack of access to loans for marginalized communities. He wants to do city-level reparations. He wants to build a workers’ rights community initiative solely focused on workplace equity — and universal childcare in the city.
These are groundbreaking initiatives. These are very progressive initiatives. These are potentially “New Deal” type initiatives that could have the same impact on our city that the New Deal had on the federal government and the nation.
If he gets half of what he wants to get done, this will be a very different city. Yet, when I say challenging, you never necessarily get to choose in politics what your crises are going to be, right?
I’m sure Lori Lightfoot would have chosen not to be Mayor during COVID if she had the choice.
[Mayor Johnson] walks in and has to deal with this very large migrant issue. And I think that, once again, we have great promise and great hope. But if we don’t get through this, all those dreams will not materialize because he’ll have to focus on dealing with this issue. And as Abraham Lincoln said, “You can please some of the people, all the time. You can please all of the people some of the time, but you can’t please all of the people all the time.”
If he moves these folks into homes and gets the people off the street with a humanitarian effort, some people will be happy, and some will be very upset. If he does nothing about it, some will be happy, and some will be upset. And if he deports them all or tries to move out of the country, some will be happy, and some will be upset. And this is the kind of crisis that is almost a no-win. This is why I use the term “promising yet challenging.” If he can get to those things, there’s a lot of hope there. But I’m not sure that the circumstances of life and the city and the nation will allow him to focus on his very promising initiatives.
Describe Mayor Johnson’s Tenure in a Word or a Phrase
Ameshia Cross: Deliberate. This is an administration that’s deliberate. It is an administration that puts equity into advocacy, and no matter what, he is not wavering from that. I applaud him, especially at this time in our nation’s history where anti-[diversity, equity and inclusion] efforts are taking shape. We’re seeing funds being removed from certain areas, and the levels of support that we saw in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, we’re not necessarily seeing any more from the business community or others.
To be someone who is standing out in equity right now, in a nation that is more racially divided than it has been since my grandmother’s time, that’s a very difficult thing to do. For a Black mayor who came up through the organizing roots, who was an educator, who was part of a union that, depending on who you ask, isn’t one that people always appreciate.
For him, this speaks to who he is.
It speaks to what his values are. It speaks to what he has aligned his administration with in terms of the value systems, specifically around equity, civil rights and justice.
He is making sure that Chicago is the standing city on a hill, not only for wealthy White people. But we can also say, if you’re a Black person from South Shore, a Black person from Englewood or a Black person from North Lawndale, he wants that city to be one that everyone can know, love, appreciate and have opportunity in.
And for many, many Mayors before him, it hasn’t been.
Tacuma R. Roeback is the Managing Editor for the Chicago Defender.
His journalism, non-fiction, and fiction have appeared in the Smithsonian Magazine, San Francisco Chronicle, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, The Tennessean, South Florida Sun-Sentinel, Phoenix New Times, HipHopDX.com, Okayplayer.com, The Shadow League, SAGE: The Encyclopedia of Identity, Downstate Story, Tidal Basin Review, and Reverie: Midwest African American Literature.
He is an alumnus of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, Chicago State University, and Florida A&M University.