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Can Brandon Johnson Save Chicago?
A report from Clifton Roscoe
In just over a week, Brandon Johnson will officially take the reins as mayor of Chicago. There is a widely shared perception that the city is at an inflection point. In some neighborhoods, crime and disorder are out of control. Businesses are relocating, people are moving, and, as a consequence, the tax base is shrinking. It’s a complex state of affairs that threatens to plunge Chicago into social and economic collapse, and Johnson must take action.
I’m not the only one who thinks so. Today, fan-favorite Clifton Roscoe returns to the Substack to lay out the tasks confronting Brandon Johnson. In the essay below, he walks us through the city’s crime, policing, education, and economic problems, and makes clear that Johnson is going to have a tough time maintaining the support of his base while doing what needs to be done.
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The decision by Chicago voters to make Brandon Johnson their next mayor was a big deal. It reverberated nationally and within Chicago. Progressives around the country see Johnson's victory as a confirmation of their policy ideas. Georgia Democrats thought they had the inside track to host their party's 2024 national convention after they helped Biden become president and won two US Senate seats that gave their party a razor-thin majority. A few days after Johnson's victory, however, the decision was made to host the convention in Chicago. Johnson wasn't the favorite when Chicago's mayoral election cycle began and several prominent state and local politicians favored other candidates. He’ll have to mend fences with Chicago's City Council if he wants a good working relationship with them.
Johnson also needs to build a working relationship with the Chicago Police Department (CPD). That won't be easy, since the union that represents many Chicago cops endorsed his opponent, Paul Vallas. Equally important, CPD is currently understaffed and without a permanent leader. The acting superintendent has indicated he will retire on the same day that Johnson takes office. Today is the deadline to apply for the position, but only six people had expressed interest as of April 26th according to CWB Chicago. That compares to 25 applicants during the last search (2020), 39 applicants during the 2016 search, and 44 applicants during the 2011 search. An executive search firm has been hired to find more candidates.
The friction between Mayor-Elect Johnson and Chicago cops is palpable. This excerpt from an article by NBC's Chicago affiliate makes the point.
Paul Vallas and Brandon Johnson have criticized Chicago Fraternal Order of Police president John Catanzara’s recent remarks about the mayoral election that warned of mass resignations and “blood in the streets’ if Johnson is victorious.
“If this guy gets in, we’re going to see an exodus like we’ve never seen before,” he said, before adding that there would be “blood in the streets” if Johnson wins.
Catanzara also predicted that 800-to-1,000 officers would leave the force if Johnson wins.
Catanzara's made his comments before the runoff. There's anecdotal evidence that Chicago cops haven't responded well to Johnson's victory. Here's an excerpt from an opinion piece by the Chicago Tribune Editorial Board:
During the recent teen melee in Chicago’s Loop, one especially troubling report emerged.
According to a report by WGN News, a woman said she tried to flag down Chicago police officers in a squad car to stop an assault in progress, but the officers chose to drive away.
The woman, Lenora Dennis, then reportedly drove the couple, the victims of the alleged assault, to a police station where they all talked to a desk sergeant. Apparently this sergeant said, “This is happening because Brandon Johnson got elected.”
These are issues that concern all Chicago residents. A critical issue for the coalition that elected Johnson is whether he can boost the outlook for black and brown youth.
Let's start with some basic statistics. I'll focus on four areas: family structures, family incomes, education, and crime. The majority of Chicago's black and brown babies are born to single mothers, according to this analysis from Wirepoints.
That's important because there's a huge household income gap between those headed by single mothers and those headed by married parents.
Another issue is that Chicago's black and brown students don't do well in school:
The district level proficiency numbers are 15% for math and 20% for English Language Arts according to the Illinois Report Card. The racial makeup of the district is 47% Hispanic, 36% black, 11% white, 4% Asian, and 2% other. Seventy-seven percent of district students are low income. It is worth noting that Chicago Public Schools spends more than $29,000 per pupil.
I've included several graphics from Wirepoints. They are the best source I've seen among Chicago media outlets for data-driven analyses of difficult problems.
Chronic absenteeism (i.e., missing 10% or more of school days) is a key contributor to the under performance of black and brown students in Chicago. Data from the Illinois Report Card shows that 54% of Chicago Public Schools' black students and 44% of their Hispanic students were chronically absent in 2022. The pre-pandemic numbers were better, but still problematic. More than 30% of Chicago Public Schools' black students and more than 20% of their Hispanic students were chronically absent in 2019.
Mayor-Elect Johnson is a former teacher and a paid Chicago Teachers Union organizer. He earned just under $392,000 from the CTU while he was a Cook County Commissioner according to this report from Chicago City Wire, which includes links to CTU filings with the U.S. Department of Labor. In addition, Illinois Policy reports that loopholes have allowed Johnson to earn $1.1 million in public pension benefits despite teaching for only four years. Johnson was still a CTU employee when he won the runoff. It's fair to question whose interests Johnson will prioritize as mayor and to what extent he'll attempt to reform CPS instead of maintaining the status quo. Some take stock of Johnson's close ties to the union and question whether the CTU is Chicago's new political machine.
As worrisome as the education statistics are, crime is the issue that most people associate with Chicago, and rightly so. Chicago has led the nation in total homicides for many years. Per capita homicide numbers are problematic as well. This graphic comes from a separate Wirepoints link:
Blacks and Hispanics account for almost 95% of Chicago's homicide victims:
Many of Chicago's homicide victims are black and brown children.
So what can Mayor Johnson do to boost the outlook for Chicago's black and brown youth?
It's unrealistic to expect him to strengthen family structures. There's not much he can do to boost incomes for single mothers either, unless he expands the Guaranteed Income pilot program that was started last year. It provides $500 per month for one year (with no strings attached) to 5,000 low income households. The program ends on May 13th. Researchers from the University of Chicago will evaluate the program and its impact afterwards, but it's not clear that money will be available to extend the program even if the evaluation is favorable
Johnson can attempt to boost investments and the quality of life in black and brown neighborhoods, but that's not easy. Chicago has struggled to get businesses to set up shop and stay in these communities. Walmart just closed half their stores in Chicago, including a store in the Chatham neighborhood that had a training center designed to help people acquire the skills needed to compete for good jobs.
Here are two graphics that highlight the issue:
It's hard to do business in places with this much crime. Last year, Walmart’s CEO said that increasing theft could lead them to close stores. Whole Foods and Aldi also closed stores in minority communities within the past year.
Crime and policing may be the most pressing issues facing Johnson when he takes office. Violence tends to peak during warm weather months. That's an ongoing concern in Chicago. The city also has to prepare for the 2024 Democratic National Convention. So what can he do about crime? What should he do? Mayor-Elect Johnson didn't ask for my advice, but three things seem obvious:
1. He has to find a good leader for CPD.
2. CPD's new superintendent has two potentially conflicting objectives: They have to build relationships with citizens across the city and they have to rebuild CPD. The odds of a criminal being arrested for even serious crimes are incredibly low. These graphics speak volumes about CPD's effectiveness:
These stats shouldn't surprise anybody given how understaffed and demoralized CPD is these days.
3. Johnson has to demonstrate real leadership. He has to convince his base that they'll be treated fairly by CPD, but he also has to win over those who didn't support him by rebuilding CPD and restoring public safety. That's a tall order!
There's a lot riding on Johnson's success as Chicago's new mayor. The city is facing many challenges, not the least of which are population loss and a shrinking tax base. IRS migration data illustrate the problem. Tax payers who recently moved report their new addresses when they file their tax returns. Data for 2021 shows that 72,168 tax filers moved into Cook County (Chicago sits within Cook County and accounts for about half of its population) in 2021. Their households accounted for 107,732 people and they collectively had $5.95 billion in adjusted gross income (AGI). That averages out to just over $55,000 per person. Cook County lost 113,542 tax filers in 2021. Their households accounted for 193,137 people and they collectively had $13.66 billion in AGI. That averages out to just under $71,000 per person.
The net effect is a loss of over 85,000 residents and $7.7 billion in AGI. To put these numbers in context, Cook County had 1.97 million non-migrants file federal tax returns in 2021. Their households accounted for 3.77 million people with a combined AGI of $187.17 billion.
These numbers tell us a couple of things:
1. The folks moving into Cook County have less income than those moving out of Cook County
2. Cook County lost about 2.3% of its residents and 4.1% of its collective AGI in one year. Those kinds of numbers should worry city leaders. They presage chronic fiscal shortfalls and a slowly dying city.
Long term trends are also worrisome for at-risk black and brown youth. A new analysis from researchers at Northwestern University, “Nonfatal Firearm Injury and Firearm Mortality in High-risk Youths and Young Adults 25 years after Detention,” was recently published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA). It shows that 25% of young black and brown males who were involved with the criminal justice system were eventually shot or killed over the course of a 25 year analysis. They were 23 times more likely to die of firearm injuries than the general population.
Brandon Johnson will become Chicago's mayor on May 15. He will have to strike a balance between the demands of several groups of stakeholders. Progressives will want him to address the various forms of inequality—income, wealth, life expectancy, food deserts, violent crime, poverty, etc.—that exist within Chicago. They'll also want him to stay the course when it comes to reforming CPD and the criminal justice system. Others, including business leaders, will want Johnson to keep his promise not to raise taxes. They'll also want him to boost public safety, to restore a sense of order in the city, and to reform the public schools. Public sector unions will expect Johnson to be responsive to their needs since their efforts helped elect him.
Mayor-Elect Johnson has to stop the population losses if he wants to put Chicago on a better path. This issue stymied his recent predecessors, Lightfoot, Emanuel, and Daley. It's not clear that Johnson will embrace the kinds of policies needed to right the ship. To be fair, transformative change is difficult in Chicago, given its political environment. Much of Johnson's base strongly supports the policies that created Chicago's problems. There are also entrenched interests that support the status quo, since it works for them. Mayor-Elect Johnson may be facing “Mission Impossible.” Time will tell whether he's up to the job. More than one term will be needed to turn Chicago around, even if he over-performs.