Brandon Johnson Seeks to Reduce Inequalities through Chicago Mayoral Run
Brandon Johnson, Cook County Commissioner and Chicago mayoral candidate, says his “life shifted” over 15 years ago when he started as a middle school teacher at Jenner Elementary in Cabrini-Green.
“Cabrini Green captured the essence of the City of Chicago. You can hear, smell, and practically touch one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in the city. That was their view from the back windows,” Johnson says. “Out of the front windows were bulldozers preparing to destroy their public housing. This tale of two cities has been disruptive and isolating. That’s what this race is about and that’s why I’m running. To usher in a better, united Chicago and to disrupt the structural inequalities that have been plaguing Chicago for decades now.”
Johnson, a father of three, grew up on Chicago’s West Side, the son of a pastor and carpenter in a family of ten children. After teaching in Chicago’s public schools, Johnson became an organizer for the Chicago Teachers Union. With the union’s support, he won a seat on the Cook County Board in 2018. Once again, in his mayoral campaign, the CTU is providing most of the money as well as foot soldiers to back his run.
“The safest cities in the country all have something in common. They invest in people. And that’s what I’m going to do,” says Johnson. “I’m the only candidate that’s offered a budget plan. No one else has a plan to be critiqued.”
Johnson’s budget freezes property taxes but raises or revives a multitude of taxes “on the suburbs, airlines, and the ultra-rich” to produce $250 million dollars a year to inject fresh cash into public schools, affordable housing, and public transit.
The new taxes include:
- A surcharge on Metra fares paid by suburbanites that would bring in $40 million a year, because "the suburban tax base utilizes Chicago’s infrastructure to earn their disproportionately higher income, yet their taxes fund already wealthy towns”
- A $98 million a year tax on jet fuel used at Chicago’s airports, “making the big airlines pay for polluting Chicago’s air”
- A “mansion tax” that would raise $100 million a year, presumably by increasing the transfer tax on homes and condos that sell for $1 million or more
- Restoration of the $4 a month employee “head tax” eliminated by Mayor Rahm Emanuel on “large companies” that perform at least half their work in Chicago
- Hiking Chicago’s highest-in-the-nation hotel tax even more to produce $30 million
- Taxing financial transactions “less than 0.002 percent of a trade’s value” that would generate $100 million
Johnson says his team has also completed an audit of Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s budget that unearthed “half a billion dollars in savings.”
“Our city budget has been ineffective and inefficient. There’s a national administration to worker ratio which is ten to one. Our administrative costs are so heavy, we can save $150 million just by cutting the supervisor ratio to that level. We’d save another $20 million by modernizing our IT system,” he says.
Johnson has yet to unveil his program to reduce Chicago’s crime rate, but the Austin neighborhood resident says, “No one has greater incentive for this city to be safe than someone raising a family on the West Side of Chicago. We finally got around to changing one of the windows in our children's bedroom from one of the bullets that have come through our home.”
Johnson says his anti-crime program will include “the most robust youth hiring program, using public sector and private sector resources, the city has ever seen.”
“There’s a direct correlation between youth employment and violence reduction,” he says. “In addition, 40 percent of the calls that come through 911 are for mental health crises. We’re going to staff up for those so we can free up law enforcement to focus on violent crime. And we’re going to open the city's mental health clinics. The previous administration (Mayor Emanuel) shut them down. I fought them. And this administration (Mayor Lightfoot) refuses to reopen them. I’m going to reopen them.”
Once again, a chapter from Johnson’s personal life painfully hammered home the need for better mental health services.
“My older brother was very talented, first to go to college in our family, a saxophone player, one of the top wrestlers in the state of Illinois. But he had untreated trauma and he died unhoused and addicted,” Johnson says. “I’m confident that if we had more mental health services for him, and for Quintonio LeGrier (a West Sider with mental health issues shot and killed by police), I believe they would be alive today. My brother would have at least had access to services that would have given him the opportunity to have his trauma treated.”
As for crime on the transit system, Johnson notes, “We have over 65,000 people who are unhoused, over 20,000 of them children, and you have a mental health crisis and the CTA has been a place where all that collides. The ambassadors who are part of the CTA system are there to provide support but we have to have somewhere for the unhoused and mentally ill to go. That requires investment.”
Johnson’s two sons, age 15 and 10, as well as his 8-year-old daughter, all attend public schools. “We live in Austin and our two little ones; we take them to Portage Park. Then we circle back around, grab our oldest and take him 30 to 35 minutes to Hyde Park,” he says. “They play string instruments and no schools in Austin offer that. That’s the challenge. We believe we can change that.”
Johnson would be the first Chicago mayor in memory, at least all the way back to Richard J. Daley, to send his children to public schools. With declining enrollment and the school closing moratorium expiring in 2025, the new mayor will face politically painful decisions about whether to close more Chicago schools. But Johnson says that will be a “collaborative decision” with the City Council, teachers, parents, and state funders working with the first edition of a Chicago school board that includes elected representatives.
“I’m the only candidate in the race that fought for the passage of a Chicago elected school board. It’s what the people of Chicago wanted. That decision is going to come down to the people of Chicago as well,” he says. “The people of Chicago are finally going to have democracy when it comes to the outcome of their children.”
Johnson was asked if his close alliance with the Chicago Teachers Union might be a negative with some voters who perceive that when the teachers’ contract is up, if he’s in the mayor’s office, the union would essentially be negotiating with itself.
“No, teachers won’t be negotiating with themselves, they’ll be negotiating with the City of Chicago. They’ll be negotiating with the elected representatives of the school board,” he says. “That’s why we fought hard for an elected school board. To give the public, the citizens, a voice.”
Johnson says his big taxing and spending plan — he would say "taxing and investing" — is fundamentally based on his vision for a better life for Chicago’s middle-class families and those aspiring to be middle class.
“We have to alleviate the pressures, the burdens that parents have had in this city around property taxes,” Johnson says, “because it has been unsafe in this city and because this city has been underfunded, that’s why people have been forced out of the City of Chicago.
“My vision of the city is for a better Chicago. To repopulate the city. And to do that by investing in our children. We’ll have a climate that is safe so businesses want to continue to stay in this city. We ultimately can be a world class city if we actually invest in people.
“Lazy politicians continue to use the old style of government that continues to place the burden on working people. I’m not going to do that. The corporations and those who have the ability to invest more in the safety and security of this city, that’s what my focus is on. Anything short of that continues to leave Chicago in despair.”
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