Brandon Johnson Takes Control in Chicago

May 24, 2023

Mayor Johnson’s inauguration should be treated with the contempt it deserves

In oratory, brevity is almost always greater. In the course of American history, inaugural addresses have varied in length, tone and substance.

In 1789, George Washington delivered his inaugural speech to a joint session of Congress in New York City’s Federal Hall. In his address — which required a mere ten minutes to utter — Washington spoke of his wish to build public confidence in the office of the president. Some 75 years later, Abraham Lincoln stood on the East Portico to preach a message of healing following the Civil War. Lincoln spoke, powerfully, for five minutes.

In his inaugural address at Credit Union 1 Arena on May 15, Mayor Brandon Johnson delivered a 45-minute dirge on the wonders of government.

An affair with extravagant secular pomp and ceremony, the trouble with Johnson’s inaugural started early and persisted throughout the event. After aldermen, both state and federal lawmakers, and guests were seated, Johnson had yet to raise his hand to be installed as mayor before a thick resentment began to pervade the hall. Following the performance of the National Anthem, a rendering of the black National Anthem took place, and was followed by a brief address delivered by Melodi Serna of the American Indian Center of Chicago.

Poisoning the atmosphere, Serna aired historical grievances over stolen land, colonialism, and the ethnic cleansing of the indigenous population. While she raged into the microphone from the dais, Ms. Serna conveniently ignored the fact she was privileged enough to stand on a stage to preach a hatred for Chicago and declined to acknowledge no one living is responsible for the past treatment of the indigenous. Remarkably, Ms. Serna’s venomous words were met with round of loud and passionate applause from some lawmakers, guests, and the audience.

After Serna imparted her hostile sentiments, a string of Chicago’s spiritual leaders delivered remarks marinated in woke ideology, all intended to portray Johnson as some sort of new age messiah. In the midst of clergy portraying Johnson as the Second Coming, activist poet laureate Avery Young then issued a forgettable ode, the thrust of which was to raise the specter of “police brutality” against activists. Though Young’s tone was rather affable, the passage “nightsticks to dodge” was deliberately intended to keep police reform on the fore and spread cynicism about police intent.

By the time Johnson took the podium, a noxious distillation of indignation and social justice grievances had been fanned out over the entire arena. Seeking to shift the tone from wrath to civility, Johnson spoke of being humbled by his election as mayor, recalled his upbringing with fondness, and mentioned being reared in a home filled with the love and affection.  

While Johnson’s delivery was fine, the speech itself was mediocre: It was at times banal, and relied often on stale platitudes. It was also often overburdened with campaign sloganeering, with the new mayor robotically repeating “the soul of Chicago,” “building a better, stronger, safer Chicago,” and “let’s do this together.”

Though Johnson’s captivating theme was ostensibly unity and the inaugural speech was delivered with his characteristic cheerfulness and optimism, it was not without low points. Early on, Johnson invoked freshman Congresswoman Delia Ramirez. Mentioning Ramirez served two purposes. First, as the daughter of two immigrants from Guatemala now seated in the U.S. House of Representatives, referring to Ramirez helped Johnson subtly declare his support for Chicago’s sanctuary city policy. Second, it allowed Johnson to cannily elevate Ramirez — a career community organizer and progressive activist — beyond her relative stature to portray her as a progressive goddess and an accomplished legislator.

Though it was a patently absurd to depict a novice lawmaker and provincial activist as an elder statesman, Johnson’s attempt to cast Ramirez as a brilliant policymaker was innocuous in comparison to what followed. Shifting from topic de jour, the need for more revenue, Chicago's “underfunded” schools, and a shortage of affordable housing, Johnson repositioned to draw a comparison between the deaths of Officer Aréanah Preston and apprentice gang member Adam Toledo, intoning:

“You know, the tears of Adam Toledo, his parents, the tears of Adam Toledo’s parents are made of the same sorrow as the parents of Officer Preston’s parents.”

A disgraceful juxtaposition which should never be forgotten or entirely forgiven, while the parents of both Officer Preston and gang member Adam Toledo both lost loved ones, Johnson’s comparison between Preston and Toledo is not merely hurtful and misleading, but a flat-out falsehood.

A differentiation redolent of Johnson’s April finger wag reprimanding critics of rambunctious teens engaged in criminality downtown as guilty of a moral failing, the contrast the mayor drew between Preston and Toledo fails on numerous levels. Foremost, it disregards the fact Officer Preston opted for a career with the Chicago Police Department (CPD) because she sought to become a part of the fulcrum which upholds the law and maintains order on Chicago’s streets. A woman wholeheartedly devoted to Chicago, Preston entered law enforcement to bring rescue to victims of crime, solace to the suffering, and aid to the injured. In stark contrast, Adam Toledo was a gang recruit who was in the early stages of gang life. Gang life, needless to say, revolves around spreading mayhem, terrorizing neighborhoods, and murder.

Though Mayor Johnson carefully worded his comparison between Officer Preston and intern gang member Adam Toledo to cast it only as an expression of sympathy for grieving families, his words had a malicious intent. Words which betrayed his hostility with CPD, Johnson drew the contrast to inveigh against police and portray Toledo’s death at the hands of CPD as an officer murdering with impunity. To Johnson and his anti-police chums, Adam Toledo is a victim of “state violence.” The politicization of a police shooting, Johnson is either consciously avoiding or willfully blind to the truth police do not have criminal intent, but Officer Preston’s assailants did. Similarly, Johnson also blurted out the absurd comparison to convey his allegiance to Chicago’s anti-police movement and send Chicago the message he intends to use Chicago Police as a foil for the duration of his term as mayor. An attempt to draw an equivalence between criminal behavior and a justified police shooting, Johnson aimed to both elevate Adam Toledo to martyr in the fight for social justice and to erode at the distinction between police use of force and criminal behavior.  

A comparison utterly at odds with the truth, Mayor Johnson’s comparison between the deaths of Officer Aréanah Preston and a gang member was more than ignorant: It flouted decency, disgracefully dishonored Officer’s Preston’s memory, and attempted to pay tribute to a gang member for his deliberate involvement in criminal activity.

Johnson’s inaugural speech was divisive theater

Mayor Johnson’s inaugural address was just theater. Though it was impressive and captivating theater, it was, nonetheless, theater. In his inaugural speech, Johnson created more theater in his words, making fantastic promises and creating moods and emotions. In this sense, the setting for Johnson was exceptional: A sign of Chicago serving as a backdrop, a stage filled with radical activists and union members, music, activist speakers, and a huge and adoring crowd.

A man with a thin public record, with few governing achievements, and severely limited experience, other than rely on the saintly figure the image makers at the CTU and SEIU created during the campaign, Johnson did little to convince Chicago he is prepared to lead the Windy City. The examples of Johnson authoring meaningful legislation, administrating over a corporation or bureaucracy, or standing up for principal in which he could incur a cost simply do not exist.

What Johnson did accomplish was to diligently apply a lofty vision with lofty rhetoric but with few details. Though Johnson’s words were at times elegant, well crafted, and moving, they are still only words. Pure theater, while an inaugural speech is not the occasion in which an elected official is required to roll out a specific, point-by-point plan to address the city’s problems, Johnson’s use of hackneyed bromides — the mechanic repeating of “better, safer, stronger Chicago” — made Johnson more closely resemble a motivational speaker hawking empowerment videos than a mayor prepared to lead a city facing multiple crises. Johnson fails to understand politics must be more than theater.

Despite the excessive theater, the overweening drama did not mean the speech was unimportant. It was, in fact, quite significant in terms of highlighting Mayor Johnson’s cast of mind and how he understands, or fails to understand, the moment in which Chicago finds itself. Although Johnson’s inaugural gala was conceived as a grand unifying event, underneath the calls for unity in the speech rest deep divisions. A speech designed to hold Johnson above reproach, the worst excesses were expressed by Johnson surrogates. In defiance of the message of unity, Johnson inviting Melodi Serna to express unbridled vitriol against whites was deeply offensive. While no one believes Chicago is without a catalogue of sins, Johnson allowing Serna to deliver remarks reveals the new mayor is eager to remind Chicago of its impure past and his willingness listen to activists bicker about outdated grievances.

Beyond this, Johnson spoke as if he were living in an alternate universe. A firmament in which the city’s debt, pension crisis, hopelessly failing public schools, and violent crime are nonexistent or were dealt with as mere trivialities. While Johnson did mention schools, the need for housing, and rising rents, Johnson’s call for increased revenue to solve these matters only showed Chicago his answer to the city’s problems is to continue recycling the timeworn and ineffective policies the progressive left has been peddling for decades. As Johnson's term unfolds, residents should expect the mayor to throw money at his policy preferences and declare them solved.

Mayor Johnson’s inaugural speech reaffirmed he is a man of the far left. Instead of delivering a frank, hard-hitting speech with some details over how to address Chicago’s nagging problems and reassure residents who are unnerved with public debt, violent crime, and failing schools, Johnson stuck to platitudes and spent most of the speech championing an array of new programs and explaining why he believes we need to expand the size, reach, scope, and cost of Chicago government. Worse, instead of taking advantage of inauguration day to acknowledging Chicago’s greatness and promoting it as a city which is already diverse and inclusive, Johnson strengthened tribalism and divisiveness.

No mayor can change a city in one speech. However, in Mayor Johnson's inaugural address, he failed to find the strength and grace to bridge divides and unite in a common effort. If any such message of unity existed on May 15, it was brief and drown out by a melodrama of wokeness, social justice, revenge, and bitterness.

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