Chicago’s Incredibly Shrinking Mayor

May 10, 2024

A City Hall code of silence is imminent

The first few months of 2024 have been rather unkind to Mayor Brandon Johnson. A bumpy ride, Johnson has suffered a series of reversals to his progressive punch list and badly bungled several controversies.  

Since January, City Hall has continued to grapple with the nagging question of illegal migrants in Chicago. An ongoing fiasco, though City Hall did manage to remove migrants from police district stations in December 2023, Johnson has faced blistering criticism from residents who have snarled as they processed their inchoate frustration with his plan to place illegals in Chicago park district buildings or in other city-owned property. While some 16 shelters currently house thousands of illegals, Johnson has had to contend with outbreaks of disease and other maladies which have incubated at shelters. In one disturbing incident, Johnson struggled to cope with the fallout after the death of a five-year-old Venezuelan boy who fell ill from sepsis and a bacterial infection.

In mid-February, Johnson fulfilled a campaign promise to cancel gunshot detection technology, ShotSpotter. Though the mayor's decision to do away with ShotSpotter incurred the wrath of several City Council members, it was received with a round of applause from community activists. However, Johnson made a hash of the transition away from ShotSpotter by failing to broker an agreement with SoundThinking before dismantling the system. Demonstrating terrible negotiating skills, Johnson’s bumbling cost Chicago $8.6 million when he agreed to terms to extend ShotSpotter, the cost of which was more for the final months than the city had paid for the technology for the whole of 2023.

Shortly after flubbing the ShotSpotter contract, Johnson was rebuked in the editorial page of the Chicago Tribune, which described the style of governance manifest in City Hall’s decisions as “managerial incompetence.” The Tribune’s editorial board concluded its admonition of the mayor by publicly expressing its hope some “common sense” could eventually be found among the adolescent daydreamers at City Hall.

Days after the Tribune delivered its withering criticism of the mayor’s lousy management style, Johnson, in an attempt at damage control, agreed to an interview with the Sun-Times editorial board. Though City Hall had given no advance warning, as the exchange with the mayor and the board was set to begin, a Johnson press aide said the Zoom meeting was to be considered off the record. Recognizing an ambush, the Sun-Times board rejected Johnson’s preposterous conditions and the meeting was swiftly cancelled.

In what is perhaps the most significant defeat inflicted on Johnson, his prized real estate transfer tax measure, Bring Chicago Home (BCH), crashed and burned at the polls on March 19. A tax-hike proposal Johnson valued more than rubies, the mayor attributed the loss to voters not fully understanding the referendum and blamed presumptive GOP presidential candidate, Donald Trump, and right-wingers with odious views.

In a mark of how low Johnson has sunk not even one year into his term, a Harris poll revealed the mayor has managed to misgovern Chicago so badly that his approval ratings in the April poll have hit rock bottom, with only 9 percent of respondents considering his job performance as “above average.”

With Johnson about as popular as COVID-19, and with residents having little confidence he holds the answer to Chicago’s problems, the mayor recently extended his four-month-long losing streak at a National Day of Prayer service at Moran Park in Englewood on Thursday, May 2. Flanked by clergy and the modish Alderman Stephanie Coleman (16), Johnson waxed poetically about his hopes and aspirations for unity, safety, youth, and investments in the area. Johnson took advantage of the appearance to announce another “new” community safety plan for neighborhoods which suffer astonishing violence.

Surprisingly, Johnson placed no dollar amount on the new program — as is his habit — and at the conclusion of his remarks, instead of addressing media, the mayor cut and ran toward a waiting SUV, which whisked him away from a ravenous media. Reporters had sought to ask Johnson his reaction to the capture of the man charged in the April 21 slaying of Officer Luis Huesca a day prior.

An utterly embarrassing spectacle, Johnson undoubtedly made the episode worse hours later when CBS 2 reporter Darius Johnson posted on X, formerly known as Twitter, City Hall had responded to media inquiring why Johnson fled reporters with the whopper it was not “Mayor Brandon Johnson in the video and the person that is being filmed running was trying to catch the car before it departed.” A wholesale perversion of the truth, the deception was so big and so ridiculous, it served as proof the mayor’s press aides were willing to debase themselves and do reputational harm to their professions in service of Johnson.

Mayor Johnson declining to meet reporters in Englewood on May 2 was a colossal mistake from which he should not be excused. Though his aides can try to twist the incident any way they choose, Johnson hightailing it away from reporters was the mayor squandering an opportunity to articulate sincere condolences to the Huesca family for the death of their son and praise the efforts of the Chicago Police Department and the U.S. Marshals Service for successfully taking Huesca’s accused killer into custody. Johnson refusing to express sympathy for Huesca and commend impeccable police work did nothing to bridge the gap with the Huesca family, law enforcement, or the public.

More broadly, Johnson turning tail and ditching reporters following his remarks in Englewood and allowing his press office to spread obvious fabrications provides a remarkable glimpse into how Johnson will manage City Hall as Chicago enters what is expected to be one of the most turbulent periods in recent history.

Mayor Johnson evading the press revealed how he behaves in times of crisis. As for courage, nary an ounce: When sought out for comment on the murder of a police officer, Johnson shrunk from public view. A man who is only prepared to fulfill the role of mayor at intervals, Johnson only fancies the soft-lens moments when he can tear upon cue, dress-up extravaganzas, mingle with elite society -- the breezy feel-good stuff, the bubbly world with professional athletes and entertainers, occasions in which he can glow with a smile as banks of cameras click and flash.

All of this, of course, is reflected in his photo-posturing in public appearances. Though Mayor Johnson craves the image of a glittering society figure, he was elected mayor and has yet to recognize for a public man there is virtually no private life, and he is always on duty. Chicago has witnessed previous mayors avoid unpleasant topics when cross examined by media. While Chicago media can, from time to time, become adversarial, the public expects and deserves straightforward answers from city leaders. Though Rahm Emanuel had a fraught relationship with the press, he could be relied upon to provide answers to reporters. So, too, did Johnson’s predecessor, Lori Lightfoot. Although Ms. Lightfoot often exploded and bickered with reporters, she never shied away from tough questions.

Mayor Johnson thought the job of mayor would be easy. As Chicago nears another violent summer and what is anticipated to be a rollicking DNC, instead of the mayor tightening up his slackly run office, Chicago should expect Johnson to place restrictions on media access. Chicago should be prepared for less cooperation from his communications handlers, fewer or shorter press conferences after sessions of the City Council, and more fibs and “no comment” from Johnson’s City Hall press flacks.

Mayor Johnson cannot be trusted with the serious task of governing. For nearly a year, Johnson has shown Chicago he wilts under pressure and cannot think on his feet. Only a symptom of the disorder in his office and the perilous disease afflicting City Hall, Johnson ducking media seeking comment on the apprehension of Officer Luis Huesca’s accused killer revealed the mayor is a coward. An honorable man would have made himself available to reporters. History won’t look kindly on such cowardice.

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