Chicago Is Trapped in the Jaws of an Ideologue Mayor

April 4, 2024

Ideologues make poor elected officials

Last April, in an election that saw one of the lowest voter turnouts in recent memory, Chicagoans elected Brandon Johnson mayor with 52 percent of the vote. 

When voters sent Johnson to City Hall, they thought they had elected a former CPS teacher, an organizer with the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU), and a Cook County commissioner as its 57th mayor. Johnson’s resume is undeniably true. 

Nonetheless, Chicagoans also elected a left-wing ideologue as mayor.

During the 2023 mayoral campaign, Johnson rejected the police-first crime fighting strategy supported by his moderate opponent, Paul Vallas, instead favoring a "root causes" approach to law enforcement. However, Johnson sheepishly backed away from his 2020 statement that defunding the police was “an actual, real political goal,” In a debate with Vallas, he claimed: “I said it was a political goal. I never said it was mine.”

Yeah, right. 

Johnson's transition report was filled with plans to enact progressive reforms, including putting the Bring Chicago Home ordinance on the ballot. A “yes” vote on that referendum would have raised the real estate transfer tax on properties valued over $1 million, while slightly lowering it on transfers below that amount. 

"Us versus them!" they seem to say. "Eat the rich!"

Despite the rosy projections of raising the real estate transfer tax, last month, voters rejected the referendum at the polls. Astonishingly, when asked about the defeat of the referendum, Mayor Johnson deflected from the flaws of Bring Chicago Home and blamed its defeat on supporters of Donald Trump. Only four years ago in the 2020 general election, Trump collected a meager 15 percent of the vote in Chicago.

Ideologues speak in absolutes. They are not so good at practicalities. Brandon Johnson's inner circle is filled with like-minded thinkers. The one major exception was chief of staff Rich Guidice, who announced his resignation after the defeat of Bring Chicago Home. The mayor's closest allies on the City Council are its progressives and the members of the Chicago Democratic Socialist Caucus.

Johnson lives and governs in a leftist echo chamber.

It is not just a government thing, there are ideologues in the private sector too. Think of, for example, a holder of an MBA who one day is your new boss. Everything is by the book — his book — the MBA Book. However, the MBA Way doesn’t work in the real world — the non-academic world. Or on the other hand, imagine an old-timer managing the office next to yours, who says: “We did things that way in the 1980s, it worked then, and it cannot possibly fail now — we’re not changing!” 

Unless these corporate ideologues change course, both end up failing and getting fired. 

But in government it's possible for bad leaders to fail upwards — Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg comes to mind — as does Brandon Johnson. That critique of Johnson might seem harsh, but can anyone name one accomplishment during his five years as a county commissioner? Johnson certainly didn’t campaign on any. A middle approach to governing is better. 

A classic movie offers another lesson.

In the 1975 film Jaws, the old sea salt, Captain Quint, mocks the rich college graduate marine biologist Matt Hooper for bringing sophisticated nautical gear onto his boat as they embark on their mission to slay a killer shark terrorizing the inhabitants of tiny Amity Island. The captain knows everything about subduing sharks, right? The great white shark proves the captain wrong. After handing Hooper and Chief Brody life jackets, Quint humbly asks: “Hooper, what exactly can you do with these things of yours?”

Hooper devises a plan to slay the man eater, but this, too, fails. Eventually, Brody, in a haphazard but effective fashion, kills the shark by shooting a compressed air tank lodged in the great white's mouth.

Chicago needs a similar approach to Brody's outlook regarding governing, sans the explosion of course. Ideology is not an effective tool to govern.

At a press conference on Monday, Johnson announced the hiring of Sendy Soto as Chicago's first homelessness officer. In this role, Soto will be responsible for creating a five-year plan to address homeless issues. The timing is convenient for the mayor, as the plan will expire two years after Johnson's first term ends. 

Consistent with much of what Mayor Johnson has proposed in his first year in office, Soto did not offer specifics on how her plan will address homelessness. 

The lesson from other cities is not encouraging if you hope for success in the fight against homelessness in Chicago.

Decades ago, in 1993, Los Angeles and Los Angeles County created the Los Angles Homeless Services Authority. Only eight years ago, San Francisco ignored the fiasco in Los Angeles and created its Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing in 2016. By all accounts, the homeless population has soared in both cities since the creation of these agencies.

Johnson, rather than expressing humility on the defeat of Bring Chicago Home at the Soto press conference, doubled down on his absolutist us-versus-them rhetoric. “If my advocacy is defiant,” Johnson bellowed, “what does that say about the systems who wish to keep people without dignity and unhoused? I call it wicked.”


In a civil society, political opponents are not deemed "wicked" by those in leadership positions. Ideologues speak in that manner. And Chicago has an ideologue as its mayor.

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