What Chicago Would Become Under Brandon Johnson

March 17, 2023

In a Brandon Johnson administration, the CTU would exercise untrammeled power

As the Lori Lightfoot experiment in the Windy City draws to an ignoble end, Chicago is nearing a runoff election which features two Democrats, Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson and former Chicago Public Schools CEO Paul Vallas.

Crime hovers over these elections far more than anything else and support for Mr. Vallas is largely coming from voters for whom “law and order” are not dirty words. Further down on the far-left of the political spectrum, support for Mr. Johnson is mainly found among democratic socialist voters who are intrigued with Johnson’s platform of vastly expanding Chicago’s social welfare system. Johnson is promising to be a gust of fresh air to Chicago who will bring seismic change with his “Better Chicago Agenda.” Progressives believe Johnson’s ideas are better as they will promote prosperity, human flourishing, and what the Founding Fathers referred to as “the public good.”

An attractive platform for progressives of every demographic stripe, to achieve his gleaming vision for Chicago, Johnson’s plan — to the extent that there is a plan — is to raise revenue to finance massive outlays for the arts, transportation, public schools, affordable housing, and medical and mental health. Johnson unequivocally insists there will be no increases to property taxes, but is proposing a raft of new levies on hotels, real estate and financial transactions, an employee tax, an airport tax, and a surcharge placed on commuters.

Unable to contain his impulse to raise taxes, Johnson claims extracting $30 million from hotels by “strengthening” the Chicago Hotel Accommodations Tax will light a fire under tourism. Johnson asserts as much without explaining how the travel and holiday industry will surge in a Chicago which already ranks near the top nationwide for taxes on hotels. To raise a further $20 million, Johnson is proposing to revive the Big Business Head Tax. Retailing it as a bargain with which business owners will not be hindered, Johnson is placing a “historically low” $4 figure only on “large” firms which conduct more than 50 percent of output within the bounds of Chicago. Unsurprisingly, Johnson declines to define what precisely comprises a “large” firm.

To generate further revenue, Johnson is advancing a Chicago Jet Fuel Tax. A tax which is intended to appease environmental alarmists, Johnson refers to “big” airlines polluting the oxygen we breath, but is not unnerved enough to mention a remedy to mitigate the threat posed by aircraft polluting our air. Evidently, as long as the sky is not falling, Johnson will pull in another $98 million.

Of his more substantial demands, Johnson is presenting a tax on high-value properties. The Chicago Mansion Tax, Johnson says, will raise $400 million by increasing a transfer tax “exclusively” on high-value properties. Using intentionally vague language, Johnson avoids specifically designate a minimum threshold a home becomes “high-value.” In a gesture lifted from Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders’ political user manual, Johnson is bidding for a Big Banks Securities and Speculation Tax, which would raise $100 million from a fee imposed on securities trading contracts. Last, in another soak-the-rich proposition, Johnson is tendering a user fee for the affluent — city dwellers, suburbanites or visitors to Chicago  — whose lifestyles afford them entry to high-end Chicago businesses.

To pursue a good governance pledge and identify savings, Johnson is also advancing a plan to perform a critical audit of government. According to Johnson, the audit will save $500 million by streamlining Chicago’s tangled and oppressive bureaucracy. Johnson says $170 million can be saved by slashing administrative personnel and IT costs. Johnson also claims another $100 million in savings can be found at the Chicago Police Department (CPD) and by reorganizing city employees’ healthcare plans.

Johnson’s plan to complete a through review of government is not a plan; it is a fraud and an insult. By availing himself of the old canard of cutting “waste, fraud, and abuse,” Johnson is admitting he is baffled over how to pay for his policy proposals and preferences, at least not without raising unpopular taxes.

With crime continuing to harrow Chicago, Johnson says he has a plan to address the epidemic of violence on the streets by pouring money into housing, schools, and public health. While Johnson’s proposal to reopen public mental health care facilities, the Missing Persons Initiative, and reintroducing Career and Technical Education into Chicago’s public schools is laudable, much of Johnson’s plans are in preparation for a dramatic shift from traditional policing and are unlikely to lead to Chicago’s neighborhoods being liberated from the grip of violent crime.

Arguing for more efficient and effective measures to solve Chicago’s intractable crime, Johnson is campaigning to drastically increase youth summer employment, the establishment of a Trauma Response Network inside public schools, and support for two ordinances, Treatment Not Trauma and Bring Chicago Home.

Regarding CPD expressly, Johnson is vowing to place limitations on police execution of search warrants, pledging cooperation with the Community Commission for Public Safety and Accountability, and the creation of non-CPD, civilian mobile response units to meet the challenges of the mental health crises. Furthermore, Johnson is proposing an end to the use of ShotSpotter technology, the elimination of the “racist” gang database, and the publication of all demographic data related to police stops. Johnson is also assuring neighborhood groups a larger role in solving neighborhood disturbances.

Like many democratic socialists, Mr. Johnson is advocating for a retreat from traditional policing, preferring to substitute officers with community organizers settling neighborhood disputes and mental health personnel to address “non-violent” calls. Though Johnson advances his public safety pitch as a matter of urgent necessity, he does not consider the dangers surrounding transforming social workers into first responders. A plan which is deeply invested in reconceptualizing police as an institution of last resort, Johnson’s plan takes no account of the potential hazards of, for example, domestic calls.  

Johnson’s public safety plan does nothing to address crime head on. While mental health experts and social workers perform a great service — often without acknowledgment — to the criminal justice system, neither social workers nor “violence interrupters” enjoy a reputation for settling discord outside office therapy sessions. Moreover, social workers and mental-health professionals have not demonstrated the capacity to break up a riot, prevent a gang shooting or intervene to stop a carjacking from taking place.

Brandon Johnson’s public safety plan seeks to reduce crime simply by redefining the word and expanding the definition of “mental health episode.” A new tack for his foremost goal of defunding CPD, Johnson’s public safety plan has been cast to remove from police the most effective tools to confront crime, endow police with feeble resources with the expectation CPD will produce better results.

While Johnson’s positions on taxes and the safety and security of residents are deeply concerning and certain to accelerate Chicago’s decline, perhaps what is most frightening about his campaign for mayor is his base of support, the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU).

Formerly a trade union, the CTU has undergone a gradual transformation into a fully-fledged political party under the radical leadership of the Caucus of Rank-and-file Educators (CORE). Known for its vile extremism, since CORE seized control of the CTU, it has staked out radical positions on crucial issues such as taxes, abortion, guns, health care, capitalism, and housing, which are far more liberal than the whole of Chicago.

Though the CTU postures itself as a tribune of the people, it is a pretense to mask its true objectives: Enacting an uncompromisingly radical platform and exercising political power. In Brandon Johnson, the CTU believes it will see its radical goals realized. A former union organizer, Johnson was a key figure in the 2012 CTU strike, which paralyzed Chicago for weeks.  

Although Mr. Johnson poses as an independent man, his campaign is not merely intertwined logistically, operationally, and strategically with the CTU, but is rather utterly reliant upon the teacher’s union to hold his hand and chaperone him through the world of Chicago politics. Since Johnson announced his campaign for mayor, CORE leadership has sunk millions into Johnson’s campaign.

With Brandon Johnson occupying City Hall, the Chicago Teachers Union will be dictating policy, so it is not difficult to speculate on what to expect if he is elected mayor. Should Johnson occupy the mayor’s office, progressive social priorities would take precedence over all other issues, and the solution for all problems would be found in higher taxes and considerable public spending. Though Johnson has regularly claimed tax increases will not include property assessments, it strains credulity Chicago’s social maladies will be mitigated through a $1 billion boost in taxes.

Although Johnson’s options to generate revenue are limited, they are not nonexistent. Despite his denials, to achieve the level of revenue needed to enact his “Better Chicago Agenda” and appease his progressive and DSA base, Johnson will likely propose a municipal income tax as a rate of 3.5 percent. At this rate, Johnson could expect close to $2.5 billion in tax revenue. Though an act as immense as adopting a municipal income tax for Chicago would require legislative action in the Illinois General Assembly, with Democrats in firm control of the governor’s mansion, both Houses of the IGA, and the CTU lobbying, Johnson would face few obstacles in Springfield to gain approval for a city income tax.

To paper over low student achievement, the CTU will demand amendments to academic standards and the elimination of testing. To protect the tenured radicals in Chicago public schools, the CTU will clamor for the disposal of any teacher accountability devices in the 2024 contract discussions. To increase the ranks of the CTU, CORE leadership will press for — and Johnson would relent — to lowering class size.

On public safety matters, Johnson would take a cue from the CTU and reduce CPD's budget. Comparatively, at the behest of the CTU, Johnson will decline to fill vacancies at CPD, sideline police, and delegate policing responsibilities to violence interrupters. For good measure, Johnson will also support the manifestly failed criminal justice reform policies of Kim Foxx. Though it remains to be seen how far Johnson is willing to stretch the boundaries of executive power, there is every reason to believe Johnson would have no qualms about disregarding legal hurdles to achieve sweeping changes through mayoral executive order.

Lori Lightfoot is leaving both Chicago and her successor in a lurch, but Brandon Johnson is not the sort of heir presumptive Chicago can survive.

A man with virtually no executive experience, Johnson is a career union organizer whose political career is best summarized as a cog in Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle’s machine. With an eye toward the mayor’s office, Johnson has spent the better part of the several months assuring his supporters he is touting the proverbial free lunch: A free health care system, free housing, free public transportation, and free education. As free lunches do not exist, someone would have to pay for all this — presumably the rich. While taxing the wealthy in order to pay for a government handout system sounds like a good idea — and is an easy sell to a gullible audience — it is just another version of the old “tax-the-rich” routine which generally invites harm on the city’s economy, upon which every Chicago resident depends.

Johnson is attempting to find a way to pay for what will be could well be another mammoth city entitlement. However, the outcome will be comparable to the results achieved elsewhere under similar policies. Under Johnson’s confiscatory tax plan, the city’s economic engine will slow, and job creation will suffer. Under Johnson’s public safety plan, crime will remain uncontained, criminals will continue to control the streets, and the law-abiding will live in fear. Under Johnson as mayor, the Chicago Teachers Union will exert its malevolent control over City Hall. The combination of economic decline, surging violent crime, failing schools, and burdensome taxes will accelerate Chicago’s tax base’s flight elsewhere.

Though the vision articulated by Brandon Johnson has Chicago as a workers’ paradise where poverty, homelessness, and crime are banished, under his plan, in four years Chicago will resemble Seattle’s brief “grand experiment in self-government,” the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone (CHAZ).

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