• Michael McDevitt
    SEP 08, 2023

    Johnson addresses Economic Club to talk public safety, education, downtown revitalization and the upcoming budget

    Mayor Brandon Johnson answers questions from Chair Sean Connolly at the Economic Club of Chicago on Sept. 7, 2023. [Don Vincent/The Daily Line]

    Mayor Brandon Johnson spoke about his policy goals just past the one-hundredth day of his term in office to business leaders at the Economic Club of Chicago Thursday night.

    Following prepared remarks, Johnson answered questions on issues affecting the city such as public safety, education and economic development. He also touched on what to expect from his first budget proposal, which is expected to be unveiled in several weeks. 

    Johnson was asked how his view of the mayor’s office has changed since assuming the role in May. He said that he’s developed a newfound understanding for the weight of the position.

    “There is a certain element and a dynamic of the role that you may not be able to appreciate unless you've done it,” Johnson said. “What I can say, though, (is) that I am incredibly humbled by this opportunity. I don't come from political legacy. None of my parents and relatives were ever in politics or government, and to be embraced by the city of Chicago when no one knew my name a year ago.”

    Johnson was asked for his leadership influences, and he named his father, a pastor, and Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, a former county board colleague and someone who shares Johnson’s background as a social studies teacher. Preckwinkle was in attendance Thursday.

    Amid concerns about persistent downtown office vacancies and the overall health of the city’s central business district, Johnson was asked how his policy goals would affect and impact the city’s commercial center.

    The mayor said he believes downtown is yet to reach “full capacity” but is also well-positioned to recover from the challenges it faces if business leaders centered downtown embrace risk and innovation and recognize the desires of Chicagoans who work downtown, and who want to spend money on dining and entertainment when they’re not on the clock.

    “People in the city of Chicago are hungry,” Johnsons said. “So the central business district has an opportunity to feed the desires that exist, but it's really going to require us to be thoughtful, to be innovative, and, yes, to take some risk, but that's who we are as a city.”

    Johnson was also asked about his public safety approach and how he plans to balance his approach to tackle the root causes of crime and violence with the immediate need to respond to safety concerns in the city. 

    The mayor noted his support for the hiring of 200 additional detectives as well as his support for Treatment Not Trauma, a policy proposal that would deploy counselors and other mental health professionals to behavioral health related calls and would seek to mitigate or outright eliminate the presence of armed police as responders on those calls. 

    “We're asking police officers to do too much,” the mayor said about his support for alternatives to policing in mental health crises. 

    Johnson also said his summer jobs program for youth was one of the more immediate ways to combat violence and crime.

    “We immediately hired 24,000 young people to work,” Johnson said. “If we're saying that part of what makes a city safe is creating opportunities and investment, we've done that already.”

    As Johnson prepares to release his first annual spending plan in mere weeks, he was asked Thursday night if he plans to increase pension funding or plans to raise taxes to pay for that or anything else.

    While Johnson said he believes the city has become too reliant on property taxes and that “everything is on the table,” he also emphatically endorsed the city’s obligation to pension recipients as a “responsibility.”

    “I've been very committed and dedicated to make sure that we are protecting and securing those who have served this city,” Johnson said. “You spent 25, 30 years serving this city, and then we get mad at them because they want to be taken care of for doing the work of the people? … I'm going to lead to make sure that people who serve this city should be protected in their retirement.”

    Finally, Johnson, a former teacher and Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) organizer, was asked to grade the city’s public education system. 

    Johnson said it was tough to grade a system that has not even “fulfilled its basic obligation” to provide an equitable education across the city. The mayor went on to decry the “repulsive” disinvestment in schools in underserved neighborhoods and said his administration would prioritize education policy that addressed student’s needs.

    “Many of those schools are in such a bad shape right now that it would cost $13 to $15 million just to repair those buildings,” Johnson said. “And they're sitting in the middle of the very neighborhoods that have already experienced disinvestment. That’s so gross to me. It's repulsive. It demonstrates a lack of care and appreciation and love and value, particularly, for Blackness, who bore the brunt of failed policies.” 

    But Johnson said that his lived experience as a parent, teacher and CTU member makes him uniquely qualified to “help navigate negotiations” between labor and management. He said this was on display when his administration announced a new 12-week paid parental leave policy for Chicago Public Schools employees that came as a result of collaboration between both sides.

    Although he said students and employees will always be front of mind.

    “So everything that I do is going to work to ensure at the fiduciary that the other side of that deal responds to needs of those who rely upon the system and those who actually carry out the work,” Johnson said. 

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