Since his inauguration in May, Mayor Brandon Johnson has spent the summer meeting with community members across Chicago ahead of the upcoming budget season. One of those meetings took place in July in the Winter Garden at Harold Washington Library, where hundreds of youth gathered for the fourth edition of the city’s 2024 budget engagement roundtables. 

At these roundtables, residents outlined their top priorities and concerns in front of city officials including Johnson, since-fired Chicago Department of Public Health (CDPH) commissioner Dr. Allison Arwardy, Garien Gatewood, the city’s new deputy mayor for community safety; and Jen Johnson, the new deputy mayor of education, youth, and human services. They discussed everything from affordable housing and mental health to environmental justice and immigration. 

At this particular youth-only roundtable, they explored how the city could improve community safety and fund youth-centric programming citywide.

At his table, Austin native Terrence Smith facilitated a conversation about safety. His group spoke at length about the need for community-based activities for youth in Austin, considering the neighboring affluent Oak Park has numerous youth activities. He suggested programming such as Movies in the Park, adding that Austin has numerous vacant lots where such activity can take place.

“I appreciate the mayor and everybody who came and listened to us actually speak our truth, and hopefully, we can do more things like this with more political figures,” said Smith, a 2023 Austin College and Career Academy High School graduate. “I feel like hearing out the youth is very important to change the future because we have to run the future.”

Youth and other attendees left the roundtables in hopes that city officials will actually use their ideas and feedback to set priorities, thereby allowing community members to shape city spending.

“I learned that young people have a lot of ideas,” 22-year-old Z Saj said following the budget engagement roundtable. “We are very good at addressing what the problem is, but sometimes we struggle to figure out what those solutions are.” 

Johnson is perhaps the most progressive mayor that Chicago has seen since Mayor Harold Washington, but can Mayor Johnson’s administration implement many of the progressive policies it campaigned on?

While there are some early indicators that Johnson would continue to lead with communities at the table, the jury is still out on just how much of his progressive agenda will be upheld. Given the institutional constraints, pressure from the business class and other challenges to progressive policy, organizers, activists and progressive alders are anticipating the need to help Johnson stay true to his campaign promises by holding him accountable and demanding co-governance throughout his term. 

Though Johnson’s promises on the campaign trail offer insight into what values he may prioritize, the administration’s first budget address, in mid-October, will be an important test of his progressive bona fides.

“Actions speak louder than words, as they say. So, really, we’ll see what this administration prioritizes,” said Kofi Ademola, co-founder of GoodKids MadCity (GKMC). He also served on Johnson’s public safety transition committee. 

“So, if we see a reduction in the police budget, if we see investment in the Peace Book [ordinance], Treatment Not Trauma, Bring Chicago Home, etc., then that’ll be some good cues, some good indicators as to the direction that this administration wants to go,” Ademola explained.

Pressure from both sides

With Johnson at the helm and progressive City Council members there to help push his agenda forward for the next four years, the current moment signals the possibility of a future with roots in the city’s abolitionist, Civil Rights and Black power movements. It’s also been buoyed by a similar type of Black and brown coalition-building that began under Mayor Harold Washington and later re-emerged through the Movement for Black Lives, the campaign for an elected representative school board and community oversight of the Chicago Police Department (CPD), to name a few.

Mayor Brandon Johnson along with a few city council members meeting & actively listening to the youth
Mayor Brandon Johnson listens as youth discuss community safety during the fourth edition of the city’s 2024 budget engagement roundtables at Harold Washington Library on July 25, 2023. Photo by Tonia Hill for The TRiiBE®

During his historic campaign for mayor, Johnson promised to prioritize the passage of Bring Chicago Home, an ordinance that would increase the real estate transfer tax on sales valued at more than $1 million to create a dedicated revenue stream to address homelessness. He also touted the Treatment Not Trauma ordinance, which calls for health professionals, not police, to respond to mental health crises. In addition, he called for doubling youth employment. He promised to enact each of those things in his first 100 days

Neither proposal has come up for a full vote, but each has had public hearings in their respective City Council committees within the last month.

“Within the first two City Council meetings, we’re moving towards the passage of Bring Chicago Home,” Johnson said during a brief one-on-one interview with The TRiiBE on Aug. 18. “[Previously], Treatment Not Trauma never got to a hearing. People never got a seat at the table and were totally ignored for years. We’ve already had a hearing, and we’re moving towards the passage of Treatment Not Trauma.” 

In the 100 days since Johnson assumed office, he extended 12-week paid family leave to include Chicago Public School (CPS) employees, signaling collaboration and relationship-building between the mayor’s office, CPS and the Chicago Teachers Union. Johnson also restructured City Council committees and the Chicago Board of Education, increasing the number of committees from 19 to 20 and installing his allies as leads to help advance his agenda. 

In addition, he added $51 million in additional funding for asylum seekers, and tapped Chicago Police Department (CPD) Chief Larry Snelling as the next superintendent, pending approval from the City Council. The latter decision drew some criticism from the organizing community, as Snelling, who has spent 28 years with CPD and has been accused of misconduct in the past, will be tasked with reforming the department and bringing it up to speed with a federal consent decree. 

Johnson and other Chicago progressives believe their desired future is within reach. Still, it will take time to undo decades of disinvestment in public services and Black and brown neighborhoods as well as stalled progressive policies, such as Treatment Not Trauma and the Peace Book ordinance, all of which they say they’ve inherited from previous administrations.

“So, of course, we’re level setting, and we’re moving at a pace that is certainly expeditious, but also recognizing that these are policies that had been delayed for years in the city of Chicago,” Johnson said.  

Voters who supported Johnson and the new slate of progressive alders in City Council have an appetite for transformation, and some are looking for their elected leaders to move with a sense of urgency to make those policies a reality. 

“The people that we do this work with and for can’t wait on us to figure out how to get it right,” said Kennedy Bartley, executive director of United Working Families (UWF), an independent political organization. Bartley also served as part of Johnson’s 400-member transition team

Since its formation in 2015, UWF has set out to transform the city’s political landscape by training, recruiting and supporting the political campaigns of Black and Latiné candidates. UWF was among the first to endorse Johnson’s campaign for mayor and organized on his behalf.  

“I’m really grounded in the fact that we are the first to do it in this way, right? There isn’t a major U.S. context or major U.S. city context for co-governing, towards progressivism, or towards the transformation for the many. And so, there’s pressure to get it right the first time,” she continued.  “People are still dying premature deaths, people are still houseless, and that’s increasing. Wealth gaps are still increasing, so there feels like a real urgency at this moment.”

Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th), a member of the City Council’s progressive caucus, echoed her sentiments. 

“We are responding to the needs in our community, with a government apparatus that has atrophied, that has been starved of resources, that has been intentionally privatized and defanged and disempowered over decades of neoliberalism,” he said. 

Progressives like Bartley and Ramirez-Rosa are no strangers to this type of pressure. They hope supporters will hold them accountable, work alongside them and continue entrusting them to follow through on their progressive agenda. 

“I feel confident that the majority of people will remain with us because we’re fighting for justice, and I think the majority of people want justice,” Bartley said. 

The goal, Ramirez-Rosa said, is to rebuild “the government’s capacity to deliver for people and deliver for them in a meaningful way, and that’s going to take time because we didn’t get here overnight.”

How should voters hold progressive leadership accountable?

In mid-October, Johnson is expected to give his first budget address to the Chicago City Council, and that speech—and where and what he decides to fund or reduce spending on—will be telling, according to GKMC founder Kofi Ademola.

Former Mayor Lori Lightfoot ran as a reformer and co-opted the language and concerns of young Black and queer organizers to aid her mayoral campaign in 2019. But once in office, Lightfoot increased city spending on the Chicago Police Department from $1.7 billion in 2021 to $1.9 billion in 2022. 

If the 2024 budget looks neoliberal or cuts spending to public goods in favor of privatization or is similar to Lightfoot’s, then Johnson is just giving “lip service,” Ademola added.

During a January interview with The TRiiBE, Johnson said, “The police budget is almost $3 billion, and our communities aren’t safer.  I don’t know how we can continue to go down a path that has demonstrated that it doesn’t work.

If Johnson’s actions contradict his campaign promises, “then it’s time to turn up,” Ademola said. “You always have to be critical and skeptical. The system is what it is, so inherently, it’s going to function a certain way no matter who you get in office.”

Johnson’s public safety committee outlined recommendations in the transition report that include, ending the gang database and ShotSpotter, investing in the Peace Book ordinance and Treatment Not Trauma, expediting the CPD consent decree compliance and ending the police department’s historic pattern of misconduct. 

On the campaign trail, Johnson vowed to end ShotSpotter; however, he approved a $10 million payment for ShotSpotter in June. A mayoral advisor said Johnson’s signature was unknowingly added to a document authorizing a ShotSpotter contract extension that was originally approved by former Mayor Lightfoot. 

During a one-on-one interview with The TRiiBE on Aug. 18, Johnson reiterated that he doesn’t see the gunshot technology as a “forum to build a better, stronger city for Chicago.” Nor was the payment a “pivot from his campaign promise.”

“There’s a contract, and it’s not expired,” Johnson explained. “There are a lot of contracts that I’m committed to that predate me, and when those contracts are up for either renegotiation or up to end, then people should hold me accountable.”

Asiaha Butler, a longtime Englewood resident and founder of Residents of Greater Englewood (R.A.G.E.), also said examining what the administration prioritizes is key to understanding what it values and prioritizes. She was a part of Johnson’s transition committee on housing. Butler founded R.A.G.E. in 2010, and its mission is to create tangible solutions and mobilize residents and resources to restore Englewood. R.A.G.E. has a program called Buy the Block, where they offer training to empower Englewood residents who are interested in homeownership. 

Butler was also a member of Lightfoot’s transition team. Though they recommended a series of improvements for housing citywide, Butler said she would have liked to see more of them introduced to the City Council during Lightfoot’s administration. 

“The machine is so well oiled that I think once you actually get in office, I don’t know how they’re un-oiling that machine. I think that’s some of the internal work that has to happen as much as they are aspiring to be progressive and aspiring to do those things,” Butler said, referring to the Johnson administration. 

This time around, Butler would like to see the Johnson administration enact some of its goals, which include increasing opportunities for homeownership and wealth building, protecting tenants from displacement and providing unhoused people with safe, quality and affordable housing. 

“I still think it’s folks within these walls on the fifth floor that says, ‘No, Chicago has always been done this way, and yeah, that’s really cute what you want to do, but it doesn’t go down like that.’ I’m hoping that’s not what we will see in the future with us,” Butler said. 

 

After securing his win in the April 4 runoff, Johnson said he wanted to enact a freeze on the transfer of Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) land to non-housing uses — a move consistent with community organizers calling for city leaders to put a moratorium on CHA land transfers to create a plan for replacement housing, which was promised when the high-rise project homes were demolished between the late 1990s and 2010s. 

Instead of providing new units to people previously pushed out of public housing, two recent controversial land swaps under Lightfoot have led to the construction of a new $150 million open-enrollment school near the South Loop and a Chicago Fire Football Club practice facility for professional soccer. Public housing advocates are waiting to see if Johnson will deliver on this promise and honor residents’ right to return.

Co-governance is the model

In 2022, 15 city council members stepped down, announced plans to retire or launched campaigns to challenge Lightfoot in the 2023 mayoral election, which led to a wave of progressive and diverse voices being elected to the council. 

Some alders, such as Ramirez-Rosa (35th), Rossana Rodríguez Sánchez (33rd), Jeanette Taylor (20th), and new progressive City Council members, such as Angela Clay (46th) and Jessie Fuentes (26th), have roots in community organizing. 

That experience, Ramirez-Rosa and Rodríguez Sánchez, has prepared them to introduce issues to their constituents and colleagues in City Council, who may not hold those same views. 

Rodríguez Sánchez said the progressive caucus does not have a majority in the City Council. There are 15 progressive caucus members in the 50-person council. Still, even without it, they are always willing and prepared to mobilize and advance progressive policy. 

Rodríguez Sánchez’s Treatment Not Trauma ordinance emerged from a campaign pushed by a coalition of community members, alders, social workers and youth. She introduced it to the City Council’s Health and Human Relations Committee in 2020. Organizers are hoping that the ordinance will pass under Johnson’s administration.

“In terms of this moment that we’re in now, we have made way more inroads to be able to have conversations with people that might be towards the middle, like people who are being moderate, but like sometimes will fight with progressive ideas. It’s a lot easier to talk to people like that because now we are in power. Now there is respect for us,” she explained. 

That hasn’t always been the case. For example, when Ramirez-Rosa was elected to the City Council in 2015, he was its lone progressive voice.

Ramirez-Rosa recalled being the only alder to vote to delay then Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s $95 million cop academy in West Garfield Park. Lightfoot approved another $20 million for the controversial project. Black youth organizers with the #NoCopAcademy campaign pushed back against the facility, which ultimately opened at the beginning of this year.

Alderman Carlos Ramirez-Rosa is looking up at a presentation
Alderman Carlos Ramirez-Rosa at official City Council meeting on May 24. Photo by Tyger Ligon for The TRiiBE®

According to youth organizers, investing more in the police would mean more violence for Black and brown communities. Instead, through their grassroots campaign, youth organizers in organizations such as Assata’s Daughters demanded that the city fund and provide resources for schools and youth. 

“I called through to many of my colleagues to ask them to stand with Assata’s Daughters and the broader #NoCopAcademy coalition and campaign. A number of them told me that they would and that they would join me in voting no,” Ramirez-Rosa said.

“I felt like we had really good conversations, and then when the vote finally came, no one ended up voting, except for me, in opposition to the police academy,” he continued. 

That and similar moments were frustrating. Still, Ramirez-Rosa said, when movements come up short, talking to neighbors, engaging in political education, community meetings, rallies, press conferences and more create momentum around grassroots movements, which can lead to transformational change. 

Ramirez-Rosa pointed to the campaign for an elected school board and the formation of police district councils as models for movements that led to progressive wins. For Ramirez-Rosa, transparency and democratic decision-making are essential for maintaining partnerships with community members. 

“When we talk about collaborative governance, it means don’t just say I’m in an ivory tower, making all the decisions for the community, it’s actually saying, come on, community, let’s come into the halls of power, and you hold the reins of power with me,” Ramirez-Rosa said. 

Freshmen City Council member Ald. Angela Clay (46th) is the first person of color elected to represent the 46th Ward. The North Side ward includes Uptown and parts of East Lakeview. 

 

She stressed the importance of community members being a part of the decision-making. In July, Clay hosted a community meeting for residents to weigh in on the former site of the American Islamic College becoming a migrant shelter. 

“When the decision was made to open a temporary migrant shelter in our ward, neighbors did have feelings about it, which, rightfully so,” Clay said. “This is their community, and I want to make sure that we are balancing all things and making sure that our community residents and our new neighbors have what they need.”

The temporary migrant center opened in the final week of July. At publishing time, 750 people are housed at the temporary site. 

“Our neighbors respected the opportunity we gave them to express their concerns and hear them out. We still have a responsibility to care for every single neighbor in this city,” she said.

is a multimedia reporter for The TRiiBE.