Chicago Mayor-elect Brandon Johnson’s political rise comes at a time when the national conversation on how to deal with crime is chock-full of tropes and misconceptions about Black communities. The 47-year-old Democrat and former social studies teacher provides not only hope, some residents say, but a rigorous, multipronged strategy for grappling with the issue.
Even as recent shootings draw scrutiny to his vision for Chicago, Johnson, who assumes office on May 15, has vowed to direct funds toward intervention methods to deescalate conflict and address the risk factors associated with crime, including exposure to violence, inadequate housing, and insufficient educational and professional opportunities.
By contrast, earlier this year, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser, a Democrat, pushed back against City Council efforts to update the criminal code. She angered Black residents and was criticized for seemingly endorsing GOP messaging that D.C. is a uniquely perilous place.
Too many Democratic leaders, including Black Democratic leaders, appear to lack the courage to give a full-throated argument that they refuse to be boxed into the tidy categories of pro- or anti-crime, pro- or anti-police, said Andre Perry, a senior fellow at Brookings Metro.
And while there’s no one city that gets handling crime “right,” some experts point to Baltimore and Cleveland as examples of cities successfully tackling a complex problem. To Black Chicagoans, Johnson’s approach echoes this work.
“I’m the mother of a teenage son and a teenage daughter I raised here in the [largely Black] Roseland community, on the city’s far South Side. I was terrified over the thought that [2023 Chicago mayoral candidate] Paul Vallas might win,” said Pilar Audain, the Chicago Community Trust’s associate director for Truth, Racial Healing, and Transformation — Greater Chicago. “Johnson embodies the fresh leadership we’ve been looking for, as people of color face an eroding quality of life.”
Though Vallas, a former education superintendent, is a member of the Democratic Party, he previously suggested that he’s “more of a Republican than a Democrat.” And on the campaign trail, he latched onto cops-and-crime rhetoric that’s common among the GOP but that unsettles Black Chicagoans, who are disproportionately harmed by aggressive policing.
“We’ll have a mayor who will listen to the public, particularly poor people and young people, because the past mayors we’ve had have not done that,” Robert Starks, a professor emeritus of political science at Northeastern Illinois University, told The TRiiBE in April.
Audain added that what she especially admires about Johnson is his Better Chicago agenda — “bullet point by bullet point,” she said, the Cook County commissioner’s plan articulates the needs of a city afflicted by the country’s widest racial gap in economic mobility: budget transparency, investment in neglected communities, and affordable housing.
“Johnson’s platform represents the voices of the people of Chicago, of those of us who’ve historically been marginalized by racial inequality and notions of human hierarchy,” Audain said. “He’s a regular guy like the rest of us who work hard every single day in the concrete jungle to feed, love, nourish, and protect our children and families.”
Already, Chicagoans have gotten a preview of Johnson’s manner of governing. In April, 15 young people were arrested after large crowds gathered downtown and two teenage boys were shot near Millennium Park.
In her statement, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, a Democrat and the first out gay Black woman to lead a major U.S. city, chastised parents and guardians, who “must know where their children are and be responsible for their actions,” because “we as a city cannot and will not allow any of our public spaces to become a platform for criminal conduct,” adding, “instilling the important values of respect for people and property must begin at home.”
Johnson, in his statement, took a noticeably different tack. He condemned the “unacceptable” violence, which he said “has no place in our city.” But he balanced that criticism with an awareness of the structural issues that fuel crime and chaos.
“It is not constructive to demonize youth who have otherwise been starved of opportunities in their own communities,” the mayor-elect said. “Our city must work together to create spaces for youth to gather safely and responsibly, under adult guidance and supervision, to ensure that every part of our city remains welcome for both residents and visitors.”
Crucially, Black people are no monolith, and are often divided — by generation, location within a city, and income bracket — on how they’d like to see crime managed. But Johnson’s embrace of a holistic strategy is harmonious with expert opinions on how best to handle crime.
“We shouldn’t have trade-offs where we say, ‘In order to have a safer community, we have to get rid of people.’ It should be, ‘Let’s create a safer community and add income and improve quality of life,’” Perry said. “It’s true that crime is a problem — but so is over-criminalization.”
Johnson and Lightfoot’s dueling responses to the recent disturbance illuminated a powerful ideological contrast.
“It was a tale of two ideologies. You had Lightfoot, who comes from the ivory tower, versus Johnson, who’s a West Sider and who raises his family in one of the hardest-hit communities in the entire city and taught at a school where it was more common to lose your life by 16 than it was to graduate high school at 18,” said native Chicagoan Ameshia Cross, a higher education professional and a Democratic strategist who supported Johnson over Vallas.
Lightfoot entered office in 2019 as a reform candidate. But especially at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, she clashed with teachers’ and police unions over school reopenings and crime spikes. These skirmishes isolated Lightfoot from some of the most influential forces in this year’s mayoral race: The mighty teachers’ union backed Johnson, while Vallas secured the Chicago Fraternal Order of Police’s approval.
“For all intents and purposes, Lightfoot ran Chicago as a conservative. She didn’t run it as a moderate. She definitely didn’t run it as a progressive,” Cross said. “And I think that we’re going to see stark changes, because with Johnson, we’re talking about somebody who doesn’t just resemble the community he’s from — he brings that community with him.”
A break with mayors in other cities
Notably, Johnson’s progressive bona fides distinguish him not only from Lightfoot but also from several of his Black Democratic counterparts elsewhere.
Take Bowser, the D.C. mayor. Just in January, she infuriated a number of her constituents when she vetoed the City Council’s bill to update D.C.’s century-old criminal code by jettisoning some mandatory minimums and reducing other maximum sentences. The council voted to override the mayor’s protests, saying in a release that “decades of dramatic increases in incarceration have not been a solution to rising crime.” But the House and Senate passed Republican-led resolutions to block the bill, and President Joe Biden signed the measure.
“I support D.C. Statehood and home-rule — but I don’t support some of the changes D.C. Council put forward over the Mayor’s objections — such as lowering penalties for carjackings,” Biden tweeted in early March.
To many, Bowser’s actions felt like a betrayal of D.C.’s Black residents, who stand to benefit the most from a criminal code that demonstrates a level of restraint, and a capitulation to the GOP. Its members often paint as too lenient on crime even moderate Democratic leaders, including New York City Mayor Eric Adams, whose tactics recall 1990s-style policing.
“It’s frustrating to be in a city with a Black mayor people on the national stage point to as progressive when people here wouldn’t describe her that way,” said Patrice Sulton, the executive director of the D.C. Justice Lab, a nonprofit organization that seeks large-scale changes to the local criminal legal system. “For [national Democrats] to point to Bowser and for her to give them cover is disturbing. I don’t think that would’ve happened if we had an all-Black City Council and a white mayor, because this entire thing has boiled down to optics.”
These political divides illustrate a deep unease among some Black Democratic officials, according to Perry, the Brookings senior fellow.
“There’s anxiety that the Republican opposition will overwhelm them with a narrative that they’re being soft on crime when they can actually be pro-police. People are so insecure — and understandably so — that white voters will respond to crime above every other aspect of life that they fear that being perceived as soft on crime will hurt their candidacy or their ability to deliver legislation,” he said. “We have to learn to articulate that we must address preventative measures of crime. And that means having local budgets reflect the needs for education, recreation, and recovery. It’s also OK to say that we want quality policing, not necessarily more policing.”
No city is perfect when it comes to tackling crime, said Perry and his colleague Hanna Love. But Baltimore, where Mayor Brandon Scott is treating gun violence as a public-health crisis, and Cleveland, where Mayor Justin Bibb is creating a “continuum of prevention, intervention, communication, and community-building activities” together with more standard-issue law-enforcement strategies, have elements of successful approaches.
Many Chicagoans, especially those from marginalized groups, believe that Johnson can put their city on a similar path.
“Much of Johnson’s appeal in this city ravaged by violence and crime is his emphasis on community investment and on alternatives to policing to restore order here,” said Audain, the social justice advocate. “I’m just excited to see how he uses his platform.”