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HomeUSAWhat Chicago’s New Mayor Says About the City’s Biggest Challenges

What Chicago’s New Mayor Says About the City’s Biggest Challenges

It wasn’t long ago that Brandon Johnson, 47, was a county commissioner and teachers’ union organizer, unknown to many Chicagoans. On Monday he was sworn in as the city’s 57th mayor.

Mr. Johnson’s rapid ascent from political obscurity to the helm of America’s third-largest city was fueled by an unapologetically progressive platform, a gift for retail campaigning, and enthusiastic support and money from organized labor. He knocked out the incumbent mayor, Lori Lightfoot, in the first round of balloting in February, then beat Paul Vallas, a far more conservative and well-funded Democrat, in the runoff last month.

Now comes the hard part.

Mr. Johnson inherits a proud city that has not fully emerged from its pandemic funk. Chicago’s downtown is emptier, its public schools have fewer students, and crime rates remain far higher than before the pandemic.

In an interview last week at his transition office along the Chicago River, Mr. Johnson said he was cleareyed about the scope of the challenges awaiting him but confident about the city’s trajectory.

Here are some of the biggest issues facing Chicago, and what he had to say about them:

“It’s important that the city of Chicago has confidence in the superintendent. That’s someone who understands constitutional policing, but someone who also understands that public safety is an overall goal that cannot be confined to policing.”

The superintendent selected by Ms. Lightfoot, David Brown, resigned after she lost re-election, leaving the embattled Chicago Police Department under interim leadership. Mr. Johnson, who before running for mayor expressed support for removing some law enforcement funding, will soon have to select a permanent superintendent.

Mr. Johnson said he would seek someone who understands Chicago and could earn the trust of rank-and-file officers, but also someone who shared his view of policing as just one part of a broader safety strategy. He said the new superintendent must be willing to work with newly elected councils of residents created to provide feedback and to make suggestions on law enforcement in each of the city’s police districts.

“We are a sanctuary city. There’s an incredible history of the city of Chicago being a welcoming space for families across the country and across the world.”

Mr. Johnson inherits an escalating crisis: the increasingly large stream of Venezuelans and other migrants arriving by bus and plane from border states and seeking shelter in Chicago. In the last several weeks, the number of migrants entering Chicago has multiplied, filling city shelters and overwhelming police stations, where migrants have been dropped off. With the lifting last week of Title 42, a federal policy that allowed the United States to expel many people who crossed the southern border before they could apply for asylum, even more migrants are expected to flow into Chicago.

The influx is both a problem and an opportunity for Chicago, a city that grew in population from 2010 to 2020, but then saw those gains erased during the pandemic, when thousands of residents moved out. Mr. Johnson said that he intended to help welcome the migrants, but said that he also wanted to make sure that Black families who have been in the city for decades are not cut out from city resources.

There’s no greater institution to transform in this moment. Our public school system has to be transformed.”

A former social studies teacher, Mr. Johnson most recently worked as an organizer for the Chicago Teachers Union, a progressive and politically powerful organization that engaged in repeated work stoppages during his tenure and was a chief antagonist of the most recent two mayors.

Mr. Johnson has spoken repeatedly of investing in neighborhood schools as a way to address the city’s broader challenges. He said he envisioned “an education system that exposes our children to as many industries as possible in a real, tangible way,” with a far greater focus on connecting high school graduates with career opportunities, including in trades that do not require a college degree.

“I believe it’s a unique opportunity for this generation to set a course that could be studied a century from now.”

Downtown is not going to look the same as it did before the pandemic, Mr. Johnson said. But precisely what it will become is less clear.

Mr. Johnson said he sees a chance to build on existing industries, especially in the life sciences, a sector that has seen recent growth. During his mayoral transition, Mr. Johnson has met with business and civic leaders downtown, a group that largely supported his opponent, Mr. Vallas.

And Mr. Johnson will be the face of the city during one of its newest and most divisive events: a NASCAR street race downtown this summer. Mr. Johnson said that he intends to carry out the new car racing event with “care and sensitivity,” but also hopes to build on the slate of more established festivals and activities the city offers, especially those that appeal to younger people.

“Do you know what safe communities do all over the country? You know what they do? They invest in people.”

Mr. Johnson spoke on the campaign trail of making deep investments in communities that have seen the most violent crime, especially on the South Side and the West Side, where he lives. People will feel safer, he said, when they have strong neighborhood schools, low unemployment and access to mental health services.

Those goals feel long term, but Mr. Johnson also says he hopes to make immediate changes like doubling the number of young people who have work after school and in the summer.

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