Mayor Johnson On What He’s Done for Black Chicago After First Year: Part 2

In this one-on-one, Nicole Jeanine Johnson sits down with Mayor Brandon Johnson as he reflects on his first year in office and what he plans to achieve moving forward. Below is part two of the full transcript, with appropriate edits for clarity. 

Read Part 1 here.

Q: What have been some of your biggest learnings? What would you have done differently?  

Mayor Brandon Johnson: One of the things that I’ve learned over this year is that the remarkable resilience of the people of Chicago is far more substantial than I even realized. I know our folks have bounced back, and we’re aspirational people. But when I go visit high school seniors at least once a week, our young people challenge my administration to create more safe spaces for people, particularly young folks, and more opportunities for young people. It’s so comforting to know that our young people are not only aligned with my value system, but they still see the value and the hope that government can yield on their behalf.

I’ve been overwhelmed by that reception. I wish the people of Chicago could see the view of Chicago through the lens of the Mayor. In other words, too many of our people do not know what they qualify for and what’s available to them. The information gap is wider than I thought it was. For instance, when I would talk with some of our neighbors [and share about] $10 million programs for home repairs, folks ask, ‘Where is that? How do I get my hands on that?” 

Or young people are talking about their [post] secondary [plans for] when they get out of high school, [and] here are the things that they want to do. They don’t realize that that’s offered at Harold Washington [College], or Kennedy King [College] or Malcolm X College. And that’s something that I am committed to closing that information gap, particularly over the next year.

[There’s] the light bulb that goes off when they realize there’s something that’s available for them that they can apply for, or [that there are] limited steps that they have to take to even access it. 

Q: In the next three years, is there anything else you’d like to do differently?   

Mayor Johnson: Over the next three years, my focus is really going to be on the implementation of the investments that we’ve made within my first year. As I said, $1.25 billion to build homes and economic development. We don’t want to just have groundbreakings. This is about the next three years of having ribbon cuttings. 

It doesn’t get talked about enough, [but] as challenging as it is at times to live in the city, particularly when it comes to community safety, our homicides are down, shootings are down. 

And the 35 most violent beats in the city of Chicago, where 53% of the violence happens, we are down 31% in homicides and 35% in shootings. A lot of this work doesn’t get reported, or it’s not shared because we still are experiencing loss. We want to see that trend continue to go downward in terms of homicides and shootings. It’s still a reality that we deal with in our communities where there are still too many people who have access to guns, and they’re victims who are victimizing people.

Over the next few years, I’m going to be working even harder to build a better, stronger, safer Chicago. And the way we do that is by continuing to invest in people.   

Q: Earlier [you] mentioned your leadership. Understandably, people get directives, and they move forward to execute this task that they’ve been given. And along the way, arguably, there have been some missteps [on] how those directives have been implemented. For example, the un-remediated land where the original migrant [tent] was going to be. [This is all] a reflection on you and your leadership. How do you move forward to avoid missteps? 

Mayor Johnson: Well, we do have a very dynamic team. As I said before, one of the big initiatives we have is the “Cut the Tape” initiative, which allows for businesses to actually move faster to the city of Chicago. 

Many small business owners and larger corporations have expressed their frustration with how long it takes to do business. We cleared that up again. The airlines, in particular, United and American, two administrations ago, negotiated [a] contract that no longer fit the season that we’re in. That contract that I inherited, I had to go back, review it, get some agreement, and build trust there. [With] Google, Quintin Primo, strong investment[s] developing the Loop [and] downtown area, that is all reflective of a very competent administration. 

And of the particular incident that you’re speaking of, the land was remediated. There are standards for remediation, and then there are more substantial standards. Some of these standards are based upon recommendations. ‘What could have been done in that situation was, well, look, we know that you remediated it, but based upon other interpretations or recommendations of a remediation, how about we go six and a half feet deep?’

There’s no way anyone should ever believe that I would put people on toxic land. Quite frankly, every piece of land in the city of Chicago essentially is toxic. So, you have to remediate to do any type of development or building. Now, I don’t want to have to remediate that situation, but I just want to clear the record. 

That was not a misstep. It wasn’t. At the time, we had thousands of people who were sleeping on floors in the city of Chicago. Had I not acted, people would be questioning my ability to manage a crisis.

There were people who were being flown in from other cities, not just the border. If we were doing such a horrible job, why are they sending migrants, not just from the border, but from other cities? 

This is just more context in terms of my leadership. [Dr. Olusimbo “Simbo” Ige], our commissioner for [Public] Health. There is no national playbook for outbreaks in congregate settings. It doesn’t exist. Guess who’s building it? A Black woman in my administration. The CDC is here to look at how we’re responding to something that we did not have a response or an answer for.  

So, I’m saying that I’ve inherited many different crises, and [each one] we’ve taken on head-on. 

You didn’t ask, but I’ll bring it up: The Bears stadium. 

We have a 100-year-old building that is hundreds of millions of dollars in debt, that doesn’t have a dome, and there’s no public benefit or public use for it. 

I put forth the solution where billionaires and visitors pay for a stadium that we would own. Now, if someone else has an idea that’s better than that, that solves the $600 million debt that exists in the building that we have no benefit from, then they should put forth a solution. 

We’ve had gross disinvestment in this city for decades. 

Every single issue I’ve taken on, other administrations have refused to or been afraid to do it.

And I’ve done it, whether it’s small businesses, education, youth employment, environmental justice, diversifying our administration here, creating leadership opportunities for our people, investing billions of dollars into our people.

No other administration has done what I’ve done in the first 365 days. 

Q: Let’s talk about the Black population decline. Every decade, we’re seeing loss after loss. How will your administration make Chicago a welcoming place to retain and welcome its Black population? 

Mayor Johnson: Thank you for that question. If there is one of the many things that motivated me to run for Mayor, this is one of those main things. And I know I’ve said it ad nauseam. Now, the 100 units we built are affordable, and the 700 that are online. We have to build more housing. That’s the first thing. And that’s why this $1.25 billion investment is critical. We got to build more housing. 

The second thing is that we have to build our neighborhoods with basic amenities: that’s grocery [stores] and schools. That’s why I’m pushing for the State of Illinois to pay what they owe the people of Chicago, which is $1.1 billion in education funding that we do not get from the state that is rightfully ours. That’s why I’m working hard to serve our education system, but it’s why we’re also looking at public options for grocery stores.

That’s a part of our recommendation. 

The third thing is where are the industry growths tying this back to our education system that we can begin to direct our people towards? What we’re seeing here overwhelmingly is logistics, manufacturing, and life sciences.

These are the industries that our people have to access. 

That’s why I’m pushing our community colleges, as well as our corporations to begin to not just highlight the opportunities, but to create real pathways. 

And we have to be intentional about it, building more homes, creating a healthy environment through public accommodations, and then getting our people access to the industries that are overwhelmingly stabilizing our economy so that our people can qualify for certifications. 

All of them do not require degrees. Many of them are certifications. Many of them are attached to the trades. That is the work I’m doing in the short and long term: to make sure that our people, first of all, are secure, and then we begin to grow our base.  

Q: So, with the building of new homes, experts will say that it’s easier to just update existing homes. Is there an opportunity to work with the private sector to subsidize building homes for income-driven rental?  

Mayor Johnson: I should have mentioned this earlier. But in the 24th Ward, Lawndale, the 20th Ward, Alderman Taylor, and the 9th Ward, we just worked with United Power to make vacant lots available for building affordable homes. 

But we are also looking at our Troubled Buildings Initiative, where — I don’t know if this is what you’re alluding to — where we are creating more opportunities, not just to build a workforce, but to transfer those homes and then put them back on the rolls for affordability.

That is all the work. 

It sounds exhausting, doesn’t it? 

It is a lot, but those are the things that I’m doing to ensure that our people are secure and safe and that they actually get a chance to return to the city that they love. Thanks, Nicole. Thank you.

Read Part 1 here.

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