Chicago’s mayor Brandon Johnson has succeeded in putting a proposal to raise real-estate tax rates on the primary ballot in March. His plan would take more than $100 million from taxpayers by levying a progressive tax on the sale of any building valued above $1 million. Most of the added tax burden would fall on commercial real estate.

This levy is particularly ill-timed. The pandemic cleared workers out of the office buildings in the Loop, Chicago’s premier business district, and many have not returned. As a result, Chicago has one of the nation’s highest office-vacancy rates, and building prices have fallen sharply. The new tax would kick an industry that is already down at its lowest point in a generation.

Johnson claims that he will use the added revenue to cure Chicago’s chronic homelessness problem. Given the liberal-left tilt of Chicago voters, that prospect, even if a mirage, might normally be enough to sell the idea. But Johnson has shown such incompetence, cronyism, and hypocrisy in his nine months in office that attack ads on the proposal practically write themselves: Do you trust this guy with more of your money?

Johnson’s mishandling of the migrant crisis has earned the most negative headlines. For instance, the mayor proposed to create a tent village in an old industrial site as temporary housing for the newcomers. He persisted with the plan even after learning that the site might contain environmental toxins; a subsequent report showed that the site was indeed hazardous, and the state told him to stand down.

Johnson then blocked a resolution from the city council that removed Chicago’s designation as sanctuary city. At the same time, he imposed complex new regulations on buses delivering migrants to the city. In response, the buses simply dropped off migrants in the suburbs. That result harmed Chicago’s relations with its neighbors and did little to deter the migrants, who could just hop on local public transportation back into the city.

Last week, Johnson announced that he would end ShotSpotter, a commercial service that pinpoints the locations of gunshots, so police can respond more quickly. He concurred with activists who claim that ShotSpotter unfairly targets minorities and said that the money would be better spent attacking the root causes of crime. His police chief disagreed, noting that ShotSpotter saves lives—mostly, as it happens, minority lives—by allowing responders to get wounded victims to hospitals sooner. The decision was not only contrary to expert advice but also hypocritical, in that Johnson sought to delay the date of the contract’s termination for six months—just after the Democratic Convention, when increased gun crime has the potential to mar Joe Biden’s presumptive nomination. But, stumbling once again, Johnson failed to secure a six-month extension before announcing his intention to terminate the ShotSpotter contract. Thus, the firm demanded and received a longer extension, likely for a higher price.

Johnson’s cronyism has also damaged his public support. He fired Allison Arwady, the city’s health commissioner, because she had called for keeping schools open during Covid—a decision that enraged the Chicago Teachers Union, the mainstay of his election support and for whom Johnson had worked as a paid agent before becoming a politician. As a payback to the racial and ethnic groups that supported his election, Johnson has given preferences to black and Hispanic businesses in city contracts for providing services to newly arrived migrants.

When challenged by the press, Johnson has complained that the questioning shows he is a victim of racial discrimination, as if a mayor of any race with a similar record would not have taken media flak. The citizens of Chicago, however, have been unmoved by his playing of the race card. Johnson’s approval rating is under 30 percent—as low as any mayor in modern Chicago history.

Opponents of the proposed real-estate tax increase thus have an opportunity to turn this referendum on taxes into a referendum on Johnson. Recent precedent exists for such a possibility. In 2020, Democrats tried to eliminate Illinois’ constitutional requirement for a flat income tax in order to rake in more money through a progressive tax. But even in this heavily Democratic state, voters rejected the initiative by a large margin, because citizens of all political persuasions recognized that the state government could not be trusted with more funds. To be sure, the Chicago electorate leans further left than that of the state, but in the run-up to that vote, Illinois governor J. B. Pritzker had not demonstrated anything near the same level of incompetence, hypocrisy, and cronyism as has Johnson.

Johnson’s proposed tax would hurt Chicago’s prospects for economic recovery. If voters soundly reject it at the polls this March, such a repudiation might force the mayor to reconsider his disastrous approach to urban governance.

Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images


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