For several reasons, the election of Brandon Johnson as mayor is the most important in Chicago for generations and the most politically salient urban election this century. First, it represents the triumph of the hard Left not on one of the left coasts but in the heart of the Midwest, in a city known for its pragmatic, if machine-Democratic, politics. Second, it displays the raw power of public-sector unions in Illinois and in today’s Democratic Party. Johnson was not just supported by the unions; he is the paid agent of the most powerful and radical of them all—the Chicago Teachers Union. Third, Johnson’s victory will have national reverberations for years to come because his administration will test the Left’s attempt to transform urban policy.
Johnson’s win shows the current might of the urban Left precisely because the political climate and the candidate himself were not optimal for victory. Chicago has suffered high crime rates since the George Floyd riots. Cab drivers spontaneously tell me of carjackings and shootings they have witnessed. A campaign that focused on public safety, like the one that Paul Vallas ran, seemed tailor made for the times. Moreover, Johnson was running as a progressive after the failed tenure of another self-proclaimed, if far more moderate, progressive, Lori Lightfoot. We might have expected Chicago voters to opt for an ideological change, as New York voters did when they chose Eric Adams after the disastrous mayoralty of Bill de Blasio.
Johnson, too, was an imperfect messenger for the Left. The teachers’ union provided him with much of his campaign funds and boots on the ground, but many parents were unhappy with the union’s long strike in 2019 and prolonged school closures during the pandemic. Additionally, at the end of the campaign, news emerged that Johnson owed the city thousands of dollars in unpaid bills and fines. He initially said that he would pay the city on an installment plan, but when that message didn’t play well, he settled his debt a few days before the election. It was hardly an effective closing argument from someone seeking to manage a city budget that runs in the billions of dollars.
Nevertheless, Johnson won by about three percentage points. Based on early analysis, he did so because he overwhelmingly carried African-Americans, split the Hispanic vote, and carried enough white progressives to put him over the top. The most worrying sign for the future: his sweep among voters under 30, seemingly of all races.
Still, for Johnson, winning may turn out to be the easy part. The business community opposed his candidacy. That opposition included not only the real-estate and financial industries but small businesses as well. I have never seen so many campaign posters in shops as I saw around Chicago for Vallas. Their owners feared that a Johnson mayoralty would further embolden property crime. Unless Johnson can somehow calm the business community, he can expect a kind of capital strike—more large businesses leaving Chicago and little new investment, even from small companies with nowhere else to go. Just down the road from me, a large real-estate development was supposed to break ground in February, but it has been delayed—to wait, I believe, for the election results. I’ll be surprised if it gets built anytime soon.
Johnson’s program offers nothing but pain for businesses. He wants to put a head tax on employers, discouraging hiring. He wants to introduce a financial transaction tax, thus targeting one of Chicago’s most profitable and mobile industries. He has called for adding new taxes on Chicago’s hotels, already the highest-taxed in the nation.
The mayor-elect wants to use these revenue streams for new social programs to attack the “root causes” of crime. Thus, the money will not go to Chicago’s huge unfunded pensions. Why would businesses with a choice stay in Chicago, when doing so will present them with more taxes and unfunded pensions? The public-sector unions that Johnson represents will demand even higher taxes to pay the pensions down.
Even citizens not in business themselves are fed up with rising crime. Unlike Vallas, Johnson showed little interest in filling the Chicago Police Department’s many vacancies. Before running for mayor, he said that defunding the police is a worthy goal. With such a hostile mayor, many cops may leave, effectively defunding themselves, and saving Johnson the trouble.
Finally, in a city with racial tensions, Johnson made explicit racial appeals, casting the election as a contest between “black labor” and “white wealth.” Such rhetoric, previously confined to agitators like Al Sharpton, has now become de rigueur in progressive discourse.
The election also offers a warning for both political parties. For Republicans, it once again shows the dangers of Donald Trump’s influence. Of course, Trump has nothing to do with economic or civic conditions in Chicago, but his indictment and his response to it dominated the news cycle immediately before the election, likely motivating the Left to vote and robbing attention from Johnson’s deadbeat ways. Trump continues to energize the Left even when he is not on the ballot.
For Democrats, the warning is not about personality but policy. Johnson hopes to vindicate the premises of urban progressivism: that higher taxes will not drive out businesses, that spending to eliminate the root causes of crime is more effective than putting more cops on the beat, that school choice is the enemy of school achievement, and that the key to improving blacks’ well-being is economically targeting privileged whites. But if, as I suspect, urban progressivism is actually a recipe for urban decay, then the Democratic Party will lose the political center. True, some urban leftists may shrug, rationalizing that urban chaos is the price we must pay for equality, but that view will not prevail elsewhere, particularly in the suburbs. The policy effects of Chicago’s election are likely to endure long after Trump has left the political scene.
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