Chicago’s new mayor, Brandon Johnson, has almost 400 people on his “transition team.” The volunteer group, which includes “civic leaders, business leaders, movement organizers, and activists working together,” recently composed a 223-page report full of policy proposals.
On one level, it’s easy simply to laugh at the result. In a city with a famously high murder rate, woefully underfunded pensions, and residents fleeing to greener pastures, the mayor’s advisors seem preoccupied with political correctness and identity politics. On the first page, the team advises readers not to worry if they “note mixed usage of terms like Latine, Latinx, Latino, or Hispanic,” as this “reflects how individuals within the subcommittees chose to identify.” “Latino/a/e/x” makes an appearance a few pages later. The executive summary starts with a land acknowledgement and makes clear that the team is pursuing racial equity and “intersectionality.” And readers are reassured that, while the Arts and Culture subcommittee couldn’t agree at first, they “built new bridges and then covered them with art.” (Speaking of art, the sections are separated by hippie drawings and hand-scribbled outlines that must be seen to be believed.)
Chicagoans might want to give the document a deeper read, however. It provides much insight into the new regime’s priorities, from slavery reparations to strengthening Chicago’s “sanctuary city” policies. It’s an overwhelmingly progressive and very expensive wish list, of course, and even the occasional Reaganite idea is shot through with anxiety over racial disparities. “Identify top 3 administrative barriers for small businesses,” begins one recommendation, “particularly Black, Latinx, and Native-owned and community-driven development projects.”
Start with public safety, where the transition team’s proposals are especially alarming. Confronting crime on multiple fronts is a reasonable goal. The team is to be commended, for example, for recognizing the city’s abysmal homicide-clearance rate and the disproportionate impact of violence on minority communities and for suggesting 200 more detectives be promoted from the existing ranks. (“Candidates should be hired to reflect the demographic of the communities that make up Chicago,” naturally.)
But the report overlooks how many of the most effective, proven crimefighting strategies rely on police to go where the crime is, keep an eye on known problems, and arrest the worst offenders, so that they can be incapacitated. Meantime, Chicago’s police force is losing staff at an alarming clip, with hiring failing to keep up with retirements and burnt-out cops heading to the suburbs. Hiring more cops and putting them where the crime is happening would be obvious first steps in controlling Chicago’s murder problem, and it needn’t conflict with other approaches and experiments, such as improved social services and violence-interruption programs.
Yet hiring more cops is not a metric of public-safety success for the transition team—instead, the focus is on “Demographic make-up of the Fire and Police Departments (should reflect the demographics of the community where stationed).” Johnson even plans to end the use of two useful-if-imperfect policing tools: ShotSpotter, a technology that alerts authorities to the sound of gunshots (but sometimes produces false positives from other loud bangs) and a database that catalogs gang members (an inevitably difficult and subjective task). Both recommendations are featured in the transition report, though in the two cases, the document notes that some members of the team wanted to explore fixing, rather than destroying, these tools.
Despite Chicago’s fiscal woes, the word “pension” appears only three times—and not in any reformist context. One housing suggestion is to explore “a pension obligation bond mandate to allocate a minimum percentage towards real estate projects in underserved communities”; another is to keep a “portion of City Pension Fund assets invested in Chicago real estate developments with the mandate of hiring local residents from under-resourced and underserved communities.” And the education section discusses a “bridges to build” recommendation that the “$175M CPS pays in pension should be given back to the CPS,” an apparent reference to a decision last year by the school district to pay $175 million toward pensions; pension obligations have generally shifted from the city government toward the district in recent years.
On education, Chicago has made some progress in recent decades, expanding charter schools that have been shown to improve test scores and college attendance in analyses that control for students’ prior academic performance. Unsurprisingly, given Johnson’s teachers’–union background, the transition team detests charters and aspires to a “sustainable community school district where every child has the ability to attend a free, public institution, from birth through college, within walking distance from their homes with equitable staffing, services, after school programming, course offerings and educational opportunities to counteract the historical inequities faced by BIPOC families and students.”
Tucked into the environmental section’s “Green New Deal for Schools” is a promise that “Under the Johnson administration, all Chicago Public Schools (CPS) students, educators, and staff will learn and work in buildings that emit zero emissions.”
I cannot summarize this massive document in a short article. The housing section has a few bright spots, pairing the expected subsidies, rent-control proposals, and “housing is a human right” rhetoric with suggestions to legalize more forms of housing. Yet you have to wonder if the instincts, ideas, and ideology reflected in the transition team’s report are what is needed to manage, let alone save, the Windy City.
Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images