Laura Washington: Like other Black mayors, Brandon Johnson will face Republican ire over his progressivism

Brandon Johnson’s come-from-behind mayoral victory has electrified progressives in Chicago and around the nation. The progressive movement will celebrate the mayor-elect as a national advocate for the cause of, as he puts it, “investing in people” and social and racial justice.

Johnson’s ascension to the fifth floor of City Hall also offers Republicans and conservatives a handy hammer to bludgeon Democrats over the violence and crime plaguing America’s big cities. Johnson rose from an obscure West Side politician to be elected the city’s 57th mayor on the steam of his holistic approach to quelling urban violence and disinvestment. More policing is not the answer, he argues, and Chicago must instead attack the root causes of crime, he insists.

On the run-up to last Tuesday’s election, Johnson was attacked for his long history of supporting movements and calls to defund the police. For example, consider the video of a December 2020 appearance at WCPT-AM 820 in which Johnson discusses the “defund the police” effort. “I don’t look at it as a slogan,” he said. “It’s an actual real political goal.”

Earlier that year, Johnson spoke on the panel “We Don’t Call Police: A Town Hall on a Police-Free Future” in which he praised organizers for pushing “an agenda that actually can transform people’s lives,” the Tribune recently reported.

Johnson got elected by denying he ever said such a thing. He now assures voters he will not cut police resources. But you can be sure, as the nation moves into the 2024 presidential cycle, that critics will revive Johnson’s words and deeds as part of a strategy to discredit progressive Democrats and other big-city Democrats. Conservatives will make the case that the Democrats are coddling criminals and are anti-police.

They have had plenty of practice.

Donald Trump has been demonizing Chicago and its Democratic Party leaders since his first presidential run. Mayor Lori Lightfoot was a favorite punching bag. In the heat of the 2016 presidential campaign, Trump offered the highly dubious claim that a “top” member of the Chicago Police Department told him the city’s violence problem could be eliminated “in one week.” The mysterious officer (who was never identified) was supposedly suggesting that Lightfoot and other leading Democrats were soft on crime and deliberately allowing violent offenders to run rampant.

In June 2020, Trump wrote a public letter to Lightfoot and Gov. J.B. Pritzker to say he was “horrified” about an escalation of violence in Chicago. He likened the city’s violence to the combat zones of Iraq and Afghanistan.

“Your lack of leadership on this important issue continues to fail the people you have sworn to protect,” Trump wrote.

During his second presidential campaign, Trump accused Joe Biden and other Democrats of allowing violence to flourish in big cities. “Look at Chicago, what’s going on in Chicago,” he declared at a 2020 presidential debate with Biden.

Ken Griffin, founder and CEO of the Citadel hedge fund, piled on during an October 2021 discussion at the Economic Club of Chicago.

“It’s becoming ever more difficult to have this as our global headquarters, a city which has so much violence,” the conservative billionaire said. “Chicago is like Afghanistan on a good day. And that’s a problem.”

If the city didn’t “change course,” Griffin warned, he would pull Citadel’s headquarters out of Chicago. The following June, Griffin announced he was moving to Miami.

Ken Griffin talks about the Illinois pension crisis and a once-secret meeting with Gov. J.B. Pritzker ]

And so, it will continue. Conservative politicians and activists can make hay as the cities struggle with burgeoning urban ills such as violent crime, homelessness, poverty and massive economic inequity. Big-city mayors are favored targets for those eager to accuse them of leading failing governments, being anti-police and coddling criminals at the expense of their constituents. Those leaders, especially Black mayors such as the soon-to-be-inaugurated Johnson, will be the treasured whipping boys and girls for Republicans.

When he takes the oath of office May 15, Johnson will join the three other African Americans who lead the nation’s largest cites: New York City’s Eric Adams, Karen Bass of Los Angeles and Sylvester Turner in Houston. They will be known as “The Big Four.” They will be even bigger targets.

Meanwhile, Illinois’ leading Democrats are on tenterhooks as they await word on the location of the 2024 Democratic National Convention. The competition reportedly will come down to Chicago and Atlanta. Biden will make the final choice. If Chicago gets his nod, the Republican presidential campaign TV ads will write themselves.

Steve Chapman: Political convention sites simply don’t matter on Election Day ]

“The Democrats are meeting in Chicago, a city with out-of-control violence,” the announcer will harangue. “There is chaos on the streets. And the guy who is running Chicago wants to defund the police.” Cue up the Johnson video.

Laura Washington is a political commentator and longtime Chicago journalist. Her columns appear in the Tribune each Monday. Write to her at

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April 10, 2023 at 06:51AM

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