SPRINGFIELD — Mayor-elect Brandon Johnson on Wednesday urged state lawmakers to provide money for schools, youth employment and other ambitious initiatives that he said would lift Chicago — and with it Illinois — during his first visit to Springfield since winning the election.
Johnson’s wide-ranging speech to a joint session of the Illinois House of Representatives and Senate was an extension of his campaign themes of standing up for progressive values and a holistic approach to tackling crime, a major concern after the weekend when three teens were shot. Amidst hundreds of young people converging in the city center and along the lake.
“Public safety is a prerequisite to Chicago’s prosperity, and voters have sent a clear message that they want to get smart, not just tough, on crime,” Johnson said on the House floor. “We have a mandate to make the bold and necessary investments to address the root causes of violence.”
Johnson reaffirmed that stance during a post-speech press conference in which he defended his earlier call not to “demonize young people” after the chaotic weekend, and rejected pressure from critics to be more forceful, though he took pains to stress that he said he does not condone destruction and violence. .
“Have you ever taught in middle school? I have. Have you ever raised young men? Do you understand the risks young people take just because they are young?” Johnson said. Sometimes they make silly decisions. They do. And so we have to make sure that we invest to make sure that young people know they are being supported.”
Johnson emphasized during his remarks to lawmakers The importance of uniting the state and rejecting the old Chicago dynamic and inferior interests that struggle over resources.
“They told us this was a zero-sum game. If something is good for Chicago, it means we’re taking something away from Peoria,” Johnson said. But I’m here to deliver an emphatic message today. There is enough for everyone in Illinois.”
Johnson arrived in Springfield on Tuesday and began a long trip program of meetings with the various caucuses during his two-day trip. The overall goal was to establish rapport with lawmakers ahead of his term, but he also prioritized more of his agenda in both private debates and his rhetoric.
The packed visit carried a note of optimism when Johnson came to the Capitol having already scored inroads with several Democratic state lawmakers, a quality his predecessor, Mayor Lori Lightfoot, lacked when she took office four years ago. He promoted longstanding relationships with House Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch, whose son plays baseball with Johnson’s son, and Senate President Don Harmon, for whom Johnson had previously served as an assistant.
But positive sentiment will likely counter financial constraints as the discussions progress, and Johnson has shied away from naming desirable numbers or timelines. He laughed when reporters asked for specifics, saying at one point, “How do I call myself a collaborator, and then I’m a collaborator? Those are ongoing conversations.”
He has promoted a review of the state’s formula for allocating funding to public school districts and strengthening the Local Government Distribution Fund, the part of the state income tax that goes to municipalities, as two initiatives he sees as long overdue.
Johnson also reiterated to lawmakers his campaign pledge to boost job opportunities for young people, an effort in which he said Chicago was falling short despite the role it could play in curbing crime. In his speech, he said that he would use the government, charitable and private sectors to increase youth employment.
“A lot of young Chicagoans feel like they have nowhere to go,” Johnson said. “Rather than falling behind other big cities in summer jobs for young people, Chicago will aggressively seek to increase the number of jobs for young people.”
Johnson also drew on his experience as a former teacher in the Chicago public schools, a profession he promoted frequently during the campaign. He opened the speech noting how he had come from the middle school classroom to the mayor-elect of Chicago, and said that schools today need more resources to help the number of students who are experiencing trauma.
While we are calling for a revised state funding formula to ensure every CPS has a nurse and social worker School, Johnson pledged to “build a comprehensive trauma response network in the schools hardest hit by violence… to help them process this trauma and heal while also breaking the cycle of violence.”
Touching again on the topic of Illinois, Johnson said his desire to increase the local government distribution fund would benefit not only Chicago but cities and towns statewide, saying, “When we build a better, stronger, safer Chicago, we build a better, stronger, safer Illinois.”
Until early 2010, the LGDF received 10% of the state’s income tax so that cities across Illinois would have money to help pay for their infrastructure. That dropped to around 6% as the state’s financial situation worsened.
The Illinois mayoral union and a number of mayors now want to restore the 10% share that was originally pledged when the income tax was imposed, while Gov. J.B. Pritzker and others see the current amount as fair given that the tax rate was raised to end the state budget deadlock under Pritzker Predecessor, Republican Governor Bruce Rohner.
Johnson also called for support for immigrants who came to the city from Central and South America and for ensuring Chicago’s status as a haven for abortion rights.
“Some are trying to divide our communities,” Johnson said, referring to the controversy over resources offered to asylum seekers in Chicago. “An Attempt to Divide the Black and Brown Community? Not Under the Johnson Administration.”
While promising an era of cooperation, the mayor-elect has been keen to promote his progressive goodwill and align with like-minded lawmakers in the Democratic-controlled General Assembly. He cited the success of the Pritzker Labor Rights Amendment push last November as well as the state’s investment in anti-violence programs.
He returned to his campaign pledge to fulfill the mission of black Americans of past generations to achieve racial equality.
“We are building the political infrastructure to ensure that it is not left to chance that families have access to health care, transportation and well-paying jobs,” Johnson said. “We have to ensure that every family in Illinois has access to the essentials that my people in particular fought for at the end of emancipation.”
Johnson was at the Capitol just before 8 a.m. Wednesday, showing up with a cadre of aides and bodyguards to a fourth-floor conference room to engage in briefings with Democratic lawmakers from the Progressive, Moderate, Asian American and Latino caucuses.
The night before, he had met with the Black Bloc and the Chicago delegation at the offices of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations. On Wednesday evening, he was scheduled to have dinner with Pritzker at the Governor’s Mansion.
Legislators interviewed by The Tribune said that in addition to the priorities highlighted in the speech, Johnson spoke privately with them about programs to prevent violence and address homelessness. Progressives have been enthusiastic about his visionary goals, while moderate Democrats have shown a calculated openness to such a platform.
Republicans, for the most part, were decisive. During his speech, a handful of Republican lawmakers sat with prints of Blue Lives Matter flags at their desks, an apparent rebuke of Johnson’s previous speech in support of the “defund the police” movement he later retracted.
House Republican Leader Toni McCombee, of Savannah, blasted what she called “one of the most political rhetoric I’ve ever heard in the House,” saying Johnson focused mostly on Democrats.
“It’s really unfortunate because we have Republicans representing parts of Cook County, and here we are,” she said. “I think the mayor-elect of Chicago already has a speechwriter who can help him make sure it’s inclusive, and unfortunately I didn’t see that day.”
Chicago Rep. Will Guzzardi, part of the progressive wing of the Democrats, said Johnson “brings not only a vision aligned with ours…but also a willingness to work with us to build constructive relationships in Springfield.”
State Rep. Cambium “Cam” Buckner, a Chicago Democrat, has hinted that anti-violence programming will be of key importance to Johnson as negotiations over the state budget continue. Last year, the Illinois General Assembly appropriated more than $240 million for these efforts.
“I’m sure it’s going to be an increase. I don’t know exactly how much he’ll ask for. But it’s something I think we have to do for the whole state,” said Buckner, who was one of Johnson’s rivals in the first round of the Feb. 28 mayoral election.
State Rep. Edgar Gonzalez, a Democrat from Chicago’s Little Village neighborhood, said he’s glad to see Johnson wants to work on affordable housing, violence prevention and other issues important to his constituents.
“He’s really trying to make sure he works with everyone,” Gonzalez said. “I am actually very optimistic.”
One of the moderate Democrats who met with Johnson’s running mate, State Rep. Marty Moylan of Des Plaines, said Johnson’s approach differed from that taken by Lightfoot, who has sometimes had a contentious relationship with Springfield.
Moylan predicted that “on the whole, he’ll co-operate with us”—but with accountability.
“If there is money for programs that help fight crime…we would like to see results for the money that is spent,” Moylan said.
State Senator Patrick Joyce, a moderate Democrat from Essex, said the legislature needs to be careful about meeting Chicago’s fiscal needs.
“Of course, the city of Chicago is part of the state…but I also have to represent the district that I represent,” said Joyce. “It should be a level playing field across the state.”
State Rep. Bradley Stevens, the only Republican whose district touches part of Chicago, has indicated he would support Johnson’s call for changes to the local government distribution fund.
“I think that’s how (Chicago) can get some much-needed revenue. At the same time, it can benefit the suburbs, downtown, and the whole state of Illinois.” “That’s kind of a win-win for everyone.”