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The Chicago Mayor’s Hat Trick of Dreadful Policies

Mayor Brandon Johnson of Chicago proposes three policies that will make life in Chicago worse, while neglecting core services.

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Chicago skyline from Lake Michigan

When your city elects a mayor whose main job qualification is “organizer for the Chicago Teachers Union,” you get what you paid for, or rather what the powerful CTU paid for. With Mayor Brandon Johnson, you get a special bonus, an unwelcome one. His proposed policies are unworkable, unaffordable, and deeply unpopular in the city that elected him less than a year ago.

Three policies stand out for particular ridicule. Mayor Johnson wants to:

  1. Start city-owned and -operated groceries in some underserved areas. The government that wants to take on these difficult new tasks is already failing at such basic services as fixing potholes and policing dangerous neighborhoods.
  2. Ticket the buses bringing illegal immigrants to Chicago, mostly from Texas. He calls them “rogue buses” because they are not “coordinating” with the city. Giving them a ticket or even impounding the vehicles is his solution. The bus companies’ own solution is to drop off the passengers in the suburbs, which immediately send them to Chicago. Johnson then rages at the Texas governor and never mentions President Biden.
  3. Close down all the selective-enrollment (magnet) schools in Chicago, the only ones where students actually read above grade level. If we judge by the likely outcome, Johnson’s policy is really designed to drive middle-class families with kids out of the city. The teachers union backs the plan, enthusiastically. They must know how good the other schools are since the president of the CTU sends her own child to a private school. Meanwhile, she is working with Gov. J. B. Pritzker to kill school choice for everyone else.

The local joke about Mayor Johnson is that his only success has been to lower the price of downtown Chicago real estate.

How do voters like Johnson’s ideas and his administration? Not much, it turns out. His poll numbers are roughly the same as those for used car salesmen with loud suits and back lots filled with rusting clunkers. The mayor’s erstwhile supporters have abandoned him. Except for the Chicago Teachers Union.

The CTU is easily the most powerful union in Illinois and, most likely, the strongest local teachers union in the country. It was their members who went door-to-door for Johnson’s election. It was their members who tacked up Johnson’s campaign posters and donated the dollars for his TV ads. Now, it is their members who comprise Johnson’s dwindling band of supporters. If it weren’t for them, the mayor could hold a “Reelect Brandon Johnson” rally on a unicycle.

Most of Johnson’s policies are standard-issue leftist remedies for big cities. To paraphrase Gilbert and Sullivan, “He is the very model of a modern progressive mayor.” That model is not working. Not in Chicago and not elsewhere. Progressive mayors and prosecutors across the country have made their cities dangerous and ungovernable. Unfortunately, failure has not changed their minds or their policies. Brandon Johnson is no exception.


Consider the mayor’s proposal for the city to own and operate grocery stores in impoverished areas. Let’s call them “CastroMarts.”

Johnson is right to say some neighborhoods have become “food deserts.” He should ask himself why that is so. Part of the answer is poverty, but those areas were poor before the grocery stores abandoned them. What changed is that those areas are now plagued with organized retail theft, which is almost never prosecuted.

Without delving into the root causes of rampant crime (Kamala Harris is searching for them in Central America), it’s up to local police to stop the predation, and it’s up to local prosecutors to go after the robbers and looters. That’s not happening in Chicago – or in San Francisco, Washington, Seattle, Memphis, New Orleans, St. Louis, Baltimore, Cleveland, or Portland. Those city governments have abandoned their fundamental responsibilities to “serve and protect.”

Is the theory here that somehow thieves wouldn’t steal from city-owned grocery stores? What’s the evidence for that – or that city workers could do a better job than trained professionals? Those businesses operate on very thin margins and require efficient, experienced management. If you don’t sell meat and produce quickly, they rot.

The words “quick” and “efficient” have never been used in the same sentence as “Chicago city worker.” Better adjectives would be “slow,” “unionized,” and “well-paid.” When you apply the correct adjectives to grocery store ownership, you get sclerotic management, high prices, and an endless string of taxpayer subsidies. You will get CastroMart, not Walmart.


Brandon Johnson’s notions about education are just as compelling. His latest brainstorm is to close the best schools in the city. His stated reason is “equity,” which apparently means “leveling down.” There is no allegation that admission to these selective schools is biased. It is purely merit-based. Yet Chicago’s school board, working closely with the CTU and the mayor, recently approved a plan to “transition away” from these schools. That’s a polite way of saying, “We are going to kill them if we can.”

The teachers union defends this euthanasia because of what they call the schools’ “deep inequity.” The facts belie the catchphrase. Over half the students in the 11 selective high schools come from low-income families. Around 70% are black or Hispanic. Where’s the “deep inequity”?

Parents are up in arms. They see powerful, entrenched interests trying to deny their children a good education and cynically justifying it in the name of progressive ideals. They’re right.

Johnson’s proposals for migrants are just as popular. Chicago has long proclaimed itself a “sanctuary city,” a label it adopted when sending that virtue signal was costless. It’s not costless anymore. Chicago leaders’ response is to offload all that expensive virtue onto other cities. They are retaining the “sanctuary” slogan, oblivious to the irony.

The number of migrants coming to Chicago is still a trickle compared to those surging into Texas and Arizona across an open border. Even so, Chicago can’t handle the modest numbers. It doesn’t have any place to put them or any money to pay for the vital services they require. You see them now camped out on cold city streets and begging for spare change. It’s heartbreaking. Chicago’s real answer to reducing their number is “winter.”


Johnson’s original plan was to set up migrant camps across the city. Voters went berserk. Johnson got the message and backed down. His latest plan is to put the migrants in hotels and at O’Hare Airport, issue tickets to the buses that bring them, and blame it all on Texas Gov. Greg Abbott.

While Johnson has no answers for this deepening mess, he didn’t create it. President Biden did that. Biden is the Einstein who decided to dismantle all of Trump’s programs, such as “Remain in Mexico,” that helped stem the flow of illegals. What was Biden’s rationale? Because the programs were Trump’s. That’s it. To replace them, Biden put in … well, nothing. Surprisingly, that has not worked well.

Even the staunchest Democrats recognize the political problems that unchecked immigration is creating. Some are from pushback in the general population, which can see the failure. Some come specifically from the black community, which is furious about this wave of migrants who compete with Americans for jobs, housing, and social services. Hispanics living here legally are none too happy either.

Since Democrats depend on both minorities, especially African Americans, to win elections, the internal fissures over immigration pose real problems. They divide ideological progressives from fellow leftists who are more attentive to their minority constituents. The difficulties will only get worse as the numbers keep rising and the Biden administration keeps resisting efforts to close the border. Those tensions are already visible in Chicago’s minority neighborhoods.

But immigration is only one of Brandon Johnson’s headaches. On issue after issue, he has no sensible plans to move forward and few ideas about how to cope with the city’s spiraling problems. His administration is a shambles, and voters know it. They need help. In fact, they are demanding it. They want safety, education, and other basic services. They have learned to their regret that they won’t get any of them from the incompetent, unpopular ideologue in City Hall.


This article was originally published by RealClearPolitics and made available via RealClearWire.

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Peter B. Ritzma Professor Emeritus at | | Website | + posts

Dr. Charles Lipson taught international relations at the University of Chicago, where he was the Peter B. Ritzma Professor in Political Science and the College. His research deals with international cooperation and conflict and with political aspects of the world economy. His most recent book on international relations, Reliable Partners: How Democracies Have Made a Separate Peace, explains one of the most striking features in world politics: why democracies do not fight wars against each other. (Princeton University Press, 2003). Dr. Lipson has also written extensively on international trade, debt, and investment. His book, Standing Guard: Protecting Foreign Capital in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries, has been widely praised for combining politics and economics. It is concerned with the problems faced by successful corporations when they operate in difficult political environments around the world.

Professor Lipson's most recent work deals with the problems of forging international cooperation after the Cold War. He is currently writing about the sources of international order in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.


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