Brandon Johnson takes office, says ‘a brand new Chicago is in front of us’

Johnson was sworn in Monday as the 57th mayor with his wife, Stacie, and their three children, Owen, Ethan and Braedyn, by his side.

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Mayor Brandon Johnson makes his inaugural address at Credit Union 1 Arena on Monday, May 15, 2023.

Mayor Brandon Johnson makes his inaugural address Monday at Credit Union 1 Arena.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Mayor Brandon Johnson on Monday challenged the city he now leads to confront its enormous challenges in a way that summons what he called “the soul of Chicago.”

After being sworn in as Chicago’s 57th mayor, Johnson vowed to lead a civic renaissance that will unite people with “radically different ideas for how to confront” Chicago’s problems behind a singular purpose.

“I’m talking about calling in the wisdom of the soul of Chicago, calling in the compassion of the soul of Chicago, calling in the expertise. I’m talking about calling in every single person in the city of Chicago to build a city that works for everyone,” Johnson told the inauguration day crowd at Credit Union 1 Arena.

By drawing on the “soul of Chicago,” a phrase he used more than a dozen times during the 40-minute speech, we can “write the story of our children’s and grandchildren’s futures,” he said.

“And what will that story say? That Chicago with its sturdy shoulders and its diverse economy and the legacy of all of our generosity was too afraid to stand up? ... No. That won’t be our story. Not on my watch,” Johnson said.

“We right now are committing ourselves to writing a different future. … I’m talking about a story that binds us together,” he added.

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“We don’t want our story to be told that we were unable to house the unhoused or provide safe harbor for those who are seeking safe refuge here, because there’s enough room for everyone in the city of Chicago — whether you are seeking asylum or looking for a fully funded neighborhood. We don’t want our story to say that we did not invest in all of the people and all of the communities,” he said. “We cannot afford to get it wrong, Chicago. We don’t want a Chicago that has been so overwhelmed by the traumatization of violence and despair that our residents felt no hope or no choice but to leave.”

Johnson, 47, listed the intransigent problems Chicagoans know only too well: violent crime, entrenched poverty and a city budget stretched to the limit by the immigrant crisis that relies too heavily on property taxes, fines and fees.

“Too many Chicagoans fear for their safety when they walk down the streets to get groceries or drive to the gas station because our city’s homicide and violent crime rates have consistently outpaced our peer cities. Our public transit is unreliable and unsafe — so much so that many parents refuse to let their children ride even when the CTA could be the pathway to opportunity and enrichment.

“Rent in Chicago continues to go up year after year after year, while the development of both affordable and market-rate housing stagnates. And as a result, too many in our city go to sleep unhoused, and too few families know the security of owning their own home,” Johnson said.

“Our downtown commercial corridors still bear the scars of the pandemic, with higher vacancy rates and lower foot traffic. And, of course, our neighborhoods, particularly those on the South and West side, have still not tasted the fruits of the investments that they demand and deserve. Our schools call out for more resources,” he added. “And despite the trauma these challenges produce, too few can rely on the consistent access to mental health care that they desperately need.”

Mayor Brandon Johnson with his wife, Stacie Johnson, two sons, Owen and Ethan, and daughter, Braedyn, after making his inaugural address Monday, May 15, 2023 at Credit Union 1 Arena.

Mayor Brandon Johnson with his wife, Stacie Johnson, two sons, Owen and Ethan, and daughter, Braedyn, after making his inaugural address Monday at Credit Union 1 Arena.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

The cornerstone of Johnson’s plan to deliver Chicago from violent crime is $1 billion in jobs, education, mental health and other social programs — he calls it “investing in people”—bankrolled by $800 million in new or increased taxes on businesses and wealthy Chicagoans.

The business community remains adamantly opposed to most of those taxes — especially a revived employee head tax and increased hotel tax.

Johnson acknowledged that elephant in the room even as he summoned Chicagoans to a higher and more united calling.

“So often in politics, we think and talk and argue about the things that divide us. I want to be clear about something: Those divisions are real. They are. Many people who love our city deeply have radically different ideas about how to confront the shared challenges that we face. It’s true. I know we need revenue. We have a structural deficit, and we have to invest in people. We have to do that without breaking the backs of working people with fines, fees and property taxes,” the mayor said.

Johnson then turned to the self-deprecation that almost always works with a large crowd. He talked about the thousands of dollars he owed the city in water bills and parking ticket debt that he was forced to settle before taking office.

“You can’t make people feel bad because they have a payment plan. You can’t stop someone with a payment plan from becoming mayor of the city of Chicago,” he said, as the crowd dissolved into laughter.

Johnson told the crowd “it’s gonna take all of us” to solve Chicago’s problems, and “not one of us can afford to sit down.” He said he’s “counting on the entire city to deliver on this” with “no time to spare,” particularly when it comes to reducing violent crime.

“We all suffer when these ills are allowed to fester and grow. These problems don’t just affect particular neighborhoods, one community or an ethnic group. It affects all of us. You know, the tears of Adam Toledo’s parents are made of the same sorrow as the parents of Officer [Areanah] Preston’s parents,” Johnson said, comparing the 13-year-old fatally shot by a Chicago police officer to the 24-year-old police officer gunned down by a marauding group of robbers.

“Officer Preston’s tragic death at the age of 24 just last week reminds us what is really at stake. … She joined the Chicago Police Department for the very same reason that I ran to become the next mayor of the city of Chicago. She believed that, through public service, she could be a conduit for justice,” Johnson said.

At one point, the preacher’s son turned his inauguration ceremony into what resembled a revival meeting. He vowed to lead the city to a “new era,” saying: “We just have to look deep into the soul of Chicago. Can I get a witness? As Rev. [James] Meeks said, ‘Are you with me, or am I by myself?’

He closed by saying, “A brand new Chicago is in front of us. I can’t wait to continue to lead this city toward a future that generations to come will look back and see the soul of Chicago that has made it possible for posterity. ... My name is Brandon Johnson, and I am the 57th mayor of the city of Chicago.”

Monday’s inauguration started with the introduction of the newly elected City Council, which includes 16 fresh faces; a record 14 Hispanic members; 18 women, matching a previous all-time high; and nine members identified as LGBTQ+. The average age is 47. That’s nearly four years younger than the average age of the old Council.

Johnson owes his meteoric rise to the millions of dollars in campaign contributions and foot soldiers provided by the Chicago Teachers Union, Service Employees Union Locals 1, 73 and Health Care, United Working Families and the Grassroots Collaborative.

Seats on the dais were reserved for the leaders of those unions and community organizations, underscoring the pivotal roles they will undoubtedly continue to play in Johnson’s administration.

The loudest ovations were heard when Chicago Teachers Union President Stacy Davis Gates and her vice president, Jackson Potter, were introduced. Loud ovations also greeted Amisha Patel, executive director of the Grassroots Collaborative and Grassroots Illinois Action; and Emma Tai, executive director of United Working Families, where Davis Gates serves as chair.

At 10:59 a.m., a beaming and clapping Johnson was introduced to the crowd, followed by his wife, Stacie, and their three children: Owen, 15; Ethan, 11; and Braedyn, 8.

The new mayor was dressed for the season in a gray suit and matching tie. His wife wore a black dress offset by a pearl necklace. Owen was wearing an open-collared white shirt and a slightly darker suit. Ethan’s suit matched his older brother’s, but with a tie. Braedyn wore a white summer dress, the opposite of her mom.

Shortly before 11:15 a.m., Mayor Lori Lightfoot banged the gavel for the final time, calling to order what is technically a ceremonial City Council meeting.

“Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the peaceful transfer of power,” said the outgoing mayor, who got a warm and sustained reception when she and first lady Amy Eshleman were introduced to the crowd.

After the Council approved the bond for the new mayor and the motion was seconded by 28th Ward Ald. Jason Ervin, the crowd cheered.

In a magnanimous gesture of good will, Johnson hugged Lightfoot, who had just executed her last official act as the 56th mayor of Chicago. The outgoing mayor responded in kind, shaking the hands of Johnson’s wife and three children to congratulate the new first family.

Brandon Johnson hugs Mayor Lori Lightfoot before he is sworn in as mayor of Chicago on Monday, May 15, 2023.

Brandon Johnson hugs Mayor Lori Lightfoot before he is sworn in Monday as mayor of Chicago.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

At, 11:50 a.m., Johnson, surrounded by his wife and children, took the oath of office administered by Chief Circuit Judge Tim Evans.

“Sir, you are installed. ... You take care. God be with you,” Evans told Johnson.

Johnson then stood with his family, before telling them to be seated as he prepared to deliver the speech of a lifetime.

“Wish me well,” the mayor could be heard telling his wife and kids.

In the audience was his 80-year-old father, Andrew, a pastor whose example and spiritual guidance the new mayor has followed his entire life.

In 2006, Stacie Johnson spent a year as an intern at WBEZ-FM radio, the Chicago Sun-Times’ news partner. She subsequently spent five years as a staff assistant to then-Ald. Deborah Graham, followed by one year as an assistant to state Sen. Don Harmon, D-Oak Park, the current Illinois Senate president.

Stacie Johnson has been described by her husband of 25 years as “brilliant” and an “incredible writer” who played a role in crafting his inspirational inaugural address.

“Stacie, your love and care for Chicago is only dwarfed by your love for our family. Thank you for everything you do and everything you will do for Chicago,” the new mayor told his smiling wife.

During that 40-minute address, Johnson thanked Lightfoot.

“Lori, I am grateful to you for your service and your sacrifice,” he said as the crowd applauded politely.

The new mayor then congratulated the City Council.

“This is your day, too,” Johnson said. “You deserve recognition, and I’m gonna turn around and clap for ’em.”

Setting the tone for a more collaborative relationship with the Council than Lightfoot’s, Johnson said: “The people of Chicago are counting on us to work together, to collaborate to make their lives’ better every day. Now, we won’t always agree. But I won’t ever question your motives or commitment, and I’ll always do my part to find common ground.”

Davis Gates later said Johnson, a former schoolteacher, “gave us homework.”

The mayor is leading “the biggest group project in the history of the city. And each one of us — leaders, workers, residents — we have a duty to restore the soul of the city,” Davis Gates said. “The most important part is that he’s organizing us, he’s calling us into something greater than what had been before, because our children need it.”

Davis Gates said the most striking aspect of Johnson’s speech was his “vulnerability.”

“He said that he needs this to work, and in order for it to work he needs us. That’s vulnerability that’s not usually expressed by leaders, much less by the mayor, and to see a Black man who is the mayor of the third-largest city in the country, lead with vulnerability is a significant departure.”

Contributing: Mitch Armentrout

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