Johnson on his first 100 days: It’ll take time ‘to right this ship in its entirety’

In wide-ranging interview, mayor reveals he’s more concerned about building consensus than about checking boxes on his list of campaign promises.

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Mayor Brandon Johnson answers media questions at City Hall Aug. 2.

Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times file

Mayor Brandon Johnson on Thursday made no apologies for his go-slow approach and said he is “grateful to have a four-year term” because it’ll take time to “right this ship in its entirety.”

Most of Johnson’s goal-oriented predecessors have come into office with a precise agenda for the first 100 days knowing they will be measured at that benchmark.

As Johnson approaches his 100th day Tuesday, he’s more concerned about building consensus than he is about checking boxes on his list of campaign promises.

He is not a dogmatic, my-way-or-the-highway leader. He listens to all sides and is open to changing his mind, even on issues where the promises he made leave no wiggle room.

“I’m very deliberate and intentional about making decisions. And that’s what the people of Chicago want. They don’t want this rash, harsh, knee-jerk reaction to dynamics that, frankly, require far more strategic thinking,” the mayor said.

On Thursday, Johnson talked about his deliberative style of governing that has left some of his supporters wondering what’s taking him so long.

“For a very long time in this city, we’ve had systems that have worked in silos and these separate operations have left our city stratified. You see the wealth gap that has continued to extend over the course of decades now. The lack of affordability. The fact that we have 65,000 individuals that are unhoused,” Johnson said.

“It was very important for my administration to work hard to bring people together. We’ve done just that. Collaborating with our business community. Collaborating with our workers and our folks in the labor movement. Collaborating with small-business owners and community-based organizations. … Not one individual can transform this economy. It’s gonna take all of us.”

During a wide-ranging interview with the Chicago Sun-Times, Johnson said “nothing has surprised me” about the job he now holds.

“I came into this role very clear about the historical disinvestment. I’m very clear about what I’ve inherited as mayor of the city of Chicago. That’s why I’ve been very strategic about building partnerships,” he said.

“As far as areas where we have to strengthen, it’s gonna take time ultimately. ... You’re not gonna be able to right this ship in its entirety in 100 days. This is why I’m grateful to have a four-year term. Being able to pull people out of poverty, to set higher standards for how we treat people and how government is ultimately administered in this city — that is gonna take us some time.”

Johnson is the most progressive mayor in Chicago history, but he has been slow to assemble a Cabinet or deliver on campaign promises.

His legislative agenda has so far included a City Council reorganization that installed his allies in positions of power and two items that stalled under Mayor Lori Lightfoot: making permanent a pandemic-era outdoor dining program and securing $51 million in surplus funding that has already run out for Chicago’s burgeoning migrant crisis.

Subject matter hearings have laid the groundwork to raise the real estate transfer tax on high-end home sales to create a dedicated funding source to combat homelessness and reopen shuttered mental health clinics and create a citywide, nonpolice response to mental health emergencies. But compromise talks continue behind the scenes.

Negotiations also continue with business leaders to determine how much, if any, of the $800 million in new and increased taxes they will tolerate to help Johnson bankroll the $1 billion in “investments in people” that form the cornerstone of his anti-violence strategy.

Johnson chose Larry Snelling as Chicago’s police superintendent because a new civilian oversight ordinance required him to select someone within 30 days of receiving the names of three finalists.

The biggest campaign promises he’s managed to deliver have been for the Chicago Teachers Union, where he worked as a paid organizer.

He all but swept out the Chicago Board of Education, delivered 12 weeks of paid parental leave without demanding anything in return at the bargaining table and fired Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady, who clashed with the CTU for opening Chicago Public Schools during the pandemic earlier than the union wanted them to open.

On Thursday, Johnson pointedly and repeatedly refused to say whether he was doing the CTU’s bidding by firing Arwady. Nor would he say why he terminated the woman who led Chicago through the pandemic without the courtesy of a face-to-face meeting.

“Here’s the last thing I’ll say on this: I don’t believe it’s right to discuss the termination of an employee publicly. Morally, I don’t subscribe to that,” he said.

“I get it. Some people have become accustomed to these combative, adversarial dynamics that play out in the public. I’m not gonna do that because that’s not what the people of Chicago want.”

Johnson has run into trouble in the first 100 days for some of the things he has said — not so much for the things he has done.

One of those verbal missteps was quoting slain rapper Tupac Shakur to dance around questions about the Arwady firing. Another was saying it is “not constructive to demonize youth who otherwise have been starved of opportunities in their communities” and referring to the ransacking of a South Loop convenience store as a teen “trend” — not a “mob action” — and telling reporters it was inappropriate to “refer to children as, like, baby Al Capones.

Despite the controversy, Johnson is doubling down. He argued that “most” of the 40 arrests that Chicago Police officers made that night were “for curfew violations.”

“I know what it’s like when young people come into your classroom or come into any of our spaces when they don’t feel that they’re valued. In many instances, that type of trauma promotes reckless behavior,” the former teacher said.

“No one is condoning bad or criminal behavior. What we’re saying is, in order for us to build a better, stronger, safer Chicago, how we understand one another, how we hold each other accountable, how we treat one another, how we speak about one another is important. … Any type of characterization that separates us or divides us — I’m not gonna stand for that because the people of Chicago deserve better.”

The mayor said the most difficult adjustment to being Chicago’s mayor is “making enough time” for his wife of 25 years and three children. He called his family “the true foundation of who I am.”

“We were not able to have pizza night on Friday, so we had to have it last night. We make last-minute audibles at the line of scrimmage,” he said.

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