What to know before Brandon Johnson becomes mayor of Chicago

What to know before Brandon Johnson becomes mayor of Chicago

Former Cook County Commissioner and Chicago Teachers Union lobbyist Brandon Johnson will be sworn in as the 57th mayor of Chicago May 15. Here’s what Chicagoans should know about his political ties, policy proposals and prospects.

Brandon Johnson will be sworn into office May 15 to become the 57th mayor of Chicago, succeeding Lori Lightfoot and inheriting a slew of problems.

Johnson campaigned for mayor on progressive promises of raising $800 million in new tax revenue, limiting school choice for Chicago students and supporting organized labor during the next four years.

Here’s what residents should know about his political ties, policy proposals and what it will take to get his agenda passed.

The “Better Chicago Agenda”

Johnson predicts his “Better Chicago Agenda” will generate $800 million in new revenue for the city by taxing “the suburbs, airlines and ultra-rich.” In reality, this spate of new tax hikes would hit small businesses and working-class Chicagoans when they can least afford it.

  • $98 million from “making the big airlines pay for polluting the air” in Chicago neighborhoods
  • $400 million over four years from raising the real estate transfer tax on properties worth more than $1 million, which in addition to high-end homes will likely impact rents and prices as it hits apartment buildings and commercial properties.
  • $100 million from new “user fees on high-end commercial districts frequented by the wealthy, suburbanites, tourists and business travelers.”
  • Over $20 million from reinstating the $4-a-month-per-employee “head tax” on “large companies” that perform at least half their work in Chicago.
  • $100 million from taxing financial transactions at a rate of $1 or $2 for every “securities trading contract.”
  • $30 million from increasing Chicago’s already near nation-leading hotel tax

While Johnson said he doesn’t believe raising these taxes will drive businesses and residents from Chicago, a recent survey found 34% of Chicagoans would leave the city if given the opportunity, citing taxes and affordability as their No. 2 concern behind crime. That ignores six major companies that already left in the past year.

A joint statement released by business leaders in Chicago’s manufacturing, retail, housing and hotel industries warned this “extreme tax increase plan would devastate Chicago and cost countless jobs.”

Johnson’s ability to pass components of his $800 million tax plan is also hampered by existing state laws and the Illinois Constitution.

The mayor and City Council have the authority to reinstate the business employee head-tax, hike the hotel tax and impose a broad range of user fees thanks to Chicago’s home rule status. A “home rule” municipality can exercise any power and perform any function not specifically prohibited by state law.

Johnson still won’t be able to institute his financial transaction tax or his mansion tax without the support of a three-fifths majority of the Illinois General Assembly, or a voter referendum.

The Illinois Constitution would allow Johnson to raise Chicago’s jet fuel tax but prevent him from spending the revenue on anything except transportation.

Ties to the Chicago Teachers Union

Before announcing his run for Chicago mayor, Johnson served four years as a Cook County Commissioner under Board President Toni Preckwinkle and as a lobbyist for the Chicago Teachers Union from 2011 until November 2023.

In that time, Johnson helped to organize three citywide teacher strikes in 20122019 and an illegal walkout in 2022.

During one candidate forum Johnson was asked to name an issue he disagrees with CTU leadership on. He did not answer the question. He recently named CTU’s chief of staff as a deputy mayor.

For at least the past five years, Johnson has been on the union payroll and taken in over $390,000 as a “legislative coordinator,” according to documents CTU filed with the U.S. Department of Labor.

Campaign finance disclosures also show nearly 91% of Johnson’s election contributions came from 27 labor unions, with the CTU alone spending nearly $2.3 million to put him in the mayor’s office.

Members of the Chicago Teachers Union filed an unfair labor practice complaint against union leadership in late March after plaintiffs allege members’ dues were misused to fund Johnson’s campaign.

Now, Johnson will be responsible for negotiating new labor contracts with his former union employers on the taxpayers’ behalf.

Johnson defeated Lightfoot and later challenger Paul Vallas in the April 4 runoff election. He won with about 51% of the total vote.

Johnson inherits from Lightfoot a city with the following challenges and the potential for his tax hikes to make the issues worse.

  • Johnson’s first budget for 2024 will face an estimated budget shortfall of $85 million, followed by a $125 million gap in 2025 and $145 million gap in 2026.
  • Chicago’s property tax levy has nearly doubled in the past decade, currently at $1.73 billion compared to $860 million in 2014. More than 80% goes to fund its pension systems.
  • Chicago’s core pension systems plus the Chicago Teachers Pension Fund have a combined pension debt of nearly $48 billion. That is currently more pension debt than 44 U.S. states have.
  • The city shrunk by 45,000 people in 2021, driven primarily by residents moving away.
  • Six large companies – including Boeing, Citadel, Caterpillar, Tyson Foods and Guggenheim Partners – have announced their departure in the past year.

Chicagoans interested in attending Johnson’s inauguration May 15 or his open house at City Hall can find more information here.

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