On the mayoral campaign trail, Brandon Johnson leans heavily on his tenure on the Cook County Board of Commissioners.
It’s an important chapter in his background as a candidate who’s otherwise short on government experience, a way to show voters he can accomplish things while working with others in a setting akin to the City Council he would need to lead as mayor.
But Johnson’s record is complicated by the realities of serving since late 2018 as one of the junior members on a 17-person body where President Toni Preckwinkle, who has endorsed Johnson, runs a tight ship and much of the real decision-making is top-down.
Inflating one’s legislative victories is a time-honored tactic for political candidates trying to make the jump from a member of an elected legislative board to the top administrative seat at the front of the room, and Johnson is likewise claiming credit for major initiatives that have demonstrably benefited thousands of Cook County residents. But how critical a role he played is in some cases debatable.
His opponent in the April 4 runoff election, former Chicago Public Schools CEO Paul Vallas, has pounced on what he says is Johnson’s lack of real experience running things.
“First of all, first of all, voting for a budget is not managing a budget,” Vallas said at a recent debate. “Voting for (minority- and women-owned businesses) is not managing (them). Rhetoric is no substitution for management.”
Johnson called those accusations from Vallas “awfully condescending,” and ripped Vallas’ own management decisions, saying they’ve wreaked havoc with the institutions Vallas led.
“Now here’s someone who has built budgets on a house of cards,” Johnson said after one of several debates with Vallas. “How dare he or anyone else lecture my ability to count, where everywhere he has gone, he has caused tremendous destruction, a structural deficit in the city of Chicago, a structural, a deficit in Philadelphia.”
On the Cook County Board, Johnson points to his work to pass a “Justice for Black Lives” resolution as a defining moment of his four years, saying it was “the impetus behind” more substantial legislation the board subsequently adopted.
Commissioners passed it in July 2020 as Chicago and cities across the nation were reeling from violent unrest in the wake of George Floyd’s murder by a Minneapolis police officer.
Like many other resolutions enacted by the board, it is essentially a set of values and aspirations, in this case a broad mandate urging the county to keep Black people and other marginalized groups in Cook County safe from police violence and from unfair incarceration at the Cook County Jail.
Johnson draws a direct line from this “Justice for Black Lives” success to two other programs paid for with coronavirus recovery money that Preckwinkle launched later.
In particular, Johnson argues he was instrumental in the county passing a guaranteed income pilot program and another initiative aimed at eliminating medical debt.
“Yes, I have played a role in making sure that we are crafting a budget,” Johnson said after a recent mayoral debate. “I’ve built an entire budget around Black lives. … And even President Preckwinkle gave me credit for the entire equity plan that has distributed hundreds of millions of dollars for violence prevention, the largest pilot program for guaranteed income, workforce development, eliminating up to $1 billion of medical debt. I led that charge and that effort.”
While Johnson’s proposal passed with 15 colleagues co-sponsoring it, since it has no real teeth or money attached to it, judging its success is difficult.
Preckwinkle, for instance, published her own extensive five-year “policy road map” before Johnson took office in 2018, laying out what she called “a focus on racial equity to ensure that all Cook County residents have opportunities to prosper, participate and reach their full potential no matter their race, gender, geography or socio-economic status.”
Therein lies the difficulty for Johnson and others who want credit for tangible legislative accomplishments, particularly on the Cook County Board. The chamber operates with Preckwinkle enjoying a rock-solid majority and her own clear progressive agenda that has been bolstered in recent years by the federal COVID-19 money flowing to the county.
Preckwinkle and her financial team design the county’s annual budget and drive many of the policy decisions, taking suggestions from commissioners before the board passes their plans with overwhelming support. The Cook County Board president wears the jacket for those choices, as the mayor does for the city budget.
The $42 million county guaranteed income pilot Johnson referenced started accepting applications from residents in fall 2022, after Preckwinkle said she saw the need for it during the early days of the pandemic.
The income pilot was based on initiatives already underway elsewhere, including a Chicago version Mayor Lori Lightfoot kicked off in October 2021. Preckwinkle this year was named co-chair of the Counties for a Guaranteed Income coalition that will push for federal support for the programs, underscoring her prominence in the movement.
And the $12 million county medical debt relief plan included in Preckwinkle’s 2023 budget comes amid a nationwide reckoning over the impact such costs have on families.
Johnson maintains his Black lives resolution was in effect a “value statement” for county spending.
“Yes, we get to state our values and our mission, because our budget should be a reflection of our morals,” he said. “You can’t just have a budget without having a value statement.”
Preckwinkle and Johnson have been close allies since his successful 2018 campaign to unseat Commissioner Richard Boykin, a Preckwinkle antagonist. In endorsing Johnson, she lauded his work on the board to bring transparency and equity to public safety.
The “Justice for Black Lives” document sponsored by Johnson says the board “shall focus on its ability to invest additional resources” in communities of color to increase affordable housing and health care, help tenants fight eviction, create jobs and improve public transportation.
The resolution says the county “should engage in efforts to redirect funds from policing and incarceration to public services not administered by law enforcement that promote community health and safety equitably across the County, but especially in Black and brown communities most impacted by violence and incarceration.” It’s a clause critics have pointed to in trying to paint Johnson as a supporter of defunding the police, a charge he has tried to parry in recent months.
The county will seek to avoid militarizing the police, and endeavor to improve contract opportunities for businesses owned by minorities and women, the resolution states.
The “Justice for Black Lives” resolution also specifically spells out that the county “should expand mental health inpatient/outpatient care including for individuals leaving incarceration and ensure first responders for people in mental health crisis are mental health professionals and not police,” which is aimed at reforming the ways mental health episodes are handled by first responders.
But in late 2022 those goals collided on the Cook County Board with Johnson’s pledge not to increase the Cook County sheriff’s budget.
Commissioner Bridget Degnen proposed embedding two social workers in Cook County’s 911 dispatch center “to answer calls related to mental health and crisis stabilization.” Degnen said while the money would still pass through Sheriff Tom Dart’s budget to the 911 center, the social workers would not be directed by Dart.
Nonetheless, Johnson voted against the $275,000 outlay for the social workers, saying at the time he was having a “tough time” supporting a measure that utilized a system his constituents “didn’t really trust. … When 911 shows up, it isn’t really comfortable.” Degnen’s amendment passed despite Johnson’s objection.
A Johnson mayoral campaign spokesman this week said Johnson voted against Degnen’s plan because he “supported a plan where medical and mental health professionals were not embedded with dispatchers at the 911 center, but instead, on the front lines responding to mental health calls and crises.”
But the incident illustrates the difficulties lawmakers face in setting out principles and then sticking to them within the ferment of the legislative process, as many members seek ways to address problems important to their constituents, and compromise is often needed to accomplish anything.
This push and pull gets considerably more turbulent for a Chicago mayor attempting to shepherd an agenda through an increasingly independent-minded 50-member City Council. Aldermen on Thursday further asserted their authority, voting to increase the number of council committees from 19 to 28 and naming their own committee chairs. For decades, those chairmanships, which come with additional paid staff positions, have been picked by the mayor.
Lightfoot faced some of her harshest criticism from aldermen and special interests who said her greatest failing during her single term in office was her inability or unwillingness to work with them to find common ground. Chicago voters are now looking for a Lightfoot successor who will be more successful in doing so.
Johnson said he’s well-equipped to get things done. “I’m a collaborator, I’m an organizer. That’s important to me,” he said. “I’m not a dictator. There are other folks who lead like that. That’s not my style. In fact, it’s important that we demonstrate compassion.”
Vallas has an extensive record as a top administrator working for former Mayor Richard M. Daley and as head of Chicago Public Schools. But has never held elected office. He points to his background as proof he can accomplish things at City Hall, while critics say his decisions were financially calamitous and harmful to Chicago schoolchildren.
Other highlights of Johnson’s county record include the “Just Housing” amendment to the Cook County code that took effect in 2020, for which he was the lead sponsor. That amendment outlaws housing discrimination against people who were arrested or convicted of most types of criminal acts more than three years earlier.
The Cook County Commission on Human Rights has received 42 complaints alleging landlords violated provisions of the amendment. In 18 of those cases the parties reached some kind of settlement, and a total of over $31,000 has been paid out to settle such disputes, according to the commission.
“There are hundreds of thousands of people all over Cook County that now have the ability to access housing because we made it against the law to discriminate against individuals who have arrest records, which I’m very proud of,” Johnson said.