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Mayor Brandon Johnson nods to possible loss for Bring Chicago Home, vows to continue fight

Mayor Brandon Johnson acknowledged Wednesday that hope was waning for the Bring Chicago Home referendum but remained defiant, saying his progressive agenda would go on regardless of whether the tax hike to fund homelessness services prevails.

According to unofficial results from the Chicago Board of Elections, with 98.45% of precincts reporting, 53.7% of votes were against the referendum, to 46.3% in favor.

The Bring Chicago Home initiative was a key pledge from Johnson, who was betting on it becoming the first win from his economic agenda that he said would make wealthy residents and corporate interests pay their fair share. A defeat at the ballot box would signal brewing voter discontent over the mayor’s coalition that has governed the nation’s third-largest city since May but faced nonstop resistance from moderates and business interests, on top of general discontent over the costly migrant crisis.

At a news conference after Wednesday’s City Council meeting, the mayor told reporters any failure of Bring Chicago Home should not come to define his administration or the leftist movement.

Facing TV cameras, an unapologetic Johnson told friends and foes of his progressive agenda to “buckle up” and joked about an “ongoing debate” over whether he or former Chicagoan and ex-President Barack Obama was the better organizer.

“Organizing doesn’t pivot,” Johnson said. “Organizing gets stronger because the same organizing that had to deal with a loss of schools, housing, mental health clinics, jobs, it’s the same organizing that propelled me into this office. We get stronger, and whatever we didn’t get the first time, we’ll get even more the next time.”

Specifics on the tax measure’s options from here were murky. Noting votes are still being counted, Johnson also refused to extend an olive branch to the real estate lobby and claimed the communities most against the referendum were “the same people who want to see Donald Trump … be president again.”

“It was cowardly,” Johnson responded when asked about the referendum’s opposition attacking his tenure as mayor. “But I’m still here, still standing. And I will be punching back.”

The Bring Chicago Home campaign released a statement Tuesday evening that stopped short of conceding but acknowledged the lackluster performance. The group had no updates Wednesday.

“While tonight’s election results are disappointing, we are nowhere near the end of our journey,” the statement said. “Whatever the final count, one thing is abundantly clear tonight: how determined our opponents are to continue profiting from displacement and inequality.”

A key opponent of the ballot initiative, Building Owners and Managers Association of Chicago Executive Director Farzin Parang, did not declare victory Tuesday evening but said: “We are grateful to everyone who spoke out against the constant real estate tax increases in our city. This massive tax increase would hurt homeowners, renters, union workers, and businesses across Chicago.”

Should the ballot measure indeed falter, Johnson and supporters could try again via the state legislature or a similar effort on another ballot, perhaps as soon as November. But it would be difficult to build the political will for another attempt after the first came up short. The mayor did not show enthusiasm for either of those pathways Wednesday.

Early returns show the opposition to the ballot question came from downtown, the city’s bungalow belts near the Southwest Side and Far Northwest Side airports, the Southeast Side and the north lakefront.

The South and West sides as well as progressive areas along Milwaukee Avenue and the Far North Side were the referendum’s strongest backers, according to unofficial totals. But there were also indications that pockets within Latino strongholds on the Southwest and Northwest sides that went for Johnson in the April runoff refuted the tax referendum.

“The most motivated voters in this election tended to be a little more conservative,” Little Village Ald. Michael Rodriguez, 22nd, said Wednesday, while noting his Latino precincts backed the referendum more than others with that makeup. “Maybe the worst part of the strategy is not tying it to the general election, where you have higher turnout and a much more representative vote of the public.”

As of Wednesday afternoon, just 22.6% of the city’s registered voters had cast ballots, falling short of both the mayoral primary and runoff last year.

At the coalition’s election night headquarters inside a West Side sports arena, the mood was a far cry from Johnson’s victory party last April that gave the city’s long-excluded progressive movement its biggest jolt in decades. Referendum backers put up a unified front as they chanted, “I’m in this till the wheels fall off,” before eventually packing up for the night.

The results won’t be official for weeks. Chicago Board of Elections spokesman Max Bever said after polls closed Tuesday that 109,975 mail-in ballots remained outstanding. Those late-arriving tallies rarely change the outcome except in very tight contests, however.

The measure that sought to raise the city’s real estate transfer tax for property purchases above $1 million took a bumpy and winding road to voting booths across the city, after advocacy groups first coalesced behind the idea in 2018. It survived a previous administration that grew hostile toward it as well as an eleventh-hour legal fight brought by the real estate lobby that threatened to toss it out.

A defeat at this stage would certainly be cast by opponents as a referendum on Johnson’s tenure as mayor just as much as on the specific proposal to raise taxes — always a thorny ask. The ballot question’s structure could have also been confusing, while the March primary that saw uncompetitive races and an unpopular incumbent at the top of the ballot may have been the wrong moment for Bring Chicago Home to strike.

Downtown Ald. Brendan Reilly, 42nd, said Wednesday the early returns show the Johnson administration’s progressive wish list “is pretty much dead in the water.”

“This was a citywide repudiation of the mayor’s flawed tax policy, and I think more so, it was really a message to the mayor to pump the brakes on his anti-business agenda,” said Reilly, a frequent mayoral critic. “I’m looking at this result as a report card on the mayor.”

The Bring Chicago Home campaign sought to distinguish itself from the burgeoning humanitarian crisis surrounding the 37,000 migrants who have come to Chicago since 2022. But their plights that included stretches of sleeping outside police stations, coupled with mounting fiscal alarm over the $300 million taxpayer bill to house and feed them, surely hung over the minds of many voters this round.

And though United Working Families and other progressive groups had a formidable ground game, Gov. J.B. Pritzker — and his political war chest — stayed away from the Bring Chicago Home race after seeing his graduated tax amendment fail in a 2020 statewide referendum.

Bring Chicago Home centers on a levy hike tied to the purchase of all properties that sell for above $1 million, paid once by the buyer. The city currently charges a flat 0.75% rate on property purchases.

The original proposal called for two rates — the same 0.75% on home sales below $1 million, and 2.65% on properties above $1 million. But Johnson’s team last summer devised a new version that instead called for establishing three tax brackets and a marginal rate, meaning only the additional dollars above that bracket would have been subject to the higher tax rate.

Under the proposal that was on the ballot, properties purchased for less than $1 million would actually see the real estate transfer tax paid by sellers cut slightly to 0.6%. Backers estimated 93% of property purchases, mostly residential, would be subject to the lower tax rate.

Purchases between $1 million and $1.5 million would have a 0.6% levy on the first $999,999 of the price and 2% on the rest. Properties above $1.5 million would be taxed 0.6% on the first $999,999, 2% on the next $500,000 and 3% on the rest.

It was that very revamp that ended up causing an explosive, weekslong legal battle for the referendum — and would likely be scrutinized during the campaign’s post mortem should the tides not turn soon.

In January, opponents including BOMA, the Chicagoland Apartment Association and the Neighborhood Building Owners Alliance filed a lawsuit in Cook County Circuit Court against the Chicago Board of Elections, alleging the referendum’s multi-part question was logrolling: bundling an unpopular proposal such as a tax increase with a popular one — a tax decrease — to garner voter support.

The escalation was no surprise. The groups have long argued that if the referendum passed, it would dampen sales in an already-fragile market, hurt mom-and-pop residential landlords and not adequately address the homelessness crisis.

While the real estate interests won an initial victory with its lawsuit in Cook County court, it ultimately lost on appeal. However, the weeks following Cook County Judge Kathleen Burke’s ruling in BOMA’s favor — invalidating the question until the Illinois Appellate Court reinstated the referendum — may have dealt damage to voter turnout.

The Bring Chicago Home campaign had continued to encourage Chicagoans to vote “yes” in the hopes of a successful appeal, while hurling accusations of voter suppression at the judicial system.

The $4.9 million-plus that flowed into campaigns for and against the question was roughly split between both sides. The leading opposition campaign funds raised $2.3 million, while the sole political fund that supported the referendum received $2.6 million as of Tuesday afternoon.

Johnson’s campaign fund contributed $100,000 to the pro-referendum organization in the week before the primary, according to the state Board of Elections.

The 2024 budget, Johnson’s first as mayor, allocates more than $250 million on homelessness services. The city tallied more than 6,100 homeless Chicagoans at one point in time last year, with most residing in shelters and just under 1,000 on the street.

The Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, the nonprofit torchbearer of the Bring Chicago Home drive, has argued the city’s homeless count is actually more than 68,400 because it also counts those couch-surfing with relatives or friends.

The ballot question laid out the following use for the additional revenue: “The purpose of addressing homelessness, including providing permanent affordable housing and the services necessary to obtain and maintain permanent housing in the City of Chicago.”

The mayor has declined to elaborate on the breakdown beyond that, telling reporters this month it would be incumbent on City Council to gin up the specifics.

The Johnson administration estimated the rate change would yield an average of $100 million annually, though officials acknowledged the one-time transaction tax has historically been quite volatile. The mayor’s budget team declined to provide a final analysis of 2023’s real estate transfer tax revenue total before the March primary.

Chicago was not the only city to consider this type of levy increase. Earlier this year, Los Angeles also hiked a transfer tax to fund homeless services but has failed to see results. But in other cities such as Evanston, similar measures simply took time to become more fruitful.

Chicago Tribune’s A.D. Quig contributed.