Mayor Johnson on the record: The full Tribune Q&A as he approaches 1 year in office

Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson sat down Monday for a wide-ranging interview with City Hall reporters Alice Yin and Jake Sheridan. Here is the full transcript of the interview, lightly edited for clarity:

Q: I’ll start with something simple. What is your administration’s top accomplishment that you are most proud of in the past year? And what area do you think you could improve the most on?

A: Yeah, so first of all, thank you for taking time. We have the largest bond deal in the history of the city of Chicago, $1.25 billion bond deal. We’re gonna build homes and create real economic development for people. It’s unprecedented investment. That’s what I promised I would do when I became mayor, and we’ve done that.

A quarter of a billion dollars to address the unhoused crisis in this city; $100 million for violence prevention. We’re going to open up two mental health clinics this year. This is the result, of course, from two administrations ago shutting down mental health clinics. We abolished the subminimum wage in the city of Chicago. Black and brown women, 100,000 workers are going to get a raise. We have the most substantive paid time off in any major city in this country, 1.3 million workers have additional days that they will be able to take off as a result of our work.

We hired 20% more young people for summer jobs. We added an additional $76 million on top of that. So we’re in a position to hire 28,000 young people for summer jobs. First time in the history of Chicago where you have a community safety deputy mayor. It’s a big deal, particularly when it comes to how we address community safety in this city.

So between the bond deal, unprecedented quarter of a billion dollars for the unhoused, $100 million for violence prevention, of course abolishing subminimum wage, of course creating paid time off for workers, opening up mental health clinics, the most diverse administration in the history of Chicago, and we’ve done that within the first year of our administration. So I’m very proud that we’ve been able to accomplish everything that I promised that I would do when I ran for office. We’ve accomplished those.

Q: What do you see as the area that most needs improvement within your administration?

A: Well, I mean, look, we’ve had 40 years of gross neglect and disinvestment within the city of Chicago, right? And we’re talking about real severe disinvestment. I’m not sure if either one of you were here during the time in which schools were closed. It’s a very profound, lasting impact that it has had on the people of Chicago. And when mental health clinics are shuttered, that creates a lot of frustration that leaves a gaping hole, right? And so part of my responsibility, of course, is to address the age-old systems of failure and to build a better, stronger, safer Chicago, and that is something that I’m committed to doing. That’s what the people of Chicago elected me to do.

Q: If you could go back to May 15, 2023, knowing what you know now about how the migrant crisis would unfold, what would you do differently?

A: Well, again, thank you for acknowledging the fact that I inherited this crisis. When I was sworn in, there were people who were sleeping on floors in police districts. They were sleeping on floors in airports, right? You had no structure, no order at the border and the governor of Texas was committed to creating chaos.

What we have done, though, as a result of that, there are no more people sleeping on floors in police districts. We’ve cleared out the airports. We’ve saved the taxpayers over $200 million through our work of renegotiating contracts that I inherited.

Having reflected over the last year, I wish that Congress would actually do its part and pass substantive immigration reform policies and alleviate this responsibility that has been placed on the backs of municipal government, which it is not designed to do. And so that is an area that, in retrospect, had those types of investments been made — whether it’s the city of Chicago or Denver or New York or anywhere else in this country that Gov. Abbott has attacked and targeted — we could be in a much more — we could be in a better position as a country if the federal government would have acted.

Q: As a candidate, you once said, “Too often, the politics of Chicago, it forces communities to fight over one pie. My philosophy is: Let’s just make more pies.” As a mayor, you have consistently said that Chicago was out of money for migrants while other governments, as you just alluded to, aren’t helping enough. Was your outlook back then perhaps too optimistic?

A: Again, the $1.25 billion bond deal, this is again the largest investment that we have experienced as a city. That’s 20 times the amount of dollars that we have made for the migrant mission within the latest investment. What it displays is that you actually can do both, and, I mean, it’s a clear example of doing both. As far as my general optimism about the city of Chicago, here’s the most important thing to remember: I came into office with a clear agenda to invest in people — a $1.25 billion bond deal, a quarter of a billion dollars into the unhoused, $100 million for violence prevention. You know, we have established a brand-new office dedicated to those who are returning residents from jails and incarceration. It’s never happened before.

These investments could have been made two administrations ago, it could have been three administrations ago. They didn’t do it. I did. And that’s why I’m optimistic in this moment, because everything that I said that we need to do as a city together, we are doing that. We’re investing in people. And we’re addressing age-old systems that have failed the people of Chicago for too long.

Q: We hear that (Deputy Mayor of Community Safety) Garien Gatewood and a violence interrupter were on the scene Saturday attempting to de-escalate a clash between CPD and (the School of the Art Institute of Chicago) protesters. Did CPD ignore the wishes of the fifth floor when they moved on the protesters anyway?

A: The most important thing here for everyone to remember is that I’m a strong advocate for the First Amendment and particularly protests. I’ve been a part of demonstrations, multiple demonstrations. What we also need to make sure that happens is that we keep people safe, and that’s the most important thing here.

And so the work to de-escalate is work that is ongoing. The work to keep people safe, that’s the most important element here. And we’ve done both of those things. We’re keeping people safe. We’re protecting people’s First Amendment right. And when things get to be more intense, we’re pushing for greater de-escalation.

Q: Was the final response, the outcome — which led to dozens of arrests — was that necessary?

A: Well, in some instances — and I’ve been a part of these demonstrations — in some instances, arrests are part of the objective. I’ll say it like that. I’ve taken arrest before. It’s not unprecedented for demonstrators to take arrest. The most important thing, though, here is that the First Amendment? Protected. Keeping people safe, it’s the primary goal, and we’ve done both of those.

Q: Let’s talk about the pace of your personnel appointments. For example, the ZBA (Zoning Board of Appeals) vacancy that you could have filled upon taking office ultimately cost your administration the approval of a homeless shelter in Uptown. Do you regret not acting sooner in that case, and others?

A: Our appointments are working well. We have the most diverse administration in the history of Chicago; 60% of my administration are women. We have more brown folks represented in my administration, more Black folks represented in my administration and we’re very proud of that. Whether it’s (Public Health Commissioner) Dr. Olusimbo “Simbo” Ige, her leadership, (Planning) Commissioner (Ciere) Boatright, (Housing Commissioner Lissette) Castañeda, the first chief homelessness officer in the history of the city of Chicago (Sendy Soto).

All of our appointments really speak to the values of our administration, building better, stronger, safer communities. And we’re doing it in an equitable, just way. And so we’re going to continue to make sure that we get it right, and I’m very proud of the administration that I put together.

Q: Speaking of identity: During a Lunar New Year celebration, you raised some eyebrows when you said the 11th Ward is one that “has been known for its racism.” I bring this up because some of your critics worry this language is alienating. Are their concerns valid? Or is your description of the 11th Ward fair and necessary?

A: Well, I think that the entire city of Chicago, certainly no one is going to deny the fact that we’ve had deep segregation in this city. And the fact that for the first time in the history of Chicago, you have an Asian American representing the 11th Ward, that shows that there’s tremendous progress that’s being made.

And so we have to address the harsh reality in this city, that we are hypersegregated, that there has been racism expressed in this city, whether it be through school closures, whether it be the shuttering of mental health clinics, whether it be cutting off transportation stops and lines through various communities, redlining, the push-out of people, gentrifying communities. You know, these are real issues that we’ve had to face over the course of decades now.

And it’s incumbent upon all of us in this city to address racism that exists around the city, while also making sure that we’re building capacity with a variety of voices and perspectives and experiences that can ultimately help build a more unified city. And that’s what we’re doing.

Q: The day after you won in April, you told our colleague that you’ve never called 911 before, which is a sentiment that other South and West siders have shared with me from time to time. But after ShotSpotter goes away, 911 calls will presumably be the main alert system for first responders. Do you envision residents will have to adapt to calling 911 more to fill that gap?

A: Well, let me just say, where violence has been most pervasive, particularly on the West and South sides of the city of Chicago, these communities call 911 more than any other group, and that’s well-documented. The challenge that we have in this city is that we have not had administrations that were committed to investing in people. I’m committed.

Look, community safety is a top priority for me, and it’s on the minds of all Chicagoans. Homicides are down in the city. Shootings are down in the city. The 35 most violent beats in the city of Chicago where over 50% of the violent crime occurs in those neighborhoods. Homicides are down 35%, shootings are down 31%. The work that we have to continue to do to build a better, stronger, safer Chicago has to be very clear about how we invest in people.

If 911 is our response to community safety, then we already have a failed strategy. That is not my strategy. I’m not committed to failing. I’m committed to investing in people and that’s what I’m doing.

Q: Mayor, you’re a champion of the progressive movement here in Chicago. What has shifted in the mood and morale of the movement while you’ve been in office?

A: Well, there’s a lot to be excited about. You know, again, paid time off. We’re talking about 1.38 million people. That’s part of the progressive agenda. We abolished the subminimum wage. It has its vestiges, of course, in slavery. So Black and brown women, we’re talking about 100,000 workers, who are primarily the workforce of restaurants, in particular, they’re all going to get raises.

Treatment Not Trauma, that policy had been lingering in the city of Chicago for years. We got it done within the first year of my administration. You know, again, this $1.25 billion bond deal, right? We’re talking about $625 million dollars to build homes, another $625 million for economic development and resources, workforce development as well.

I mean, this is a part of the progressive agenda that has been stagnant for now an entire generation. We’ve been able to move with expediency. This is an exciting time for the city of Chicago as we build a better, stronger, safer city, through the lens of progressive politics, through the lens of working people. And that we’re very proud of.

Q: That same movement was delivered a pretty big setback when Bring Chicago Home lost and its opponents sought to tie the referendum vote to you. Do you think that association hurt the referendum? And do you think you could have done more to back Bring Chicago Home and get it over the finish line?

A: Well, we know there were some legal restraints that I had. I was not able to campaign for it. But let’s be very clear: We dedicated a quarter of a billion dollars to homelessness. We have, for the first time in the history of Chicago, a homelessness officer. Again, this bonds deal was designed to build homes, and we’re doing that. We’ve already built 100 affordable housing units since I’ve been in office.

There are another 700 that are in the pipeline as we speak. Look, the same forces — and thank you because your publication actually is the source of it — the same forces that worked to stop (Cook County Board President) President John Stroger from moving this same agenda, those same forces were in full effect to push back against the will of the people.

The bottom line is this, it’s the most important thing: We have to deal with the homelessness crisis in this city, and that’s what I’m doing. And so individuals or anyone of interests that are not committed to addressing the homelessness crisis, perhaps they have to dig a little bit deeper and understand why they’re actually opposing that, because the people of Chicago want us to address homelessness. So in other words, their attack was against the people of Chicago.

Q: You have a reputation of being a pretty affable guy, but also one common criticism of your administration has been struggles with relationships with some other governments, City Council, maybe the governor as well. How do you respond to that criticism? Do you think there’s room for improvement there?

A: Well, look at what we’ve accomplished. Look at what we’ve accomplished together. Working with City Hall. Again, the most substantive paid time-off ordinance in the country, abolishing subminimum wage, passing Treatment Not Trauma. We’re moving on the execution of plowing the sidewalks. We’re building affordable housing. We have a bond deal.

Working with the state and the county, we put together an operation to address this migrant mission. We’ve done that together. Everything that I said that we needed to do, that we needed to do it together, we’ve accomplished that. And so my relationship with City Council, with other executives, I’m very proud of the work that we’ve accomplished and what we’ve done together.

Q: You campaigned on a platform of racial justice and unity. But on the floor of the City Council, many aldermen, especially Black aldermen, describe a Chicago and City Council as more and more racially divided. Do you agree with that narrative?

A: Yeah, well, look, 40 years of disinvestment. Whether it’s North Lawndale, Englewood, Roseland, Austin, Garfield Park, every single crisis that we are dealing with right now, I inherited it. There’s not one crisis right now that I caused. Not one.

And I’ve been on the front line fighting for education, fighting for mental health services, fighting to create more job opportunities for people, and we’re doing that. Again, we’re talking about the largest investment from a bond deal in the history of Chicago, a $1.25 billion bond, 100 affordable housing units that have already been built, 700 right now in the pipeline.

This new Office for Reentry, returning residents will now have a place where an entire department coordinates across city departments and sister agencies; $10 million in home repairs right now for families, particularly on the West and South sides of the city of Chicago. And so we are addressing what we inherited. Forty years of neglect, and within one year, we have made hundreds of millions of dollars in investments and now the largest bond deal in the history of Chicago to address the neglect.

That’s what I was purposed to do: Build homes, create economic opportunities for Black Chicago. There are more Black folks in my administration than in the history of this city. And no one else lost because of it. And 60% of my administration made up of women. I’m very proud of the work that we’ve done together.

Q: There’s no doubt that you’ve had a lot of big, bold ideas in the agenda that you campaigned on. Those ideas also cost a lot of money. Out of all the other revenue ideas that you floated — a head tax, financial transactions, jet fuel, hotels — which one do you think has the most realistic path to passing in this term?

A: Well, the key is, what do we ultimately want to do, right? Do we want to build more homes that are affordable? Do we want to really create more pathways for our young people? Do we want to make sure that our public education system is fully supported? That’s the real question.

And the other question that we have to answer is: What happens if we don’t invest in those key areas? And so my approach is put the ideas on the table. You give people an opportunity to debate them, to discuss them. And then we come to consensus together. Building a better, stronger, safer Chicago is going to require investments, bottom line. I’ve made that very clear.

With the quarter-billion dollars into the unhoused, the $1.25 billion bond deal, the $100 million for violence prevention. Everyone says that they want to address these issues in our city, the segregation, the disinvestment. Turns out if you believe in something, you’re willing to pay for it.

Q: But out of that process you just laid out, what stage are you at in terms of deciding what to prioritize in that revenue package?

A: Those conversations are ongoing. You both know that we have a subcommittee dedicated to revenue. I created that for that very purpose. Look, my responsibility in this moment is to bring people together and I’ve done it. I’ve done it consistently. And that’s why this subcommittee exists, so that we can have these substantive conversations about what it’s going to take to right the wrongs that we inherited.

We’re talking about 40 years of gross neglect in the city of Chicago. I really want to just drive that point home — 40 years of neglect. It has caused tremendous harm to people. Do you know what that’s like to wake up and you’re not sure if your school is going to exist? Or if it’s fully funded? Do you know what it’s like to wake up and you’re unhoused?

I mean, these are severe issues that the people of Chicago are facing, and that’s why I’m dedicated to opening up mental health centers, that’s why I’ve been pushing so hard for this investment around the unhoused. It’s why this $1.25 billion bond deal is a start in that right direction. And we’ve accomplished all of this in less than a year. Keep that in mind.

It has not even been a year yet. And everything that I said that I would do, bring people together to build a better, stronger, safer Chicago, every single platform point, we’ve addressed it. And then to your question around our revenue sources, there’s an entire committee dedicated to building an infrastructure of revenue that doesn’t place the burden on everyday people.

Q: Have you vetted or looked at potential replacements for CTA President Dorval Carter?

A: Well, as you know, discussing personnel issues, I actually find that to be irresponsible, and I’ve said that repeatedly. And so, what I’m committed to doing right now is making sure that our ridership continues to go up, which it has. We have hired more people, which we’ve done that, I’ve made a commitment to doing that. Our better streets for buses, it’s the first initiative of its kind to build a better street signal, sidewalk infrastructure. These are all investments that I have put forward in order to build a CTA that we can be proud of. And again, as far as personnel matters, I don’t discuss those publicly.

Q: Why?

A: Because it’s not responsible. Should your employer discuss individuals’ employment status out loud about who they’re going to fire and keep?

Q: In fairness though, these are also employees, not just of yours, but of the city, right? The CTA president also serves Chicagoans and they have a lot of questions about him and all of the appointments that you make.

A: Having questions about how we build a transportation system that ultimately meets the needs and demands of the people of Chicago, those questions are welcome. Determining who I get to fire and hire, I find that to be irresponsible and I won’t discuss personnel matters publicly.

Q: Out of all the current CTU demands — 9% raises, housing assistance, dual-language expansion, sports and fine arts at each school, more sustainable community schools, abortion and gender-affirming care coverage and more — what do you already know that you could say yes to?

A: Well, look, my vision for public education has been made very clear. I want every single child to have what my children have, right? We’re talking about manageable class sizes, arts, libraries, librarians, access to the trades. You know, that’s what a public education system should entail.

Now, I’m a firm believer in sustainable community schools, and primarily because it gives, you know, real ownership of the school community over the actual school. And where there are areas where there’s alignment with my vision and what is being negotiated in the contract, we’ll lean into that. And where there are areas that are disjointed, we’ll have to work through it. We’ll just have to work through it.

The public education system in this city is another area where there’s been gross neglect. And my job in this moment is to lay out a vision that working families want in their school system. Now, who better to help lay out that vision than someone who actually relies upon the school system? I’m the first mayor in the history of Chicago to send their children to the public schools in Chicago. I have a real vested interest in ensuring that every single family can feel proud of their school and that their school is fully supported and resourced.

Now, what we also have to recognize is that the state of Illinois conservatively owes us, the people of Chicago, $1 billion. One billion dollars. And so I’m going to be working with our partners in Springfield to ensure that the people of Chicago get what they deserve.

Q: How does your lived experience as a CPS parent inform some of your education decisions and positions? Can you name a specific policy where you thought about your kids and made your decision?

A: Yeah, just access to the arts. Access to a library and a librarian. When I taught in middle school, the level of research that I asked my middle schoolers to engage in was pretty substantial. It was. I wanted them to really dig deeper into their lessons. Not to have any library or a librarian, I could not imagine teaching at the time in which I taught and not have the ability to take my children to the library.

And that’s something as simple and as fundamental as a librarian, I just want to emphasize this because sometimes I think we brush past that really fast. Just think about your own personal journeys: What if you did not have a library or librarian to reference as you developed your skill set to become the professionals that you are today? Children in Chicago are being denied a library and a librarian.

The second thing is class sizes. When the school was closed when I taught, we inherited an entire school. Our class sizes ballooned. When you are a middle school teacher, there are 35, 38 children in your classroom, and you literally have desks stuffed in corners, it is almost — it is impossible to have full engagement with 35, 38 children in your classrooms. Impossible. We managed it, but it’s impossible. That’s the second thing.

The third thing is this: The number of children who experience trauma every single day because they were unhoused, their parents are unemployed or underemployed, and when that trauma shows up in your classroom, I can tell you, they’re not always thinking about the causes of the American Revolution or comma splices or the author’s main point. They’re thinking about food. They’re thinking about sleep. Those are the three areas that I can tell you emphatically as a public school teacher, if you don’t address those dynamics, you can’t say that you’re really in for the public good.

Q: If I can zoom in on a specific moment in your migrant crisis response. You know, the Brighton Park base camp plan generated some of the biggest pushback you’ve seen against your administration. Looking back, do you think that set you back with building trust on that issue? And is there a lesson to be learned from that?

A: Well, again, the chaos at the border has still not gone addressed. Part of the challenge in this moment is the frustration that the people of Chicago have, we’re not giving enough attention to where that frustration is really based out of. You have a governor of Texas who was out of control.

We had 15,000 migrants in shelters at its height. There are 8,000 now. We’ve saved the taxpayers $200 million. Do you know not a bus has arrived in the city of Chicago since the end of December? Not one bus. Why? Because we put forth a structure that I promised that I would do to create a real operation that’s centered around people’s humanity.

Look, I’ve said from the very beginning, this mission is unsustainable for a local municipality. Because local government is not designed to address an international migrant crisis. We are being woefully neglected by the federal government, and primarily because you have a former president who is controlling the Republican Party.

And so what I’ve done is created an infrastructure that is operationalized, that is centered around people’s dignity and humanity, under severe circumstances in which we don’t have control of what’s happening at the border. We continue to work hard to save taxpayer dollars while still making investments. All of the investments that I’ve already laid out, I’m sure you probably can repeat them.

Q: If I could walk down memory lane, one of the first things I remember you telling me right after George Floyd’s murder is, “I wanted to destroy every bit of a system that would permit such a heinous crime.” Obviously, as mayor now you oversee a large police department, you have a security detail and you’ve had to stand behind the CPD seal at pressers. Has it been strange to grapple with this adjustment so soon after living through the rawness of 2020, and being a Black man?

A: Well, the system that we are referring to is, quite frankly, it’s a system of oppression. And that manifests across the board. I just talked to you very candidly about how the education system has also been an oppressive system, right? We know that from the Civil Rights Movement, the movement really began to take form around the fight for public transportation.

Policing is no different than any other system that has been mired by an oppressive ideology. And it is still my desire to dismantle the oppressive structures that prevent us from experiencing justice.

Look, law enforcement has a responsibility to serve people and to protect. But it is not the responsibility alone of law enforcement to address some of these other critical issues. We continue to rely upon the police system for everything and that’s a problem.

You know, as far as grappling with the contradictions that exist within our society, that’s something that we all work through, whether you’re a woman, a woman of color, a Black man. Advocating for better structures that have historically left marginalized people behind, that is the optimism that perhaps you speak of. If our people, Black and brown people, women would have given up on these systems, you and I wouldn’t be here. And so we continue to push these systems to respond to the needs of people.

The most important thing to note here is that the progress that we have made in less than a year, the billions of dollars of investment, dealing with the migrant crisis, bringing down homicides and shootings, moving forward with our progressive agenda that really speaks to working people and the people of Chicago, that’s the part that I’m leaning into most. It’s an exciting time for the city of Chicago, and I’m looking forward to the work that I will do with every resident of this city together. Thank you both.