The next item on Mayor Brandon Johnson’s progressive agenda: A new Bears stadium. Will his coalition embrace it?

Chicago’s progressive movement has long championed social justice interests, from good government advocates to labor rabble-rousers, police abolitionists and public education reformers.

Now, Mayor Brandon Johnson hopes to shoehorn a wealthy new group into the fold: the Chicago Bears.

During a long-awaited presentation at Soldier Field Wednesday, the mayor stood with the National Football League franchise’s CEO and President Kevin Warren to debut a nearly $5 billion proposal for a new stadium and lakefront redevelopment that would be half-funded by taxpayer dollars.

With political allies from the Chicago Teachers Union — which has vociferously opposed prior publicly funded stadium projects — looking on at the Soldier Field extravaganza, Johnson then sought to tie the shiny architectural renderings of the glass-domed sports arena dominating the lakefront museum campus to his larger, left-leaning agenda.

“Because of the public benefit,” Johnson said when asked how he will make a progressive case for the proposal. “We are investing in people. Look, these pictures are miraculous. We are talking about thousands of lives that will benefit. … Think about how long people have been waiting for investments like this.”

His confidence was echoed by Warren, who cast the package as a “win-win-win” that will serve as an economic catalyst and international gem for generations to come.

But elsewhere in city and state government, a tepid to outright antagonistic response — even from Johnson’s usual allies — signaled the mayor will face tough headwinds in pitching the project as a natural fit for his progressive base, which has historically decried public subsidies for sports teams and other corporations.

State Rep. Kelly Cassidy said she’s a “no” as long as there is a single penny of public money obligated to the project.

“This is so far from a progressive priority as to be laughable,” Cassidy said. “There is not a case to be made to me that would ever compel me to give a billionaire more money. … This thing is dead in the water.”

And Gov. J.B. Pritzker, who was absent during the grand unveiling, said aspects of the package are “probably nonstarters.”

“As I’ve said, the priorities of the people of Illinois are not building stadiums, right?” Pritzker told reporters Thursday. “We have important things we need to invest in for the future of the state and, again, stadiums in my mind don’t rank up in the top tier of those.”

Facing a daunting road ahead of convincing the governor and other reluctant leaders, the mayor going all in on the Bears is high-risk, but potentially high-reward. Chicago has never seen an exodus of a major sports team in modern history, and Johnson becoming the mayor who can take credit for keeping the Bears from moving to the suburbs could serve as a major boost to his leadership credibility (and a potent reelection slogan if he needs to broaden his base beyond progressive voters). But a high-profile defeat could further exhaust political capital that he’s counting on to address other pressing issues.

The mayor recently said he intends to head to Springfield to lobby for more state funding for Chicago Public Schools, the city’s 40,000-plus migrant population, homelessness initiatives and more before the General Assembly adjourns for the spring session in a month.

During a mayoral runoff debate in March 2023, Johnson himself came out for “not subsidizing, but finding creative ways” to get the Bears to stay in Chicago in the wake of the team closing in on a land deal to move to Arlington Heights. He now maintains city taxpayers will not be on the hook for this proposal, though the Bears are asking for a whole bunch of public money.

With the price tag of the stadium itself estimated at $3.2 billion, the Bears will put up $2.3 billion, with help from a $300 million NFL loan. The franchise is also asking the state to take on $900 million in new debt to cover the remaining cost, backed by an existing 2% tax on hotel stays in the city, as well as an additional $1.5 billion in unspecified “infrastructure” funding to reimagine a demolished Soldier Field for park space and youth athletic programming.

The team wants the Illinois Sports Facilities Authority to refinance existing debt for prior projects at Soldier Field and at Guaranteed Rate Field, where the White Sox play, and to borrow at least $150 million to cover future shortfalls in hotel tax revenue. The plan calls for repayment of the new borrowing to be stretched out over 40 years, and the whole proposal would require approval from the legislature and the governor. Neither the city nor the Bears would disclose how much the debt would ultimately cost over those four decades.

Progressive political consultant Rebecca Williams was “baffled” to see Johnson support the project after the city’s political left so fiercely resisted tax increment financing for other megadevelopments such as Lincoln Yards, approved under former Mayor Lori Lightfoot, and to funnel money for the renovation of Navy Pier under her predecessor, Rahm Emanuel, she said.

“The progressive movement for more than a decade has been persistent in fighting the allocations of public money to privatization,” Williams said. “I do not see a way to make a case for this that is progressive, and especially in terms of what we’ve expected of our mayors for the last two decades.”

Johnson praises Bears for putting ‘skin in the game’

Later Wednesday evening, the mayor went on NBC Sports Chicago and elaborated on why a new sports stadium is “consistent” with his values. He never expected years ago to “stand with billionaires,” he said.

“But here’s the thing that I believe is special about this moment: The fact that a middle child, 10 siblings, from a working-class family, is in the position to speak to the interest of everyday Chicagoans and challenge billionaires to put skin in the game, that’s what I promised.”

Pritzker and the leadership in the Illinois General Assembly say they don’t see the $2.3 billion private investment from the Bears as nearly enough.

House Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch told reporters Wednesday, “I’m going to say to you publicly what I said to Kevin Warren privately last week: If we were to put this issue on the floor for a vote right now, it would fail.” Senate President Don Harmon too was unenthusiastic.

Among Springfield’s House Progressive Caucus, where the mayor has some of his closest state legislator ties, reaction was muted. Caucus co-chairs Reps. Theresa Mah and Will Guzzardi were noncommittal on the proposed stadium and said the Bears had a high bar to clear for that to change.

“I, and I think many of my colleagues in Springfield, will walk into that discussion from a place of skepticism about why this multibillion dollar franchise would need public dollars to continue its operations in our city,” Guzzardi said, citing doubt that sports stadiums have a high return on investment.

Economic studies on the benefits of sports stadiums overwhelmingly show that they do not spur employment or wage growth. A 2022 study spanning 30 years of research found that any local economic impact from sports facilities was limited to the immediate surrounding neighborhoods and “overall, consensus findings from economic research demonstrate that public subsidies to fund sports stadiums and arenas likely do not pass a cost-benefit test.”

Still, the Bears in their pitch last week promised more than 40,000 construction jobs to build the stadium, not to mention the bolstering of Chicago’s cultural relevance were it to host a Super Bowl, Olympics or World Cup. Warren cited a Sports Business Journal article that left Chicago out of the top 25 cities for hosting major sports events and lamented, “That hurt my heart. … We cannot fall further behind.”

Many state lawmakers are waiting to hear more on the benefits before deciding, so anything could happen in the next month. Springfield, after all, is where Gov. James R. Thompson in 1988 famously led an eleventh-hour push to approve a new tax-subsidized, $167 million White Sox stadium as the Major League Baseball team was threatening to pack up for Florida.

But it’s also highly unlikely the legislature’s Democratic supermajority will want to rush through a controversial stadium proposal in an election year.

Former mayoral candidate Rep. Kambium “Kam” Buckner was at the Soldier Field event but told reporters he has not signed onto the proposal yet. State Sen. Robert Peters said while he is also “still skeptical” of the ask for state money, “I want to give credit where credit’s due” on the franchise’s $2.3 billion pledge.

“Technically, this is a free stadium for the city of Chicago,” said Peters, a Johnson ally. “The Bears are asking the state. I’m not going to blame someone who’s being offered a free stadium.”

Meanwhile, some of Johnson’s most vocal surrogates were mum on the plan.

His former floor leader Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa, 35th, did not respond to requests for comment last week.

The Chicago Teachers Union, where Johnson cut his teeth as an organizer, declined to comment, saying the organization needs more information about the proposal even though its president, Stacy Davis Gates, and vice president, Jackson Potter, attended the Bears news conference. Potter and the union have also previously spoken out against publicly financing stadiums.

Days after the Bears signed a purchase agreement for Arlington International Racecourse in September 2021 — a move team officials said presaged their departure to Arlington Heights before changing tack and pitching the new lakefront plan — Potter tweeted “Let the Bears leave and then create a team publicly owned by Chicagoans who invest in our city instead of their profit margins.”

The Local 1 and Local 73 chapters of the Service Employees International Union, another of Johnson’s major labor backers, too opted not to comment.

Chicago Federation of Labor President Bob Reiter at first gave bullish support for not only a new Bears stadium but also a new White Sox one, which the team has floated at The 78 complex in the South Loop, before revising his remarks to a watered-down, “The prospect of improving our sports infrastructure for the Chicago Bears is exciting, creating jobs and opportunities for people who build, operate and take the field.”

Don Rose, a longtime Chicago political consultant, remarked that the city’s political left “would probably be opposing it if it was Lori and Rahm” pushing an expensive new Bears stadium.

“I don’t know what kind of progressive case he can make without twisting the idea of ‘progressive,’” Rose said. “He doesn’t want to be the guy who lost the Bears. … That’s an onus, and he doesn’t want it even though publicly funded rip-offs like that are considered to be non-progressive at best.”

Wait-and-see at City Hall

The City Council could also wield some power over the stadium proposal due to the likely need for major zoning changes. But many of the aldermen who most often undergird Johnson’s legislative efforts signaled the path to backing a new stadium is narrow.

“I’d need to hear that the Bears are paying for the whole thing,” Johnson’s immigration committee chair Ald. Andre Vasquez, 40th, said before casting doubt on the proposal living up to the mayor’s purported values. “When you talk to most progressives, they would think of taxing large corporations as progressive, not giving them money.”

Three more of the mayor’s handpicked committee chairs — Aldermen Byron Sigcho-Lopez, 25th, Daniel La Spata, 1st, and Ald. Michael Rodriguez, 22nd — were more open to a new stadium and said their minds were not yet made up. The council member who represents the proposed site, Ald. Lamont Robinson, 4th, praised the plan’s broad strokes but said “we have more work” to do on getting a better deal for taxpayers.

Asserting he needs to see a state-run economic analysis, Sigcho-Lopez said he does not want to watch the city’s public amenities “decay and depreciate,” while La Spata noted the project could be a win for Chicago if the state ponies up major funding for the downtown project. Meanwhile Rodriguez, who chairs the council’s Workforce Development Committee, said the creation of thousands of union construction jobs is alluring so long as the taxpayer funding part holds up under scrutiny.

“Public money going toward public infrastructure does make sense to me,” Rodriguez said. “But I’m very wary of subsidizing stadiums just for the sake of subsidizing stadiums.”

For his part, Johnson on Wednesday invoked Chicago’s renowned Burnham Plan to reimagine the city’s urban planning and protect its lakefront, despite the potential threat of legal opposition from the Friends Of The Parks advocacy group over the proposed stadium’s use of public land along Lake Michigan. The stadium’s vision “truly embodies the spirit” of the architect Daniel Burnham’s 1909 blueprint of Chicago’s future, the mayor argued, before stretching the stakes further.

“All of these year-round attractions in the city of Chicago will generate significant new revenue that will support my commitment to invest in people,” Johnson said, “and that means more revenue for mental health clinics, youth jobs, housing, investments and our community violence interrupters. Simply put, this is going to reinvigorate the entire city of Chicago.”

His Education Committee chair Ald. Jeanette Taylor, 20th, shared some of the sharpest skepticism from City Council’s progressive bloc and doubted how much the South and West sides need this.

“Based on just common sense, it’s a no for me,” Taylor said. “Unless there is some real conversations on how they will support communities of color and young people who have never been in those stadiums, I’m not interested.”

Asked if Johnson’s backing of the stadium deal was progressive, Taylor questioned what the word “progressive” really means.

But finally, she added a definition: “Progressiveness is holding people accountable, even when they’re your own.”

ChicagoTribune’s Olivia Olander, Dan Petrella, Olivia Stevens and A.D. Quig contributed.