Brandon Johnson Inaugurated as Mayor, Promising to Reignite “the Soul of Chicago”

 /  May 23, 2023, 11:52 a.m.

The Inauguration of Chicago's 57th Mayor Brandon Johnson at UIC's Credit Union 1 Arena. Photo taken by Adam Sachs, May 15, 2023.

Photo taken by Adam Sachs, May 15, 2023.

The Inauguration of Chicago's 57th Mayor Brandon Johnson at UIC's Credit Union 1 Arena.

On May 15, Brandon Johnson was inaugurated as the 57th Mayor of the City of Chicago. Johnson is from the Austin neighborhood on the West Side, and he worked as a public school teacher, union organizer, and Cook County Commissioner before running for mayor. After narrowly defeating former Chicago Public Schools CEO Paul Vallas in the April 4 election, Johnson entered office with high hopes and a bold progressive vision. Since his victory last month, Johnson has met with local business leaders and interest groups, done interviews on morning news shows, made connections with lawmakers in Springfield, and announced key staff appointments. He also played a significant role in convincing the Democratic National Committee to select Chicago as the host city for the 2024 Democratic National Convention. 

Johnson’s inauguration ceremony was held at UIC’s Credit Union One Arena, and the stadium was almost filled to capacity with Johnson’s supporters. Jimmy Herdegen, a social science researcher with NORC at UChicago, attended the ceremony because he supported Johnson during the campaign and wanted to participate in this momentous political event. Herdegen said he was a “big admirer” of Johnson, adding that Johnson is a “caring, charismatic guy. I was always hoping he’d become mayor and it’s amazing that we’re here.” 

Victoria Ollie, another Johnson supporter, said she was excited to be attending the ceremony – she is a lifelong resident of Chicago, and this was the first mayoral inauguration she’d ever attended. 

 “I think Brandon will do a great job working with everyone in the City of Chicago to make it a better place,” Ollie said. “But people need to come to him with an open mind to sit down and discuss things like adults, not kids.”

Ollie is an employee of the Northwestern University Hospital and is a member of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), which gave Johnson a crucial endorsement during the campaign. Many SEIU members attended the inauguration, as well as members of other unions that endorsed Johnson during the campaign, including the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU), American Federation of Teachers (AFT), and the American Federation of State and County Municipal Employees (AFSCME). 

The inauguration ceremony began with performances by local dance troupes and gospel choirs. One by one, all 50 aldermen shuffled into their seats on stage. Then, outgoing Mayor Lori Lightfoot called a City Council meeting to order, graciously proclaiming, “Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the peaceful transfer of power.” 

Both Herdegen and Ollie hoped Johnson would be a different kind of leader than Lightfoot. Herdegen said, “I’d been optimistic about Mayor Lightfoot, but it seemed like she was always combating with someone,” adding, “hopefully, Johnson will be more collaborative than Lightfoot on that front.” Ollie also hoped Johnson would be better at reaching compromises, saying, “I believe he’ll be fair, because Lightfoot’s way was ‘my way or the highway.’”

After Lightfoot’s procedural remarks, the swearings-in began. City Clerk Anna Valencia was sworn in, followed by Treasurer Melissa Conyears-Ervin. The entire crowd got on their feet and clapped with the rhythm as Karen Clark Sheard, a renowned gospel singer, performed a rousing hymn. Then, Timothy Evans, Chief Judge of the Cook County Circuit Court, administered the mayor’s oath of office to Johnson, who swore on a Bible as his wife and kids stood nearby. After a resounding applause, Johnson walked out to the podium and began his inaugural address.

Johnson began by thanking the elected officials in attendance and expressing gratitude to outgoing Mayor Lightfoot for her leadership through turbulent times. He retold his life story, saying, “This is still very humbling for me…growing up one of ten [kids] in a working-class family, I never could have foreseen this.” He honored his late mother, saying “She taught me to love people, and that’s ultimately the reason I stand before you today.” He thanked his father for teaching him “what it means to work hard and be accountable.” He joked, “[My father] was a carpenter and a pastor – do you understand the pressure growing up in a house when your father is just like Jesus?”

Speaking with the tenacity and fervor of a pastor like his father, Johnson introduced the central theme of his speech, “the soul of Chicago.” He said, “it’s alive in each and every one of us here today, and it’s always been strong in the heart of everyone who has ever called this land home – I’m talking about the soul of Chicago!” He wove “the soul of Chicago” into a retelling of Chicago’s history, from the Potawatomi and Ojibwa indigenous tribes, to the city’s founder, a Black Haitian entrepreneur named Jean Baptiste Point DuSable, to the thousands of Black Americans – including Johnson’s grandparents – who came here from the South during the Great Migration. He recounted Chicago’s history as the birthplace of the American labor movement and as a welcoming city for immigrants worldwide, alluding to the endorsements from major labor unions and the diverse coalition of voters across the city that were critical to his election victory last month. 

Then, Johnson addressed major policy issues facing the city. He recognized the impending budget crisis, saying “We have a structural deficit – and we have to invest in people!” Recalling a campaign scandal in which Johnson was attacked for having a payment plan for overdue municipal fees, Johnson joked, “You can’t make people feel bad because they have a payment plan – and you can’t stop someone with a payment plan from becoming Mayor of the City of Chicago!” and the crowd became particularly animated. 

Johnson acknowledged that combating rising crime is the foremost concern for the city and his administration. Herdegen agreed, saying, “I think public safety is the number one, two, and three most important issue[s] for the Johnson administration.” Victoria Ollie also said that “crime and policing are the number one issue” the new mayor will face. Johnson laid out his plan to reduce crime by investing in social services in underserved communities and explained that ‘more police’ is not the only solution.

Johnson compared the tragic deaths of Adam Toledo, a 13-year-old boy killed by a Chicago Police officer in Little Village in 2021, and Aréanah Preston, a 24-year-old Chicago Police officer who was killed in a brutal armed robbery at her home earlier this month. Johnson said, “The tears of Adam Toledo’s parents are made of the same sorrow as the parents of Officer Preston.” He added, “Honoring public servants like Officer Preston means truly addressing the challenges we face,” and called for people to come together to find holistic solutions to crime. Addressing the root causes of crime by investing in communities was a centerpiece of Johnson’s campaign platform, and the topic came up frequently in his inaugural address.

Later in his speech, Johnson laid out his plans to address many other social issues that were a centerpiece of his campaign. He called for increased funding for Chicago Public Schools, improving the reliability and cleanliness of the CTA, making city streets safer for bikers and pedestrians, improving police accountability, and providing aid to migrants who have been bussed here as part of a political stunt by Texas Governor Greg Abbott. He referenced Bible verses that guide his public service, and the audience called out to him as if the inaugural address were a Sunday morning church sermon. Johnson expressed support for the Bring Chicago Home campaign to address homelessness and the Treatment Not Trauma campaign to expand mental health services, and he laid out plans to create economic opportunity through jobs and home ownership.

Going back to his roots as a union organizer, Johnson “called-in” political leaders, business leaders, union leaders, and everyone in the city to help him “build a city that works for everyone.” Johnson closed with a hopeful vision for the soul of Chicago, saying, “There is no limit, Chicago, to what we can achieve when we do it together.” 

Following the inauguration, Johnson began his tenure as Mayor by signing four executive orders: one on youth employment, and one each to establish a new position of Deputy Mayor for Immigrant, Migrant and Refugee Rights, a new position of Deputy Mayor for Community Safety, and a new position of Deputy Mayor for Labor Relations. In the days since the inauguration, he visited a migrant respite shelter in Little Village and attended the funeral of slain Officer Aréanah Preston, conveying how he plans to prioritize public safety, policing, and providing aid to Central American asylum seekers as key issues in the early days of his administration.

Johnson assumes the mayoralty with a hopeful vision for Chicago’s future, grounded in the idea that many of Chicago’s most pressing social issues can be solved by investing in people and neighborhoods. The legacy of progressive icon Harold Washington, Chicago’s first Black mayor, looms large for Johnson, as Johnson was elected by a similarly diverse coalition of North Side progressives and South Side Black voters. After a turbulent four years, Johnson has promised to govern in a more collaborative and compassionate manner than his predecessor Lori Lightfoot. With the Democratic National Convention coming to town in August 2024 and the Obama Presidential Center scheduled to open in 2025, the eyes of the nation will be on Chicago and the new Mayor over the next four years. 

Adam Sachs


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