The surge of migrants to Chicago, arriving by busloads from Texas, hardly marks the first time a Chicago mayor new to the job has faced an all-consuming challenge.
Four years ago this March, Chicago saw its first COVID-19 fatality. And Mayor Lori Lightfoot, just 10 months in office, had a historically destabilizing emergency on her hands.
The contrast in responses by Lightfoot and successor Brandon Johnson to the defining early challenges of their terms tells us a lot about their capabilities as leaders. And Johnson has a lot to learn from the person he defeated to become mayor.
Lightfoot at the time of Chicago’s first COVID-19 death had not yet found her footing as mayor. She had an early win on City Council ethics reform, but the new mayor had fired a police superintendent and hired a new one who disappointed from the start. She had reversed herself on campaign promises to oppose the controversial Lincoln Yards development and support an elected school board. Her signature economic development program, Invest South/West, was just getting underway.
Once the COVID-19 pandemic erupted, lives were at stake. Politics fell to the wayside. Leadership was in high demand, and Lightfoot responded with some of her finest work as mayor.
She was decisive and articulate. She even showed a flash of self-deprecating humor, poking fun in a series of public service announcements at her new role as public health proctor for a locked-down city.
Over the next several months, Lightfoot took all sorts of extraordinary measures: implementing hybrid teaching in Chicago’s public schools; closing beaches and bikeways; commissioning a “field hospital” at McCormick Place; establishing a rapid response team to guard against racial inequities in the city’s pandemic response; and introducing a five-phase reopening plan.
Lightfoot calculated and set plans to manage a $1.2 billion budget deficit for 2021. And she allowed Dr. Allison Arwady, the city’s health commissioner, to become the daily public face of the city’s COVID-19 fight.
The mayor’s relationship with Gov. J.B. Pritzker was fraught, yet they mostly coordinated on COVID-19. They astutely concluded that the federal government, under President Donald Trump, would offer little more than money, and they resolved to get through the pandemic mostly on their own.
Lightfoot could not sustain her leadership quotient once the worst of the crisis passed — but at least it was there when the city needed it most.
To this point in time, the same cannot be said of Johnson’s response to the migrant challenge.
Seven months into the job, Johnson has notched a few successes. His new top cop, Chicago Police Department veteran Larry Snelling, is an upgrade from Lightfoot-appointed predecessor David Brown. Johnson reined in some of his most progressive yearnings in order to pass a responsible $16.6 billion city budget. He is focused on driving city resources to underinvested communities.
Yet the successes he has will all be overshadowed if he can’t get a grip on addressing the surge of asylum-seekers from the southern border.
It’s notable that Johnson had far longer to prepare for the biggest test of his administration than the overnight notice Lightfoot received. After all, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott began sending busloads of migrants to Chicago two months before Johnson launched his campaign — yet Johnson still expresses befuddlement, lays blame or plaintively but ineffectually pleads for federal help.
In contrast to Lightfoot, who delivered concrete, programmatic approaches to the city’s pandemic response, and reported progress or problems daily, Johnson remains mostly improvisational in his approach. His communication remains stuck in a sloganeering rut, more fitting to an election campaign than to inspiring the public’s resolve and articulating the work of the city’s chief executive.
Johnson has gotten crosswise with Pritzker, a costly and unnecessary feud that brings no advantage to the city. And the mayor still has not recovered the public’s confidence following his single biggest blunder in office — pushing forward with a 2,000-bed tent encampment in the Brighton Park neighborhood despite evidence that toxic chemicals on the site created a clear and present health hazard. It fell to Pritzker to pull the plug.
Some 26,000 new arrivals are overtaxing city resources. At a cost of around $40 million a month, resources are being stretched thin as the city deals with the crisis. And the problem will get only worse. President Joe Biden’s administration still cannot control the Texas border, and Abbott can be expected to intensify his malignant mischief with a surge of migrant bus arrivals in Chicago just before the 2024 Democratic National Convention opens here in August.
Chicago Tribune Opinion
It’s well past time for Johnson to find his footing and step up as a leader. He can start with the playbook Lightfoot left behind from the COVID-19 pandemic: Build systematic approaches; communicate progress against measurable plans; hold city staff, community players and fellow officeholders accountable; and be accountable to them.
Johnson could leverage his own strengths, such as his deep ties to the progressive movement and standing in the Black community, to put to rest the growing tension between the Black and Latino communities over how city resources are being allocated. A comprehensive approach to migrant housing, leveraging the Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago and other community partners, could be another near-term objective.
It’s not too late for him to reboot with Pritzker and forge a working relationship that makes the most of state assets. The small-minded rivalry between the mayor and governor is impeding progress and damaging them both.
An impression is growing that the job of mayor is too big for Johnson to handle. Even small but measurable steps toward addressing the migrant problem could begin to offer a counternarrative.
The progress needs to start now. The migrant problem won’t solve itself. And Johnson needs to exhibit the leadership that’s called for, or the problems will get only worse.
David Greising is president and CEO of the Better Government Association.