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Former teacher Brandon Johnson sworn in as new Chicago mayor

Thousands attended Johnson's inauguration ceremony at the University of Illinois - Chicago.

CHICAGO (CN) — The mood was hopeful in the Windy City on Monday morning, as new Mayor Brandon Johnson took office during an inauguration ceremony that celebrated diversity.

Johnson, a Black former public school teacher and Cook County commissioner, as well as a longtime resident of Chicago's working class Austin neighborhood, was an underdog candidate in the city's mayoral race. Expert political analysts Courthouse News previously spoke with saw him as too ideologically progressive, too niche a candidate compared to other heavyweights in the running. Those same experts predicted either incumbent Lori Lightfoot or her high-profile challenger, Democratic Illinois Congressman Jesus "Chuy" Garcia, would come out on top.

Instead, Lightfoot came in third place during the first round election in February, securing only 16% of the vote. Garcia won even less. The top two candidates ended up being Johnson and conservative Democrat Paul Vallas, the only white candidate in the running.

Despite Vallas leading in the polls through most of March, Johnson ultimately triumphed in the early April runoff election. He won largely on the backs of Black, youth and left-leaning voters, outnumbering the elderly, white and conservative voters who formed Vallas' base. Data from the Chicago Board of Elections show that 60.6% more voters aged 18-34 came out for the April 4 runoff than voted in the February first round, compared to a mere 3.7% turnout increase among voters over 55.

Johnson also enjoyed the support of some of Chicago's most powerful unions, including the left-leaning Chicago Teachers Union of which he is a former member.

The new mayor's inauguration ceremony at the University of Illinois - Chicago celebrated his progressive and Black voter bases, featuring African dance, gospel hymns, and a poem by Black Chicago Poet Laureate Avery Young. The ceremony also included blessings from a Christian preacher, a Jewish rabbi and a Muslim imam. A representative of the American Indian Center of Chicago also spoke on behalf of the indigenous Ojibwe and Potawatomi peoples on whose land Chicago was built.

After being sworn in by Chief Cook County Circuit Judge Timothy Evans, Johnson gave a speech in which he quoted famous hip hop artist Biggie Smalls' track "Juicy," repeating a line that has become his mayoral catchphrase.

"If you didn't know," Johnson said to the crowd, "Now you know!" came a thundering response.

Johnson's dark horse win came as a rebuke to Lightfoot, whose liberal political leanings are more closely aligned with that of former President Barack Obama and other establishment Democrats. Johnson, by contrast, has sold himself as a progressive whose political views more closely resemble those of independent Vermont U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders. Sanders stumped for Johnson at a youth vote rally in March, held in the same UIC sports arena that hosted the inauguration on Monday.

Despite running as a reformer and an alternative to Chicago's long history of political domination by Irish-Catholic patronage machines in 2019, Lightfoot had few friends by the time she conceded the mayorship in February. Through multiple fights with city councilors, judges, the state's attorney's office and influential unions, Chicago's first openly lesbian Black mayor alienated both the city's left and right political flanks over the course of her four-year term. Along the way, she earned a reputation for combativeness that she at times embraced and at other times derided as a racist, misogynistic characterization.

Her concession made her the first Chicago mayor in 40 years to lose reelection after serving a full first term. The last mayor to face a similar loss was Chicago's first female mayor, Jane Byrne.

Johnson, in his inaugural speech, struck a conciliatory tone as Lightfoot handed the office to him. Acknowledging that numerous city councilors did not endorse him, and that Vallas was the preferred runoff candidate among Chicago's business and law enforcement sectors, Johnson rejected what he called a "zero-sum" politics that pitted competing interests against each other.

"We won't always agree, but I'll never question your commitment... and I'll always work to find common ground," Johnson told the assembled politicians sitting on the stage behind him.

Also in attendance were Democratic Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker, both Democratic Illinois U.S. Senators Dick Durban and Tammy Duckworth, Cook County State's Attorney Kim Foxx, several Democratic Illinois congresspeople - including Chuy Garcia - and Democratic state Senate President Don Harmon.

Including so many Democratic figures on the stage makes for a good kumbaya moment with the state's ruling party, but some progressives have voiced concern over Johnson's tracking to the center on policing, the single largest issue of the mayoral campaign. Whereas in 2020 the then-county commissioner called defunding the police a political goal, on the campaign trail he repeatedly vowed not to reduce the Chicago Police Department's roughly $1.9 billion budget.

Members of the press were eager to speak to Chicago residents on Monday, May 15, 2023, as they assembled in City Hall to greet new Mayor Brandon Johnson. (Dave Byrnes/Courthouse News)

His former colleague on the Cook County Board, Commissioner Josina Morita, rebutted that making compromises is a necessity of the office.

"As mayor he's going to work with people," Morita said. "I think he's going to stay true to his vision for the city, but he needs to show he can work with people, and that's what any mayor should do."

Retired Chicago attorney Aurie Pennick, who said she attended the inaugural proceedings to celebrate "the second Black man to be elected mayor," agreed she wanted Johnson to take a harder stance on reforming the police - but added that she considered the police budget only a small part of the issue.

"Money is not the only issue. It's about the public seeing them as part of the community, and [police] need to be trained not to see people as the enemy," Pennick said. "Addressing the police budget without structural reform in the city is easy, but it's not real change."

In line with Pennick's remarks, Johnson has previously promised to add more detectives to the force, and to eliminate the controversial ShotSpotter system. The privately owned surveillance network alerts police to shots fired across Chicago, but has been found to not significantly reduce crime. A ShotSpotter alert is also what prompted the fatal police chase and shooting of 13-year-old Adam Toledo in 2021. The city first signed a $33 million contract with ShotSpotter in 2018 under Lightfoot, and extended its contract in December 2020 without alerting the public.

Johnson did not directly addressing policing or ShotSpotter on Monday, but instead rounded out his first day in office by signing four executive orders. Three of them established deputy mayor's offices in charge of addressing the issues of immigrant and refugee rights, community safety, and labor relations. The fourth ordered multiple city offices to find ways to boost youth employment by way of city internships and public sector jobs.

"So far our administration is off to a terrific start," Johnson said after signing the orders.

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