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Chicago's Mayor-elect Brandon Johnson on his plans for the city


Brandon Johnson was elected mayor of Chicago this week with 51.5% of the vote. Mr. Johnson is a former school teacher, teachers union organizer and Cook County commissioner. He will be sworn in on May 15. Mayor-elect Johnson joins us now from the West Side of Chicago. Mr. Mayor-elect, thanks so much for being with us.

BRANDON JOHNSON: Hey, thanks for having me.

SIMON: This was an awfully close election. How do you knit the city together?

JOHNSON: First of all, let me just say that I am incredibly humbled and grateful to have this opportunity to serve the city of Chicago, And I made it very clear on election night that individuals who do not agree with me or those who did not vote for me - I'm going to be the mayor for them as well. And the way we unite this city is by reaching out and organizing around the city and making sure that everyone knows that there is a literal seat at the table for them. And that work has already begun. And I'm looking forward to uniting our city and bringing people together.

SIMON: So many Chicagoans said public safety, crime, was the most important concern. By the time you won office, you said you would cut not one penny from the police department budget, but earlier in the campaign, you'd indicated you would at least redirect $150 million from the police budget. You're mayor-elect now, soon mayor. What do you say?

JOHNSON: I'm saying the same thing, that the $150 million - it's not a cut. Those $150 million will be allocated in a way that allows for smart policing. So, for instance, you know, we have to implement the consent decree that's going to cost us $50 million - I mean, we're talking conservatively - in order to train and promote, you know, 200 more detectives. We're going to have to spend to do that, making sure that we are actually implementing the laws that are on the books. Right? We're talking about red flag laws where individuals who have guns that should not have them - those are all investments that we are making. So it's not a cut. It's about making sure that we're spending strategically so that the city of Chicago could be a better, stronger, safer city.

SIMON: Will you hire more police to put them on the street?

JOHNSON: You know, certainly there are vacancies there that we are, you know, willing to fill. But, you know, as you know, there's been an issue all over the country filling police vacancies. And that's something that, you know, not just the city of Chicago is going to have to tackle. That's a challenge for the entire country. You know, so those vacancies are not going to get filled overnight. I mean, it still takes two years to become a police officer. And quite frankly, we cannot afford to wait two years for public safety. That's why, you know, my plan is implementing, again, the consent decree and spending and investing to do that, making sure that we are enforcing the laws that are on the books. You know, I've talked, you know, very candidly about training and promoting at least 200 more detectives.

SIMON: With respect, though, what do you say to people who say, well, 200 detectives sound fine, but they investigate crimes after they've occurred? What we need are police on the street now to prevent me from getting mugged or worse.

JOHNSON: Yeah. Well, as I said before, first of all, it takes two years to become a police officer. You're not getting police officers overnight. So all due respect, what I say to them is, let's do what works. Hiring young people, getting young people off the streets - that is going to keep us safer. Making sure that, you know, we bring closure to crimes that do happen - that is a deterrence. If you don't think you're going to get caught, there's a greater likelihood that you will attempt it again. This is why I'm also committed to providing mental health support for our communities, and that includes police officers. The stories that I've heard repeatedly about the lack of mental health support for everyone in the city of Chicago, and that includes law enforcement - I'm going to address that because that's a real dynamic that has gone unfunded and unaddressed. And the faster we do that, I believe the safer our communities will become.

SIMON: As mayor, you're going to negotiate a new contract with the Chicago Teachers Union. You worked for them. They spent a lot of money to help you get elected. Can you be tough negotiating a new contract with a union that worked so closely to get you elected?

JOHNSON: My responsibility is going to be to build a public school system that works for everyone. My role is bigger than negotiating a contract. My children attend public schools. I'm a product of the public school system. So as a parent, as someone who has been a teacher, you know, I take this very seriously. And of course I have a fiduciary responsibility to make sure that the interests of everyone - that those interests are protected. But again, I want to make this very clear. My role as mayor of the city of Chicago is to offer a vision for public schools that work for everyone, regardless of where they live. And that is an incredible task, and I'm honored to have the responsibility to do that.

SIMON: Let me put it in real Chicago terms. What happens if the union says to you, look, we went all out for you. We rely on you to do the same for us?

JOHNSON: I appreciate that framing. Again, building a public education system that works for every single family is not going to be confined to a contract. And I understand why you're framing it that way, because that is a very simplistic form in which people are accustomed to discussing this. I remember public education, particularly at the expense of the state, has always been an idea for deliberation of people. And that's what my commitment is. And as a parent that actually has children who attend the Chicago Public Schools, what I want for my family, I want for every single family, and that's my commitment to public education.

SIMON: Mayor-elect Brandon Johnson of Chicago, thanks so much for being with us, sir.

JOHNSON: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
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