Much has been made of a new progressive era in Illinois politics, and a series of recent public remarks by elected Chicago officials formed a triptych of the promise and the problems of being a progressive leader at this time in Illinois.
“The vanguard for progressive policy all over this country” is what Mayor-elect Brandon Johnson called Illinois before a joint session of the state legislature last week. Relishing the standing ovations from both sides of the political aisle, from Chicagoans and from downstate lawmakers, Johnson sidestepped, for now, any mention of the hundreds of millions of dollars worth of new taxes and spending he’ll be seeking from Springfield before long.
Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx declared victory for her progressive brand of justice before a City Club crowd packed Tuesday with admirers and staffers — and some skeptics, no doubt. Then she abruptly announced, 18 months before the next election, that she will not seek a third term.
[ Editorial: Why Jussie Smollett must be part of the legacy of Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx ]
And then there was outgoing Mayor Lori Lightfoot, who ran as a progressive reformer to win the job, then governed as a centrist, then paid a steep political price for the switch when voters rejected her at the polls.
Burnishing one’s legacy is never simple, and it’s especially hard for a one-term officeholder. But Lightfoot put her best foot forward, telling an Executives’ Club audience last week that she will leave the city with just an $85 million deficit for 2023. That’s about one-tenth the size of the $838 million gap that predecessor Rahm Emanuel left behind in 2019 —$200 million worse than Emanuel had predicted on his way out the mayor’s office door.
Of the three speeches, Foxx’s was most complex and most telling. She took to the podium with what appeared to be two speeches in her hands, then laid the papers down and spoke plainly, and forcefully, about what she has accomplished in office.
Foxx spoke about how her childhood in Cabrini-Green, the sexual abuse she suffered, a period of homelessness and a youth infused with low expectations all informed her yearning for equity and justice. She noted that less than 1% of 2,400 district attorneys nationwide are Black women.
Foxx pointed to the injustices of a cash bail system in Illinois that allows what she called “rich criminals” to walk free while awaiting bail while people who cannot afford to post a $100 bond for nonviolent offenses get locked up — away from family, their jobs lost or in jeopardy, subject to pressures that can push people toward crime.
She noted that, among state’s attorneys in Illinois, she was a rare supporter of the SAFE-T Act that eliminates cash bail but is in limbo now because of a court challenge.
Aware of the critique that her approach as prosecutor — emphasizing the rights of the accused as much as those of the victims — has contributed to an increase in crime, Foxx emphasized that violent crime on her watch actually fell in Cook County from 2017 to 2019, until a “once-in-a-lifetime pandemic” spurred a national spike in violent crime. The jump in Chicago has been far greater than in other major cities, and Foxx offered no explanation for the disparity, but still a point had been made.
It was a one-sided account, to be sure. And self-serving. While listening to Foxx, it felt impossible and also unwise to tune out the alternative narrative spun out from other quarters for so long: from Lightfoot and her ineffective police Superintendent David Brown, as well as rank-and-file Chicago cops, all blaming the state’s attorney’s office for refusing to prosecute what they saw as winnable cases.
The truth is hard to discern in the rhetorical arm wrestle between a progressive-minded prosecutor like Foxx, the pragmatists like Lightfoot and the law-and-order absolutists like many of Chicago’s cops on the beat.
That struggle between the ideals of the progressive agenda and the complexities of actual governing are worth keeping in mind as Johnson prepares to take office on May 15. The platitudes about Chicago’s role as an economic engine for Illinois and progressivism as a panacea for the state quickly will run into the real-world struggle to get legislation passed in Springfield.
[ David Greising: What do Mayor-elect Brandon Johnson’s transition choices foretell? ]
If Johnson expects to implement his real estate transfer tax for homes worth $1 million or more, he’ll need Springfield’s help. If he hopes to begin taxing securities trading, he’ll need to outmaneuver Chicago exchanges that previously have beat back such measures — and persuade Gov. J.B. Pritzker to reverse a publicly stated aversion to the idea.
Perhaps Johnson is right that, with his election, Illinois has established itself in the vanguard of progressive politics. He need look no further than the experiences of Lightfoot and Foxx to see what that means in practice. Lightfoot compromised abundantly, lost her progressive support and lost her job. Foxx’s steadfast refusal to compromise brought on pressures and criticism that may have contributed to her surprise decision to exit office.
Progressive principles will take Johnson only so far. Decisions he makes and actions he takes when his progressive ideals crash into the reality of governing will determine his legacy in office too.
David Greising is president and CEO of the Better Government Association.
Submit a letter, of no more than 400 words, to the editor here or email firstname.lastname@example.org.