Editorial: Mayor Brandon Johnson plays with political fire in his refusal to take CTA action

Editorial: Mayor Brandon Johnson plays with political fire in his refusal to take CTA action

More than the future of Chicago’s public transit system is riding on Mayor Brandon Johnson’s refusal to overhaul leadership of the Chicago Transit Authority. The mayor is risking his standing with the City Council.

In the sort of action that would have been unthinkable in the Daley and Emanuel eras, 20 aldermen recently signed onto a resolution, sponsored by 40th Ward Ald. Andre Vasquez, calling for the removal of CTA President Dorval Carter Jr. They join Gov. J.B. Pritzker, who effectively has urged Johnson to do the same.

This page already has recommended Johnson fire Carter as the CTA struggles to recover from the pandemic and continues to provide unacceptable levels of service, particularly when compared with transit systems in other U.S. cities and around the globe.

We won’t repeat the reasons we think the city needs a new CTA chief here. But we will note another aspect of this slow-moving train wreck (so to speak), and that’s the highly unusual assortment of aldermen who joined to pressure Johnson into doing what seems obvious to the vast majority of the public, especially CTA riders.

When aldermen as far left as Byron Sigcho-Lopez, 25th, and Daniel La Spata, 1st, are aligned on an issue with council members as conservative, or at least centrist, as Ray Lopez, 15th, and Bill Conway, 34th, that covers the spectrum when it comes to Chicago politics. They are among the 20 resolution backers openly questioning the mayor’s judgment on this issue.

Johnson’s intransigence over an official inherited from previous administrations is befuddling. Numerous theories have been proffered to explain Johnson’s fierce loyalty to Carter. None we’ve seen rises to the level of being worth the political price the mayor now is paying.

Especially since this isn’t the first time a large group of aldermen have challenged the mayor directly on a high-profile decision.

Johnson’s move to end the city’s contract with the company behind ShotSpotter, the gunshot detection technology in use in high-crime parts of Chicago, prompted legislation to allow aldermen to continue deploying ShotSpotter in their own wards if they so choose. That measure, which won overwhelming committee support and awaits full City Council action, also attracted some eyebrow-raising council alliances, albeit none including any of the uber-progressive aldermen backing the CTA resolution.

No mayor can function effectively without a working City Council majority. Those of a certain age remember well the Council Wars era that characterized the early years following Harold Washington’s 1983 election and gummed up the city’s works.

Over Richard M. Daley’s six terms as mayor, it made news when more than a few aldermen voted against something he supported. Since Daley’s retirement from politics in 2011, the council has become more vocal and shown streaks of independence, a healthy development for the state of democracy in the nation’s third largest city. But no mayor — whether a traditional politician like Daley or a progressive firebrand like Johnson — can be effective without reliable council support.

All of this is to say that Johnson, with an approval rating hovering in the 20s or low 30s depending on which poll you believe, is playing with fire in taking actions so unpopular that they rouse multiple council rebellions. At any level of politics, lawmakers can detect weakness like sharks can smell blood in the water.

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