Brandon Johnson, Progressive Union Organizer, Elected Mayor Of Chicago

Overcoming a major fundraising gap, accusations that he would “defund” the police and public polling that predicted his defeat, progressive Brandon Johnson, a Cook County commissioner and organizer for the Chicago Teachers Union, won a hotly contested race for mayor of Chicago, the nation’s third-largest city.

Johnson, who is a Black leftist and former schoolteacher, defeated former CEO of Chicago Public Schools Paul Vallas, a white technocrat at the conservative edge of the contemporary Democratic coalition.

Johnson’s victory in one of the starkest ideological proxy battles in the annals of recent municipal politics is a historic achievement for the activist left that is likely to have ripple effects across the county. Its significance for intra-Democratic Party politics is rivaled perhaps only by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s surprise ouster of then-Rep. Joe Crowley in 2018.

That Johnson prevailed amid an uptick in crime and economic uncertainty that has strengthened the hand of the moderate wing of the Democratic Party in the past three years is that much more remarkable.

“We in part have a decaying of trust in institutions, a tearing of our social fabric, due to failures of leadership,” said Alex Han, a former top official at SEIU Healthcare Illinois & Indiana and co-founder of United Working Families, a progressive political party that supported Johnson. “Brandon is a leader, and the movement that he has helped build — and which is helping build him — is leading as well.”

Since the start of the runoff, Vallas raised about $13 million to Johnson’s $7 million. Even that level of cash would not have been possible for Johnson without the support of the Chicago Teachers Union and other labor organizations that were responsible for 90% of the money he raised over the course of the entire campaign.

Johnson’s candidacy was the culmination of a decade of organizing and political institution-building by the CTU. His win over Vallas, a charter school proponent and outspoken critic of CTU, likewise solidifies a leftward shift in education policy that has gained steam over the same period.

“CTU’s influence in politics is absolutely crucial to his victory,” said Tom Bowen, a Chicago Democratic consultant who advised Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s unsuccessful reelection campaign.

Vallas, who was endorsed by the Fraternal Order of Police, the city’s main police union, hammered Johnson relentlessly for his sympathy for calls to “defund the police” in 2020. Johnson interpreted the slogan as a desire to reallocate funding from law enforcement to social programs that attack the root causes of crime.

As a mayoral candidate, however, Johnson promised not to cut a dime of police spending and issued dubiously worded denials that he had ever embraced “defund the police” in the first place.

But unlike Vallas, Johnson did not promise to increase police funding or fill the 1,600-person backlog that the Chicago Police Department faces relative to its 2019 staffing levels.

He instead proposed redirecting wasteful or unnecessary parts of the police budget to add 200 more detectives to the police force through internal promotion.

Johnson also ran on raising taxes on businesses and affluent households to fund a host of social programs that he billed as the surest route to lower crime in the long run. Key parts of his agenda include reopening shuttered mental health clinics, doubling the city’s summer jobs program for young people and sparing city taxpayers another property tax hike.

The son of a Christian preacher from Elgin, Illinois, Johnson employed soaring oratory to appeal to Chicagoans’ compassionate ideals. Anyone paying a moment’s notice to the race knew that Johnson planned to “invest in people.”

“If we’re going to get a better, stronger, safer Chicago, we have to do what safe American cities do, and they invest in people,” Johnson said in a televised debate against Vallas on March 8.

That message resonated, including among many older and more moderate Black voters who Vallas courted.

LaTrell Rush, a resident of the Woodlawn neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side, told HuffPost that her priorities for a mayor would be to “stop the killing” and provide better resources for people with mental illnesses.

“Paul ― I’m not connecting with his vibes,” Rush said. “With Brandon, my vibes connect.”

Arjette James-Wallace, a retired emergency medical technician from West Englewood, walked out of the room when Vallas addressed the congregation of New Beginnings Church on March 26. The church’s pastor, Rev. Corey Brooks, had endorsed Vallas, but James-Wallace backed Johnson, whom she described as the “lesser of two evils.”

James-Wallace liked Johnson’s plan to fund mental health clinics and disliked Vallas’ hysteria about crime, which she said reflected a white racial bias. “When it started affecting people not of color, then they want to put it on the news,” she said.

Other voters supporting Johnson simply did not believe that he would be able to defund the police, even if he wanted to do so.

“I don’t think Brandon’s going to do that,” said Ahmed Hattab, an IT specialist living in northwest Chicago’s Belmont-Cragin neighborhood. “It’s not that easy to do.”

Hattab blamed what he sees as the excesses of the Black Lives Matter movement for making police afraid to do their jobs. But his 17-year-old daughter, Jenin, who accompanied him to the polls, helped convince her father to support Johnson.

“He’s the kind of person who starts from the bottom,” Hattab said. “And he worked with the schools a lot.”

Johnson is due to succeed Lightfoot, the city’s first Black woman mayor and first openly gay mayor.

Paul Vallas, center, celebrates a strong showing in the first round of voting on Feb. 28 that enabled him to proceed to a runoff against Johnson on Tuesday.
Paul Vallas, center, celebrates a strong showing in the first round of voting on Feb. 28 that enabled him to proceed to a runoff against Johnson on Tuesday.

Nam Y. Hu/Associated Press

Amid unrelenting criticism from the left and right and public outcry over the crime rate, Lightfoot did not survive the first round of Chicago’s instant-runoff elections on Feb. 28.

Johnson’s rise was likely made possible by a fateful miscalculation that Lightfoot made. The incumbent mayor largely ignored Johnson during the first round, focusing her resources instead on cutting down U.S. Rep. Jesús “Chuy” García (D-Ill.), who ultimately came in fourth place.

In the runoff against Vallas, Johnson consolidated his existing support among largely young and white progressive voters on the city’s North Side while adding to his coalition in the majority-Black precincts on the South and West sides where Lightfoot was dominant in February.

To achieve the latter, Johnson succeeded in framing the race as a choice between an heir of the Black civil rights movement and a reactionary Republican posing as a “lifelong Democrat.” He enlisted the support of local Black icons like Cook County Board of Commissioners President Toni Preckwinkle and Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr., alongside national Black surrogates like Rev. Al Sharpton and House Democratic Whip Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.).

Vallas’ long trail of impolitic comments on conservative talk shows — from his 2009 admission that he was “more of a Republican than a Democrat” to more recent remarks disparaging former President Barack Obama — made Johnson’s job easier. And while Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker (D) stayed out of the race, Vallas’ criticism of Pritzker’s management of the COVID-19 pandemic prompted Pritzker’s team to take a swipe at Vallas.

Johnson and Vallas are “both candidates who come from their bases, and they’re both candidates that are flawed,” Bowen said. “The winner is the one that essentially covered up those flaws best.”

As hard as the campaign was for Johnson, the challenges that await him in City Hall are perhaps even more formidable. He stands to inherit the same public safety crisis and fiscal challenges as Lightfoot and possibly face even more political opposition. The Chicago City Council, which is expected to be more moderate than Johnson, recently voted to expand its power vis-a-vis the mayor.

In addition, the Fraternal Order of Police and major business groups have signaled that they are hostile to Johnson’s agenda.

Bowen predicted that forces outside of Johnson’s control would force him to disappoint his base and govern more from the middle.

“An odd thing about Chicago politics is that the extreme left hates you and the extreme right hates you, which just automatically forces you to the center,” he said.

But some of Johnson’s allies have already indicated that they are aware of the limitations that Johnson will face once in office.

“People will have everyone else believe that if Brandon becomes mayor, that, magically, generations of underfunding, generations of segregation, generations of an equitable application of school funding is suddenly going to be over,” Stacy Davis Gates, president of the Chicago Teachers Union, told HuffPost in an interview in late March. “That’s not going to happen.”

In that way, Johnson’s mayoralty is a “starting point” rather than an “endpoint,” she added.

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