Posted April 9, 2023
In a stunning rebuke to the political establishment in Chicago and around the country, Brandon Johnson, a Cook County commissioner, former teacher, organizer with the Chicago Teachers Union and endorsed candidate of the United Working Families Party of Chicago, defeated conservative, alleged “lifelong Democrat” Paul Vallas. While the final results won’t be known until all the mail in ballots are counted, it is likely that Johnson’s margin of 51% to 49% for Vallas will likely grow. Vallas conceded at about 9:30 pm election night.
This is a rebuke of the conservative politics that Vallas based his campaign on of “taking back our city” through increasing the number of police and “fighting crime”. Vallas himself has a long record on “education reform” that started in 1995 when he was appointed CEO of Chicago Public Schools, when he began a career of defunding public education and fostering “school choice” by establishing charter schools while “turning around” low performing schools (based on standardized test scores) by firing the staff and hiring new teachers. This led to the decrease in black educators in Chicago from over 40% to around 19% today. He also instituted a pension holiday, by stopping payments into the teacher pension that led to the fund going from being fully funded to 47% funded today. After leaving Chicago, he went to Philadelphia and later New Orleans where he enacted similar attacks on public education. His crowning achievement was in New Orleans where he privatized the entire public school system into privately managed charters after the destruction of hurricane Katrina. All public-school teachers were fired. In the mayoral election he championed “parental choice” by promising to continue a state voucher program to allow parents to use public money for private schools. On public safety, he touted his help in brokering a collective bargaining agreement between the city and the Fraternal Order of Police, who endorsed him. Vallas’ campaign ads focused single mindedly on public safety and in every debate Chicago’s media also attempted to make that the central issue.
Johnson centered his campaign on the idea of “investing in people”. For example, schools should be fully funded and all neighborhood schools should have a diverse curriculum that provides a quality education in every neighborhood. Brandon often would tell the story of how his violin playing son had no schools in the west side of Chicago that had music programs and that he and his wife then had to decide to send him to a school in Hyde Park, so he could have access to music. This is a dilemma facing most parents in the disinvested south and west sides of Chicago. While knocking on doors as a volunteer for Johnson’s campaign, I talked to a student who lived in the west side neighborhood of Austin, where there is an enormous high school that is mostly empty. When I asked her where she went to school, she replied Northside College Prep – a school opened by Vallas along with another elite high school, Walter Payton, in affluent neighborhoods. Brandon also proposes that year-round youth employment be promoted.
Johnson’s public safety initiatives include opening the mental health clinics that Rahm Emanuel closed. He points to the nature of policing where 40% of the calls to 911 are not about violent crimes, but involve mental health issues. He proposed that the city hire mental health professionals to respond to these emergencies rather than by sending armed police officers. Another resident I talked to related an incident when a person on her block was having a crisis and acting erratically, entered their car. She called 911. After doing that, she wondered if it was the right thing to do. A friend of the disturbed person then gathered the man and got him inside their house. When the police arrived and wanted to know where the disturbed man was, she told them that he had left. Incidents like these are all too common and sometimes end in tragedy when the police respond and escalate the situation.
Crime is an issue in poor neighborhoods, but a larger militarized police force will not address the root causes of crime. Housing or, rather the lack of affordable housing, is another issue. When the city demolished the large public housing projects, they never replaced them with scattered site housing. The homeless population is forcibly removed from high visibility locations like the airport where they could shelter in the winter. They are then pushed onto the rapid transit system which leads to calls for more policing on public transit. Homeless encampments near the lakeshore or downtown are forcibly dismantled and people are forced into the poorest neighborhoods of the south and west sides.
These are large problems which will not be solved by fiat or decree, but only through funding housing. Much of the negative ads against Brandon focused on this and contended that he wanted to institute a city income tax (falsely) and that he would raise property taxes to pay for his programs (https://www.brandonforchicago.com/on-the-issues). We can expect fierce resistance to any increase in taxes on the rich, as Brandon has proposed.
The Rise of Brandon Johnson
In October, when Johnson announced his candidacy for mayor, he was polling at 2.3 %. By the February primary between 9 candidates, he came in second to Vallas’s 32 % with 22%, edging out incumbent Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s 18%. On Tuesday, he won 51% of the vote. How did this happen? It wasn’t because of the money – Vallas received $20 million to Brandon’s $10 million. Where the money came from matters. Vallas received $10 million from 44 individuals (https://www.nbcchicago.com/investigations/high-dollar-donations-fueling-johnson-and-vallas-in-chicago-election-how-might-that-influence-the-next-mayor/3109471/). But much of the press’ attention centered on the money donated to the Johnson campaign from unions including the CTU, AFT, IFT, SEIU and other unions. 15 individuals gave Vallas $250,000 each, many of them from the financial sector, including members of Citadel finance, run by the former richest man in Illinois – Ken Griffin, who moved to Florida when his money didn’t buy the results he wanted in the 2022 elections. Far more important to Johnson’s victory were the volunteers from the unions who spread out through the city to knock on doors and hold house parties in every neighborhood.
The backstory to the election is the political shift that resulted from the 2012 CTU strike which electrified the city and beyond. In 2013, Rahm closed 50 schools despite the opposition of parents and the mobilization of the union. The leadership of the CTU along with the progressive union SEIU HCII and important community groups made the decision to form a political organization, the United Working Families (UWF). The victory of the caucus of rank-and-file educators (CORE) in the 2010 CTU election galvanized the existing progressive community organizations, and the issues that united them led to the formation of UWF, a true alliance. It was not dominated by the CTU as some commentators asserted (https://www.unitedworkingfamilies.org/).
Since the founding of the UWF, it has attracted more union allies, the Cook County College Teachers Union, the United Electrical Workers, Workers United CMRJB, Illinois Nurses Association, SEIU local 73, National Association of Letter Carriers branch 11, and Warehouse Workers Organizing Committee. Community affiliates include Action Now, Grassroots Illinois Action, SOUL in Action, 22nd ward IPO, 33rd Ward Working Families, Action Center on Race and the Economy (ACRE), and United Neighbors of the 35th ward. As it has grown, UWF has centered its work on organizing in the community, training people from movements to be part of struggles and candidates for office. In this 2023 election, UWF succeeded in electing 12 alderpersons out of a city council of 50.
Many, myself included, were skeptical of the prospects of the campaign, but the vision of the UWF leadership to grow their power and expand the scope of the possible were born out through the hard work of its members and organizations. For a pre-election assessment by two leaders of the UWF read this interview in Convergence magazine (https://convergencemag.com/articles/emma-tai-and-jackson-potter-its-movements-vs-maga-in-chicago/).
Political Divides in Chicago
One thing that is certain is that the political divides that existed before the election will persist and even intensify after Brandon is sworn in as mayor. After the February primary whittled down the number of candidates from 9 to 2, the choice was stark between the left and right in Black and brown communities, the Democratic party, and the labor movement. In the Black community, former congressman Bobby Rush, known in his youth as a Black Panther, endorsed Vallas as did 4 of the Black primary candidates. 6 of the 20 alderpersons who endorsed Vallas are Black as well. For a list of endorsements of Vallas look at his website (https://www.paulvallas2023.com/endorsements).
Johnson was endorsed by a wide array of progressive national politicians and many state and local office holders supported by CTU and UWF. Notably, Johnson brought in Bernie Sanders, congresspeople from Chicago like Jonathan Jackson, Delia Ramirez, as well as Martin Luther King III to a pre-election rally of 4-5,000 people which energized his supporters.
The labor movement in Chicago is divided primarily between the building trades who endorsed Vallas and the public sector unions who endorsed Johnson. Unions like the International Union of Operating Engineers who endorsed Chuy Garcia in the first round and donated $1 million to his campaign switched to Vallas and pledged the same amount to him in the run off. There has been little movement politically on the part of the building trades from aligning to whichever candidate promises to put more cranes in the sky or shovels in the ground. Johnson’s union endorsements came from education unions, the 3 SEIU locals in Illinois, the Illinois Nurses Association, AFSCME council 31 which endorsed a candidate for the first time in nearly 40 years and the AFGE local 704 (https://www.brandonforchicago.com/endorsements).
An aldermanic supporter of Paul Vallas, Brian Hopkins, in attempting to galvanize opposition to the priorities that Johnson put forward, said “That requires a level of dedication and passion that exceeds people being paid to do it. Most of the United Working Families [and CTU] field army have both. They’re being paid. But they also believe in what they’re doing. They believe in ending capitalism and replacing it with socialism. They believe in defunding the police. They believe in closing the jails. It’s the way they want to reshape society. They believe it’s possible. And they’re fired up.” It is true that thousands of people from unions and community groups were mobilized, but most were unpaid volunteers for whom ascribing the goal of ending capitalism and replacing it with socialism would certainly be an overstatement (https://chicago.suntimes.com/city-hall/2023/4/4/23670664/chicago-mayor-election-johnson-defeats-vallas).
The city council will be divided, but with an enhanced group of progressives and socialists, though still a minority. The challenges they will face were laid out by Jesse Sharkey, former president of the CTU “We need to figure out how to actually invest in those neighborhoods and pull people into the political process,” Sharkey said. “I don’t think we have enough power. I think the people who make corporate opinion, I think corporate money and I think the bureaucracy of the city is largely going to be against that program. And I think we’re going to have to organize people and try to build support for a program that’s going to change things.
“We have a whole city and a whole future ahead of us.” (https://chicago.suntimes.com/city-hall/2023/4/4/23670664/chicago-mayor-election-johnson-defeats-vallas)
Robert Bartlett spent many hours knocking on doors in UWF organized canvasses for Brandon Johnson