Brandon Johnson Did the Impossible. Now Comes the Hard Part.

Brandon Johnson has gone from the congregation to the classroom to the picket line to the boardroom—and now to City Hall’s fifth floor.

Wesley Lowery

PHOTO BY OLIVIA OBINEME

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A few times each month, for the past four years, Brandon Johnson has made a 25-minute trip downtown to attend Cook County Board of Commissioners meetings — and today is his final one. The next time he makes this Green Line commute, he’ll be headed to the other side of City Hall, to his fifth floor office, as mayor of the nation’s third-largest city. It’s like going into high school, or going into college,” he tells me, beaming as we grip a pole for balance. You kind of feel this excitement.”

Our crowded train makes its way through the West Side from Austin, one of the city’s most underserved communities, where Johnson, 47, and his wife have lived and raised their family for the past decade and a half, and where they once had to replace a window shattered by a stray bullet.

You think about what the neighborhood represents and what the neighborhood could be,” Johnson tells me. You don’t think about, necessarily, the current conditions. You think about the promise.”

Johnson is unlike any other Chicago mayor in memory. He’s the first in almost a century from this part of the city. The son of a minister, he is unabashed about his faith in a way often absent in leftist politics. He has taught in some of the city’s most challenging environments and found his political identity within the city’s grassroots labor and progressive movements, not its downtown establishment. After the administrations of Richard M. Daley, Rahm Emanuel and Lori Lightfoot — mayors known, respectively, for cronyism, profanity and frostiness — Johnson is handsome, charismatic, even funny, and arrives with the reputation of a coalition builder.

Not every middle school teacher and union activist can run and win for mayor in a major city in America,” says Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, who has known Johnson for years and was one in a succession of progressive luminaries that included Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) to parachute into Chicago to aid his campaign. When he talks about hope — and contrasts that with fear — and talks about investment in people and in helping people become the best of who they can be … people want to follow him.”

But before his first day in the new gig, Johnson must graduate from his current one. His Board of Commissioners send-off is a jubilant affair. Even opponents offer tributes to his collegiality, willingness to collaborate and love of family, as allies gift his favorite snacks— chocolate-covered almonds and Kind bars— and jockey for his office furniture.

You are the same age that [my brother] Rich was when he assumed the office,” said Commissioner John P. Daley, whose father and brother were the city’s two longest-serving mayors. I know … you’re not just preaching, you believe what you’re saying. You want to unite the city. You want a city that is the same for all. Whether you’re in Austin, the South Side of the city, the North Side — everyone.”

A faith that drives him

The Chicago that Johnson inherits is one whose reality sits far from its promise, and he speaks frankly about both the city’s complex history and the present-day racial disparities that are its result. In the century that followed emancipation, waves of Black Americans fled the Jim Crow South in a migration that forever changed the face of northern cities, few more so than here, where the Black population ballooned 148% between just 1910 and 1920. Today, de facto segregation crowds the bulk of Black residents into systematically neglected communities. A century after the migration, Johnson is just the second descendent of those Black, American-born refugees to be elected to lead the city where they landed.

His father’s family migrated from Mississippi to Chicago’s South Side, while his mother’s made their way north from Tennessee, ultimately landing in nearby Elgin (about 40 miles northwest). Johnson’s parents were born into sprawling Black families — his father the oldest of 12, his mother in the middle of 15 — who came north clutching tight to their Christian faith.

Chicago’s new mayor Brandon Johnson (left) with reporter Wesley Lowery on the Green Line from Austin to downtown April 27. PHOTO COURTESY OF THE BRANDON JOHNSON ADMINISTRATION

Johnson’s grandfather was a pastor in the charismatic tradition in which he’d been raised as a sharecropper. But in 1984, Johnson’s parents, Andrew and Wilma Jean, decided to break away to found their own congregation on a style of preaching more about community than compelling the spirit. The church intended to serve descendants of the Black migrants who had found they were nearly as unwelcome in Northern freedom as they had been in Southern bondage. “[My dad’s and mom’s vision was] really more focused on — like what Brandon would say — root causes,’” notes Andrea Johnson-Williams, the new mayor’s younger sister who now leads Community Center Christian Ministries, the church founded by their parents in Elgin.

Johnson and his siblings — there are at least 10, including those who were adopted and foster children — learned to drive behind the wheel of a 15-passenger van, ferrying neighborhood kids to the church for music lessons, tutoring and youth groups. Leading the church didn’t pay, so Johnson’s father continued working whatever jobs he could find — as a handyman, a carpenter, a contractor, a truck driver — while Wilma Jean, who had a fifth-grade education and a cosmetology license, did hair out of their crowded three-bedroom home. Their deal was that Wilma Jean would handle the church’s administrative work while Andrew, when he was not working his paying jobs, did the preaching and teaching. Meanwhile, their small army of offspring served as musicians, janitors and Sunday school teachers. Johnson-Williams led the choir; Brandon played the drums.

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It was hands-on training in the tradition of generations of Black ministers whose faith compelled them to activism, from Rev. Howard Thurman, who in the 1940s argued that Jesus was best understood as a political revolutionary, to Rev. James H. Cone, who in 1970 wrote that any message that is not related to the liberation of the poor in society is not Christ’s message.” Today, Johnson sees himself in line with Cone’s Black Liberation Theology.

I’m guided by very basic principles,” Johnson says. Treat your neighbors as you would yourself. That in loving God, you love people. And when you love people, you invest in people.” He stresses that his faith is not just something passed on through his bloodline, but the result of an intensely personal journey that began when he was about 10. It was then that he found himself drawn to the story of King David, who — based on his genealogical line — was not meant for much (and whose job as a shepherd, Johnson notes, is not unlike that of a community organizer), but for whom God had predestined greatness. Johnson was also drawn to the story of Joseph, another unlikely ruler who, despite being cast off by his own family, never turned spiteful; instead, he fulfilled his promise as a leader and liberator for his people. Individuals,” Johnson notes, who were OK with taking on giants.”

“Brandon Johnson isn't going to be the mayor”

It may be cliché, but it’s hard not to see Johnson’s mayoral victory as a David-and-Goliath tale. He started the race polling at just 3%, managed to rapidly overtake the field, and then vanquished a far-favored candidate who outspent him by $8 million — despite a system deliberately set up to prevent someone like him from ever winning.

In 1983, Harold Washington stunned Chicago’s Democratic establishment by becoming the city’s first Black mayor, winning the Democratic primary in part because two other candidates split the city’s white Democratic voters. To ensure such an outcome wouldn’t occur again, the city’s white ethnic machine changed the rules governing local elections and got rid of partisan primaries. Now, if a progressive Black Democrat managed to win the first round of voting, the city’s white conservatives and moderates would get a second chance to defeat them during a runoff.

Cook County Board of Commissioners President Toni Preckwinkle helps send off Brandon Johnson at his final meeting as a commissioner April 27. PHOTO BY PAUL GOYETTE

In this year’s mayoral race, Paul Vallas, the former Chicago Public Schools CEO, had a handle on the moderate and conservative lanes. The question was who would emerge to his left. Progressive voters had helped propel Lightfoot into office four years earlier but had grown disaffected with her leadership.

Initially, most bets were on Congressman Jesús Chuy” García, who had challenged Emanuel in 2015. In fact, when the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) endorsed Johnson — who had spent years as one of their political organizers — Lightfoot dismissed it out of hand. God bless,” she said at the time. Brandon Johnson isn’t going to be the mayor.” But in the Vallas camp, it was clear Johnson had as good a chance as anyone.

We started to realize pretty early on that it is likely to be Brandon and us,” Joe Trippi, an adviser to the Vallas campaign, recalls. In the first round of voting, Vallas won 33% of the vote and Johnson came in second with 22%, forcing a runoff.

The conventional wisdom was that white liberal voters would be reactionary in response to rising crime and back Vallas, who promised to hire more police. The police union went as far as to threaten mass resignations should Vallas lose. Instead, enough of those voters backed Johnson, who had vowed to funnel money into addressing the root causes of violence, turning Treatment Not Trauma” into a citywide catchphrase.

There was an entire political class of punditry that has repeatedly gotten politics wrong,” says state Sen. Robert Peters, a progressive who leads the state Senate’s Black caucus. The Illinois House expanded its [Democratic] supermajority in the suburbs, after supposedly it was going to be the end of days.”

Johnson won with a multiracial coalition, including surprisingly strong support in some Latino parts of the city. The CTU and United Working Families helped lead a field campaign that said it sent 2 million text messages, made 1.26 million phone calls and knocked on half a million doors. The result was a 26,000-vote victory in an election in which about 612,000 ballots were cast. It was certainly a message, if not a sweeping mandate, and the spoils of more than a decade of progressive organizing.

It’s silly to think that, in a three-month election cycle, you can just dramatically change the political trajectory of the city — or a country,” says Emma Tai, executive director of United Working Families and an advisor to Johnson’s mayoral transition team. They’re structure tests. They can tell you if you’ve won a majority to your political argument or your political vision. Because they are, in a blunt form, a test of majoritarian political will.”

A promise to his mother

As we stare out from our train car, I ask Johnson about the theory, held by some within the progressive movement, that too much activism and policy is focused too explicitly on race and not enough on building broader class consciousness. It’s a criticism he rejects as we pass some of Chicago’s Blackest and most neglected blocks. It’s impossible, he tells me, to separate this inequity from the lived reality of race.

For every one dollar that a white family [has] a Black family [has] one cent, I believe eight cents for brown families,” Johnson says. You have to create an economic environment that provides real opportunity for security and generational wealth. … Thirty-five percent of North Siders in the city of Chicago make $100,000 a year or more, and more than half of West and South Siders make less than $25,000 a year.”

One reason Johnson empathizes with Chicago’s impoverished Black and brown families is because he was raised in one, experiencing the pain that accompanies insecurity.

Things were already tough when, on a Saturday in 1991, Johnson’s mother Wilma Jean collapsed in her bedroom as she and her husband prepared to perform a wedding service. She had a heart condition and ultimately received a transplant, but the prognosis remained dire. Not long after, the family says, Andrew was falsely accused of falling asleep during a night shift at the Elgin Mental Health Center. He lost his job and the health insurance that came with it. As her condition worsened, Wilma Jean stretched her meds and skipped doctor’s appointments.

About a week before her death, Wilma Jean pulled 19-year-old Johnson aside. She made her son promise he would not let her absence derail him from the pursuit of what he was born to become. Your siblings will be just fine,” she told him. You’ve got to make sure that you’re taking care of yourself, that you’re whole and strong — because you’re going to help a lot of people one day.”

At first, Johnson disobeyed. He held a family meeting to figure out how the church would survive. While studying at Aurora University (about a 45-minute drive south), he was back in Elgin each week, supporting his father, his siblings and the church community that raised him.

But after some time, Johnson recalls beginning to hear my mother’s words.” He stepped back from church leadership and began working with the YMCA and running programs that served students who lived in Cabrini-Green, the housing projects synonymous, in the minds of many, with despair. The spirit of Cabrini-Green is just, you’ve just got to be there to understand it,” Johnson says. The energy and the life and love for community. But yet … you had the spirit of rejection around the entire community. And I believe the spirit of rejection is one of the deadliest spirits that we can ever confront.” He felt called to this community and its young people, so he went back to school to get his master’s in education and returned to serve Cabrini-Green as a middle school teacher at Jenner Academy of the Arts.

Some teachers come in and try to demand their dominance,” recalls Huell Collier, now 28, who was in Johnson’s first sixth-grade class. He came in and … we just learned from each other. And it wasn’t like, I’m always right, you’re always wrong.’ [He was] like, I want to understand you guys.’ [He came in] more of a listener, while still teaching.”

It was a classroom that had been considered, at best, difficult. We couldn’t keep a teacher for more than six weeks,” Collier explains. But Johnson, who showed up with a baby face and long, neat dreadlocks, made it clear he wasn’t going to be run off. He addressed the students with courtesy titles: Mr. Vincent, Ms. Haylee, Mr. Huell. He mostly taught us about us,” Collier notes.

Johnson grew frustrated with the way life had been stacked against so many of his students. They would show up to his classroom hungry; in the winter, they didn’t have coats or gloves. I remember always sensing that he felt, I’ve got to do more,’” his sister, Johnson-Williams, recalls.

Brandon Johnson makes one last stop to shake hands in Chicago’s 49th Ward before heading to his election night victory party. PHOTO BY PAUL GOYETTE
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After three years at Jenner — where enrollment plunged after the demolition of Cabrini-Green — Johnson took a position at George Westinghouse College Prep on the West Side. He figured he’d be based there for years. But then, one school year in, he got a call from Terrell Burgess, a friend who ran the school’s math department and who was being recruited for a political organizing academy launched by the CTU’s newly elected president, Karen Lewis.

I immediately said it’s not me, but I know someone who would love to do this,” Burgess, now the principal of Westinghouse, recalls. “[Lewis] got to know him and fell in love with him.”

Johnson joined CTU’s staff at a time of political awakening and historic action. Under Lewis’ leadership, the union expanded its concerns to include the issues students were bringing with them into the classroom. Without proper housing, economic opportunities and investment in Chicago’s long-neglected South Side and West Side, the union argued, it was impossible for teachers to teach and students to learn.

It was a movement that was clear about taking on giants,” Johnson says. There are political giants that prevent people from having access to housing and education and all of the public accommodations, quite frankly. There are political giants that want to protect the ultra rich. And then, of course, there are political giants that try to intimidate working people, everyday people who are struggling to make ends meet. This movement, again, was centered around people and our incredible desire and love to see justice prevail. And, we have a lot of work to do still. And, it is clear that giants do fall.”

In 2012, Lewis led Chicago’s teachers on strike for the first time in decades. It would become one of the most historic labor actions of the 21st century, not just a fight about teacher pay but a rebellion against the reform movement and privatization. Johnson served as a key organizer.

But the union’s victory was short-lived: the following year, Mayor Rahm Emanuel closed 50 schools, almost all of them in Chicago’s poorest Black communities. The CTU and the city’s progressive groups were determined to fight back. You can’t close 50 schools,” Lewis declared to her deputies, and not be held accountable.”

"There are political giants that prevent people from having access to housing and education and all of the public accommodations. ... That try to intimidate working people, everyday people that are trying to make ends meet. This movement was centered around people.”

Figuring out how to do that fell to Stacy Davis Gates, a close friend of Johnson’s charged with overseeing CTU’s political strategy. Her push— controversial at the time — was for the movement to field candidates for elected office. Our movement was incomplete if we didn’t participate in electoral politics,” Davis Gates says. This is after 2012, [when] we put together this big, spectacular strike that the city hasn’t seen in 25 years. It was a jubilant show of resistance that ignited and instigated this revolutionary pushback in the city that makes Brandon inevitable in 2023, but what it didn’t do was have a decidedly electoral or legislative intention.”

The union began staking candidates for municipal and statehouse races and agitating for the restoration of teachers’ bargaining rights and the creation of an elected school board. Even races they lost, says Davis Gates, who is now CTU president, helped build expertise and vision: Every investment that our political department made at CTU … planted multiple seeds that have manifested over time.”

In 2014, the CTU helped launch United Working Families (associated with the Working Families Party), a political coalition that serves as an umbrella political party and base-building organization. After Lewis was forced to abandon a planned challenge to Emanuel in 2015 (she was diagnosed with brain cancer, which took her life in 2021), the union backed Garcia’s failed mayoral challenge, then redoubled efforts to field candidates for local office who could later compete citywide.

Emanuel did an exceptional job to show us that, under his leadership, he was determined to build a city that wasn’t for the people of the city,” says Delia Ramirez, a former organizer who, in 2022, was elected to Congress (D-Ill.) with UWF’s support. Then you have a mayor [Lightfoot] who was elected, who was completely unknown, who was able to say she was progressive.”

It wasn’t long before Johnson raised his own hand, first running for the Cook County Board of Commissioners and then, four years later, launching his bid for mayor.

Many people on the Left have allergies to leadership and power,” says Alex Han, a longtime labor organizer who helped found United Working Families and is now In These Times’ executive director. The beauty of Brandon is that he’s not shy about that.”

Where the civil rights and labor movements collide

As the mayor-elect holds up the blue sweatshirt he’d just been handed, a male student with a precisely picked afro shouts out to roast him from a few feet away.

That’s a little too small, ain’t it?” the student teases.

They said the only reason you look buff is because you’re wearing a small shirt,” chimes in one of Johnson’s aides, as they all break into laughter.

For the two days I spent with Johnson in late April, the mayor-elect kept a candidate’s schedule. He popped into a South Side coffee shop to meet with its owner and dashed across town to read a picture book about water to children who excitedly noted they’d seen him on TV. Of all the stops, Johnson seemed most himself perched on a stool at the front of Room 222 in Hyde Park Academy High School, where students had prepared questions: How was he going to keep his campaign promises to improve education and summer job opportunities? What was he going to do about rising rates of violence?

Once inaugurated, Johnson will arguably become the most progressive politician in modern history to lead a major U.S. city. He’ll be working with a progressive state house majority and a growing progressive caucus on the Chicago City Council. It was right here in the city of Chicago that Martin Luther King Jr. organized for justice, dreaming that one day the civil rights movement and the labor rights movement will come together,” Johnson declared in his April 4 victory speech, 55 years to the day of King’s assassination. Well, Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., the civil rights movement and the labor rights movement have finally collided.”

But the opposition remains fierce, the stakes high, and the task at hand daunting. Just a week before our classroom visit, hundreds of teens had caused mayhem downtown, with some climbing on parked cars or attacking drivers. Johnson issued a statement condemning the violence but also criticizing those who had demonized the youth.

It’s not just my job — it’s the job of the entire city — to make sure you’re protected,” Johnson replied to the Hyde Park students. As a father, I will do anything to protect my children. As your mayor, I’m going to do everything in my power to make sure you are protected. Sometimes that means protecting you from yourselves. … Make no mistake about it, I did silly things growing up.”

There is no issue more urgent — or with more power to upend Johnson’s political program — than violence. For years, Chicago crime rates have made it a national punching bag for Republican politicians. No matter their efforts, those working in Johnson’s transition know a summer crime wave, or even a single particularly deadly weekend, could upend hard-earned progress.

You just described why my hair is falling out,” Jason Lee, Johnson’s campaign manager and a key transition official, tells me as we stand outside of the Mid-America Carpenters Regional Council. Despite the news cycle, despite what’s said, we’re going to stay focused on the mission. Every single crime that we can prevent is a life that we can save or save from being traumatized … it’s not just numbers on a page. It’s not just headlines. It’s real lives affected.”

Minutes earlier, Johnson had stepped to the lectern, flanked by hard hat-wearing carpentry apprentices. Perhaps the greatest challenge ahead will be bridge building, so on this afternoon, Johnson was visiting a union whose local chapter had not endorsed him. Now, he was taking questions from the press that illustrated the other challenges that await.

There was a question about a recent appointment to his transition team. Another about his choice for police superintendent. Asked about his recent phone conversation with former President Barack Obama, Johnson replied they spent most of their time talking about their families, with the former commander-in-chief urging him to make sure not to neglect them. Another reporter wanted to know what he was going to do about the violence.

The questions could have gone on all afternoon. After all, if fixing Chicago’s problems were easy, someone would have done it already. During the campaign, Johnson laid out his hopes and dreams. Now, leading a city facing an intimidating deficit, he’s got to figure out how he’s going to pay for all of it.

If he carries out all of his programs, he will be the most progressive mayor ever elected,” says Dick Simpson, a former alderman and professor emeritus at the University of Illinois Chicago. The biggest constraint is going to be funding it … He needs significant help.”

Brandon Johnson, front and center, joins a meeting of delegates from the Chicago Teachers Union, which endorsed his mayoral run, on May 3. PHOTO BY PAUL GOYETTE

Even with the city council’s large progressive bloc, it is still short of the majority he’ll need to deliver many of his most ambitious agenda items, and many of his opponents may have just as much reason to undermine him as they do to lend a hand. Investment in the West Side and South Side will require help from a business community that may be mistrustful of Johnson and spooked by the perception of rising violence. While Johnson had met with some police officers, he had yet to meet with the police union brass when we spoke. He will also have to negotiate a teachers’ contract with the very union responsible, in many ways, for his entire political career. 

He’s a lot smarter than people give him credit for,” says Ameshia Cross, a Democratic strategist who has known Johnson for years. This is a guy raising his family in one of the hardest hit communities in the city.” But, she added, There are powers that be that would rather see Chicago burn than would like to see Mayor Johnson actually succeed.”

And then there’s the risk that, once in office, the movement that brought him there will grow disillusioned with the slow pace of government bureaucracy in the face of reactionary roadblocks — the fate met by both Harold Washington and Obama, trailblazers whose political reigns left much of the Left disappointed with what was left unrealized. It has taken us so many losses, so many times, to organize ourselves into the force that we are,” says Alderwoman Rossana Rodríguez Sanchez, part of the city council’s progressive bloc and a longtime organizer. After she met Johnson on a recent afternoon at Cafe Tola, an empanada spot in her ward, she said this is a moment of reconstruction, in which movement-backed officials must rebuild the government systems defunded over years of establishment rule: We have to operate with a level of urgency. It’s a little bit overwhelming.”

Johnson says he welcomes ongoing pressure from the movement he helped build and hopes the organizing work does not cease during his administration. There has to be a commitment from the movement to continue to organize,” Johnson insists when I ask him how he avoids becoming a progressive disappointment. The key, he says, is to continue the grassroots work of bringing people into the tent, to not grow complacent because one of their own occupies the big desk on the fifth floor of City Hall. We should never get comfortable with the people that we have,” he says. The movement has to continue to grow and organize. I don’t see any reason why it should stop just because I’m elected.”

Former New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, who was a longtime progressive activist before he was elected in 2013 (and who, to many on the Left, left office as a disappointment), says there’s an inherent contradiction between being a social critic, an activist, a change agent, and then having to manage a government that is built sort of on the foundation of the status quo. And let’s face it, that is the norm in America. The vast majority of government entities and government culture support the current power structure and rarely moves radically in favor of equity.”

The minute you get in the door, your own people start to feel uncomfortable with the equation,” de Blasio says. Your own supporters. Your own friends. We’re sort of used to protesting whoever is in power. We’re used to challenging whoever is in power. When it’s one of us, we kind of don’t know what to do with it.” As Johnson and I finish our final interview, I ask how, whenever his term is up, we should grade his administration. He thinks for a moment, then invokes those same West Side neighborhoods we rode past on the Green Line.

It will be fair to judge my administration around what our investments look like,” the mayor-elect tells me a couple weeks before his May 15 inauguration. It will be fair to assess my administration around how those investments have impacted the neighborhoods more harmed by disinvestment. When my term is over, how did we manage our resources? I’m confident …”

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Wesley Lowery is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist.

Democratic Rep. Summer Lee, who at the time was a candidate for the state House, at a demonstration in Pittsburgh for Antwon Rose, who was killed by police, in 2018. Lee recently defeated her 2024 primary challenger.
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