Brandon Johnson Won the Race for Chicago’s Mayor By Loving and Fighting for the City

Johnson defeated a conservative opponent in Paul Vallas and will take office as a strong supporter of progressive politics and workers’ rights.

Kari Lydersen

Brandon Johnson gives a victory speech after winning the Chicago mayor's race on April 4, 2023. (Photo by Alex Wroblewski/Getty Images)

In Chicago on Tuesday, hope won out over cynicism.

Brandon Johnson — a former teacher, union organizer and little known county commissioner” as public radio outlet WBEZ Chicago put it — was elected mayor over entrenched Democratic Party operative Paul Vallas, who was backed by the city’s police union and a slew of prominent political leaders.

While the election was close — with Johnson claiming 51% of the vote — the result signified Chicagoans putting their faith in progressive proposals and a candidate who has devoted his life to teaching, community organizing and organized labor.

By contrast, Vallas promised to expand and further empower the police force, and to institute policies like making it illegal to threaten, engage in, or promote looting, damage to property or violence” — an alarming incursion on free speech and organizing.

Chicagoans are indeed traumatized by the city’s seemingly incurable decades-long plague of gun violence, and are also well aware of rising car-jackings and other crimes since the pandemic. The fact that Vallas lost the race despite residents’ very real concern about crime indicates how Chicagoans saw through his fear tactics, recognizing the racist dog whistles — or just not believing that his draconian approach would actually work.

Vallas’ dissonant statements on law enforcement likely didn’t help. He tried to distance himself from the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) even as he boasted of helping to negotiate their contracts with the city, and enjoyed the adulation of FOP leader John Catanzara, a Covid-19 denier and apologist for the January 6 insurrection.

Early favorite Vallas ultimately came across as an entitled perennial politician who seemed petulant and almost shocked that an upstart candidate like Johnson was giving him a run for his money. Johnson called out the dripping condescension when Vallas continually tried to minimize his teaching experience and imply it was somehow disingenuous in light of his union service.

The fact he’s being dismissive of a Black man who taught for four years in Chicago Public Schools is…you’ve got to stop doing that Paul, you just do,” said Johnson in a recent debate, noting that Vallas himself has actually never been elected, only appointed to positions. I got elected, I’ve been an organizer, I know how to put together a plan.”

Many pundits framed the race as a battle between proxies for two powerful interests — the FOP and the Chicago Teachers Union. Former U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan argued in a convoluted op-ed that somehow Vallas’ closeness to the FOP would help him get Chicago’s infamous police in line, a point Vallas also tried to make.

Meanwhile, Johnson’s critics described him as a subservient tool of the CTU — a Manchurian candidate” in Catanzara’s words. The Chicago Tribune editorial board mused about the CTU being the city’s new Machine,” and quoted Vallas-backer Alderman Brian Hopkins making that charge.

Such framings represented a failure to understand the CTU’s role in the city, making the same mistake that former mayors Rahm Emanuel and Lori Lightfoot both did in trying to cast the union as a villain during their own bitter standoffs.

The CTU has its critics, including members who opposed the union funding Johnson’s candidacy. But the CTU’s biggest infraction in detractors’ eyes seems to be that it is too powerful, moving outside its lane and demanding too large a role in city policy.

In its latest contract negotiations with Mayor Lightfoot, the union demanded provisions going beyond traditional schools issues, addressing topics like housing and immigration. The union argued convincingly that such issues directly impact the well-being of students and teachers.

Many Chicagoans seem to agree with this approach. During the 2012 and 2019 teachers’ strikes and throughout the years, Chicagoans — namely Black and Latino families who make up the bulk of public school attendees — have repeatedly demonstrated and voiced their support for teachers, aides, bus drivers and other workers represented by the teachers union and its allied unions. They’ve made this clear through opinion polls and by marching in the streets and manning the picket lines. Not to mention that the 20,000-plus teachers union members themselves represent a large and diverse slice of Chicago, not some outside force.

Labor activist Joe Allen writing in Tempest magazine noted that there were no outraged editorials” when the operating engineers union donated a million dollars to Rep. Jesús“Chuy” Garcia’s (D-Ill.) mayoral primary campaign, and then another million to Vallas—numbers that are in the same ballpark as the CTU’s $3.2 million for Johnson. Likewise, Allen noted, there is no howling about the role of pro-business PACs pouring money” into city elections.

The FOP — also a union, though not part of labor coalitions — is a different animal, and Vallas’ connections with the organization were much more troubling than Johnson’s with the teachers union. The CTU has by most measures been a successful organization relatively free of scandal, whereas the FOP represents a force that the Department of Justice investigated and identified as rife with racism and misconduct. The FOP fought tooth and nail (unsuccessfully) to prevent citizens from being able to see complaints lodged against officers, and defended the officer convicted of gunning down teenager Laquan McDonald, even hiring him as a janitor after his removal from the force.

While Vallas promised he would not be controlled by the FOP, he offered few meaningful proposals to reform the police, or even acknowledge the need to do so.

Vallas made much of his backing by 26 unions, but these unions were mostly trade unions like the plumbers, operating engineers and electricians, which are known for their deep connections to machine politics and in some cases, exclusionary and racist practices.

Meanwhile, the unions backing Johnson, along with the teachers, included SEIU and AFSCME locals — the large, diverse and growing unions representing service sector and public employees that reflect the most common employment opportunities, and most crucial frontline positions, in today’s economy.

Public support for unions is relatively high and rising, driven by the success and spirit of organizing at Starbucks, Amazon and other service-sector workplaces — movements much more akin to Johnson’s organized labor world than the trades that backed Vallas. Whereas Vallas has not previously been a vocal proponent of unions, it’s part of the fabric of Johnson’s identity, and his win is also a vote of confidence in organized labor.

Make no mistake about it, Chicago is a union town,” Johnson said in his victory speech. 

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Vallas’ attempts to connect with working-class, regular people rang hollow and fell flat, even more so than Mayor 1%” Rahm Emanuel, who had more natural charisma. For example, Vallas’ mocking Johnson for unpaid water bills backfired, as all too many Chicagoans could relate to having such debt.

Vallas almost echoed Trump in framing Chicago as a city torn asunder by crime and mayhem, a disaster zone of the type he sailed in to save” in post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans, and post-earthquake Chile and Haiti. He was hired to fix” public schools in the wake of these natural disasters as well as the troubled system in Philadelphia. This meant closing public schools, introducing private charters and attacking teachers unions, and oddly Vallas continued to be seen in the media as a successful expert on this front even as test scores and public outrage would indicate otherwise.

In railing about crime, describing suburbanites terrified to come into the city on the CTA, Vallas seemed to negate the things Chicagoans love about their city and feel proud about in their own lives.

By contrast, the effusive praise Johnson lavished on Chicago in his acceptance speech felt genuine, a love letter that framed Chicago as one of the world’s best cities, rather than a hell-hole in need of rescuing.

Johnson’s solutions — reopening mental health clinics, creating green jobs and youth employment, and implementing the Treatment Not Trauma plan for non-police response to mental health calls — represent a long view, a belief that Chicago is not in a state of emergency but rather has the time and capacity to address problems at the root, and make lasting change.

Johnson evoked legendary Black Mayor Harold Washington in his campaign stops and in his victory speech, and promised a new rainbow coalition — also name-checking Washington allies Rudy Lozano, the murdered Chicano community organizer and Rep. Garcia.

A rainbow coalition like the one that brought Black people, Mexican Americans, Puerto Ricans and working-class whites together in Chicago 40 years ago is certainly needed now, and Johnson might be capable of galvanizing it. Not through the old Chicago way where Black, Latino, Asian and ethnic white pastors, ward bosses and old-school community organizers trade favors and cut deals with each other, but a true coalition where regular Chicagoans of all backgrounds and ages work together to build trust and address the city’s deep-seated issues.

The most radical thing we can do is actually love people,” said Johnson on Tuesday.

Taken out of context it could sound hokey. But Johnson’s earnest delivery — that of a teacher who refuses to stop believing in his students no matter what — could make one believe such a warmhearted vision is actually possible.

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Kari Lydersen is a Chicago-based journalist, author and assistant professor at Northwestern University, where she leads the investigative specialization at the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications. Her books include Mayor 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago’s 99%.

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