Chicago is in the midst of a high-stakes runoff election that will decide who will lead the Second City as its next mayor. In a stunning first round of voting last month, incumbent mayor Lori Lightfoot was knocked out of the race. As a result, the race pits Paul Vallas, a conservative Democrat and former CEO of Chicago Public Schools, against Brandon Johnson, a former rank-and-file member of and staff organizer for the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) who currently serves on the Cook County Board of Commissioners. Voters head to the polls on April 4.
Johnson is running on a progressive platform and has gained support from labor unions including the CTU as well as grassroots community organizations, while Vallas’s campaign is benefiting from the support of the business community and big money donors. Much of the race has been focussed on crime and public safety, issues where the two candidates have presented very different plans. Vallas has promised to “take the handcuffs off” the police, in his words, while dramatically increasing the number of officers on the street. Johnson, meanwhile, has released a comprehensive proposal to make investments in social programs, violence prevention and alternatives to traditional policing.
When it comes to paying for these investments, Johnson wants to raise taxes on the wealthy and corporations. Vallas, meanwhile, argues that budgetary maneuvers are the answer to the city’s economic problems.
Can the insurgent progressive candidate Johnson and his coalition of supporters carve a path to the mayor’s office? If so, how will his administration address the issues that matter most to Chicagoans, from crime and public safety to the cost of living and housing crises crushing poor and working people? And what plans does he have for counteracting the political gridlock and the elite-serving status quo that has dominated Chicago politics and engendered so much lost faith in government among city residents?
To answer these questions, I spoke with Brandon Johnson on Friday, March 17. So far, Paul Vallas has not agreed to an interview, despite multiple requests. This transcript has been edited for length and clarity, a full video is viewable below.
Maximillian Alvarez: What are the practical steps that your administration would take to demonstrate what a progressive approach to public safety looks like? How would that approach address the immediate concerns that people, including many poor and working class people, have about both public safety and abuse by the police? And how would it address the longer term vision of a Chicago that treats the root causes of crime instead of just policing the symptoms?
Brandon Johnson: You’re right, it’s a concern for people all over the city of Chicago. It’s beyond a concern. I mean, it’s a real serious problem. It is quite gruesome, frankly, that the amount of lives that have been lost because of violence, and particularly gun violence. I live in a neighborhood on the West Side of Chicago. It’s a beautiful community, the Austin neighborhood. It’s the largest concentration of Black folks anywhere in the city, probably one of the highest concentrations of Black folks anywhere in the country.
And as beautiful and as dynamic as my neighborhood is, that my wife and I are raising our three young children in, it is one of the more violent neighborhoods in the entire city. So this is something that I live through every single day, and it’s the experience that people are having all over the city of Chicago. But I can tell you just on a very personal note, we’ve had to change a window from one of the bullets that have come through our home.
And so, this is something that we live through and that we are dealing with and it is a serious problem. And so, from the perspective of someone who is living the experience every day, much like people are throughout the city of Chicago, you can do both — you can get at the root causes of crime and you can address the immediate dynamic of solving crime. And that’s what my public safety plan does, it calls for investment.
So the first thing that I invest in is promoting and training 200 more detectives to actually solve crime. Right now, particularly in Black and brown communities, the clearance rate for violence that happens in our neighborhoods is below 20%. You’re not going to engender confidence in policing if you’re not solving crime. The second thing that we have to do is actually implement the consent decree. It’s going to cost $50 million conservatively to make sure that we are adhering to the Department of Justice.
And so, this is something that we have to do and we can do right away. We can actually enforce the laws that are on the books, our red flag laws, and make sure that we are prosecuting those individuals and work towards prevention. That’s really what it’s about. If you’re a mother, you would certainly rather prevent your child from being murdered and harmed than having their murder case solved, right?
And if we’re not doing what safe American cities do around this country, you’re going to continue to have the same type of problems. So we can’t keep investing in failed policies. That’s why I’m committed to doubling the amount of young people that we hire, not just for summer programs, but for year-round employment. The data has proven that the best way to prevent violence from happening anywhere, but particularly here in the city of Chicago, is by investing in young people.
We also have to make sure that we’re opening up our mental health centers to provide trauma-related support services for everyone because all of us are experiencing trauma, every one of us. But we also have to pass an ordinance called Treatment Not Trauma. Almost 40% of the 911 calls that come through are mental health crises. So we should have mental health crises professionals responding to those calls.
This is not a radical idea. In fact, the Los Angeles Police Department, this is literally what they’re calling for. And so, by having mental health crises professionals, EMTs, responding to the 911 calls that are not violent, that frees up law enforcement to focus on the more severe crime. So we can solve the immediacy of public safety by making sure we’re training and promoting detectives, implementing the consent decree, making sure that we are actually enforcing the laws that are on the books.
We can also deal with the immediacy of violence prevention by actually investing in programs and services that we know the data proves reduces violence. And then of course, long term, really building up our mental health centers, also making sure we’re investing in housing and public education. We should be doing more to develop minds, no matter where you are. And that’s what my public safety plan gets at.
Maximillian Alvarez: What about the relationship between the public and the police? There’s a fundamentally broken relationship there because of the abuses that people have suffered at the hands of the police.
Brandon Johnson: We have spent and paid out nearly $1 billion alone over the last 10 years on police misconduct and police brutality cases. So there’s a lot of work to be done there. You know what helps with that? One, supervision. That helps. Right now in the city of Chicago, we have supervisors that supervise the supervisor. Police officers are showing up every single day and they don’t know who their supervisor is. That’s like me as a public school teacher showing up to a school building and my principal changes every other day.
But we also have to make sure, again, that we are implementing the consent decree. This is why I’m committed to doing that immediately because we’re not even investing in the universities that are charged to do the research to actually help build platforms and policies that ultimately can hold law enforcement accountable. Look, there’s been tremendous harm against communities, particularly Black and brown communities where law enforcement, they’ve broken the trust.
And so, one of the ways in which we help repair that is, one, naming it, being honest and direct about it and making sure that we are doing everything in our power to have the proper supervision and implementing the consent decree that will lead to the type of reforms that can help repair the relationships. But we also have to make sure that we’re providing support services for the officers who are a part of the communities that have been harmed the most, because in many instances, the type of trauma that police officers have been exposed to, they’re not getting the support that they need.
But more importantly, they’re being asked to do their job and someone else’s job. And by passing Treatment Not Trauma, that will free up these interactions with the community that police officers shouldn’t be asked to respond to. Loud noise, again, domestic disputes, these are dynamics that we can create an alternative infrastructure to make sure that we’re being responsible in terms of how we are interacting with the public.
Maximillian Alvarez: Along with the issue of public safety, poor and working people — predominantly Black and brown people — are facing the compounding catastrophes of a cost of living crisis and a housing crisis, while also getting pushed out of the city. What vision of fixing these problems are you fighting for? And how do you build a coalition that embraces your union roots, that embraces and empowers the labor movement, but that also cuts through all the divisive B.S. and extends a hand to every Chicagoan who wants to be part of the solution?
Brandon Johnson: I’m very proud that we’ve built a multicultural, multi-generational movement to get me into this position. You don’t start off at 2.3% [of the vote] in October in the polls and not have a coalition and be in the runoff [by February]. So let me just name that. How does a brother from the working class, again, who no one knew who I was a few months ago, get to this place unless I have a multicultural, multi-generational movement?
And here’s the last thing, we don’t have to separate our interests. It’s not a coincidence that we’re going to vote on April 4, which is the [anniversary of the] assassination of the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., who came to Chicago fighting for housing, who was also in Memphis fighting for workers’ rights, fighting for civil rights. They’re one and the same. Dr. King said that the labor struggle and the civil rights struggle are one and the same, that the enemy of the Negro is the enemy of the labor movement.
So we are eliminating this false narrative that our interests are not aligned because it was in 1967 where Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. gave a speech at the AFSCME Convention, which was my father’s union, who is a member of AFSCME, a union that endorsed my candidacy. It’s the first time that AFSCME has endorsed a mayoral candidate since Harold Washington. And at this convention, and I’m paraphrasing, Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. said, “If the labor rights movement and the Civil Rights Movement were to ever collide, what enormous potential that would have.”
We are literally the manifestation of the potential that he dreamed of. And so, of course there are going to be forces that try to divide us. I’m not going to allow any reductive efforts to separate our interests because this movement is multicultural and multi-generational, and we’re building this broad coalition, not just for an election, but so that we can govern towards the interest of working people and families who are struggling to remain in middle class and those that we have to move up out of poverty.
So when you ask the question about who runs the city of Chicago, the people of Chicago run the city of Chicago. I just get to be their mayor.
Maximillian Alvarez: How do you get people to buy in to the faith that change can happen and that they can be part of that change? What forces inside and outside of government need to be mobilized to actually push through the changes that Chicagoans want but aren’t getting?
Brandon Johnson: You’ve really hit the nail of the head. We’re talking about having support internally, the best and the brightest who are connected to our movement, who understand the intricacies of government and how to execute government. But you’re going to continue to need people to organize. Here’s the difference, there are people who love me, who recognize that accountability is not just simply pat me on the back and high five.
As a teacher and organizer, I’ve worked within coalitions to get things done. We have an elected representative school board coming for the first time in the history of Chicago. We did that, we built it together, and I’ll be the first mayor to actually participate in that transition. We have district council members who are duly elected officials who will have say so on how policing is done in the city of Chicago. These are efforts that the movement has built.
So I didn’t just get here with a bunch of petitions and with my name on the ballot. I’ve been a part of a collective struggle for some time now in the city. Here’s what I’m most encouraged by: I’m supported by Congresswoman Delia Ramirez, whose mother came up from Central America to give birth at Cook County Hospital, the same Cook County Hospital that I went to for services because I have asthma. The same Cook County Hospital that delivered the daughter of someone who was seeking refuge here is the same Cook County Hospital that I went to receive medical services.
I’m also supported by Congressman Jonathan Jackson, who is the son of the civil rights icon, Reverend Jesse Jackson. Jan Schakowsky, Congressman Garcia, who was a part of that transformation 40 years ago. We are bringing people together, y’all. I wish you could see it in Chicago. I know that I’m coming across as incredibly optimistic, but I’m a middle school teacher and I’m a Bears fan, so I have to be optimistic just naturally.
Our campaign has caught fire. We have people who are sitting at my table to get me elected who have been at odds with one another over a variety of issues. And these forces are coming together because they understand this collective struggle for real liberation for everyone — Black, brown, white, Asian. People want to see the city of Chicago become a real world-class city, a city where no one is too poor to live in one of the richest cities, in one of the richest countries at the wealthiest time in the history of the world. And so, the way we organize, the way we campaign will be the way that we govern because it’s a matter of life and death for people.
The last thing that I’ll say is this: During the Great Depression, unemployment for white men was 30%, and our country called it a national crisis. They said it was dangerous and white men received shovels before there were things to dig. They received housing, they received access to education. And what we’re simply saying in the city of Chicago is that there are things to dig and there are things to build and there are lives to change.
And everybody recognizes that if we’re going to be a strong, safer Chicago, that we have to make sure that we make investments in those who are struggling the most. And that’s what people are excited about and it’s why I’m looking forward to making history as the first public school teacher ever elected as mayor of the city of Chicago.
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Maximillian Alvarez is editor-in-chief at the Real News Network and host of the podcast Working People, available at InTheseTimes.com. He is also the author of The Work of Living: Working People Talk About Their Lives and the Year the World Broke.