Progressive coalition brings Brandon Johnson across the finish line in Chicago
Chicago Mayor-elect Brandon Johnson celebrates with supporters after defeating Paul Vallas after the mayoral runoff election late Tuesday, April 4, 2023, in Chicago. | Paul Beaty / AP

CHICAGO – Brandon Johnson, a progressive African-American community activist, union organizer, and former teacher, defied the pollsters and was elected as Chicago’s next mayor yesterday in a major victory for progressives. His win was propelled, in major part, part by a huge turnout among enthusiastic young voters.

According to the Chicago Board of Elections, a third of eligible voters 18 to 24 turned out, eclipsing turnout in the older groups of voters. Close to a third of eligible voters also cast ballots among slightly older young people in the 24 to 35 year age group.

The victory happened despite racist dog whistles blown by supporters of Johnson’s right-wing opponent, Paul Vallas, and threats by the politically powerful and entrenched right-wing Fraternal Order of Police that hundreds of cops would quit if Johnson were elected.

Johnson campaigned on an approach to crime that calls for going after the root causes of crime, poverty, and lack of investment in neighborhoods in need of better public services, including schools, and the hiring of professionals to do many of the jobs, like mental health care, that have been foisted upon untrained police.

When pressed by reporters who asked him how he would close the gap between the police and City Hall this morning Johnson said, “There is no gap, we all presumably want the same thing for Chicago, that it be safe and prosperous for everyone.” Again he displayed his characteristic refusal to give in to rightwing fear mongering.

He also paid homage in his victory speech yesterday to what he described as a “movement that was already underway before and during the Harold Washington administration, led by people like current Congressman Chuy Garcia and community leader Rudy Lozano in bringing together the Black, Latino and white communities. We continue that work today and include all the groups that make up this, the greatest city in the world,” Johnson declared in his victory speech.

Johnson, a Cook County commissioner endorsed by the Chicago Teachers Union, benefitted from an incredible ground operation conducted by that union. Members knocked on the doors of tens of thousands of voters, explaining to them how Johnson’s opponent, Paul Vallas, had left behind himself a trail of destruction of public education in cities across the country.

The strong support for Johnson by the CTU, SEIU, National Nurses United, and numerous other unions led his detractors to accuse him of being in the pocket of so-called big labor. Refusing to hide from his support for and by labor unions, Johnson declared in his victory speech, “Chicago is and always will be a great union town.” His backers were not deterred by attacks on unions and even increased their support for him as he called upon corporations and the rich to pay their fair share of taxes. His election, coming after his strong campaign against corporate abuse, and the victory of a liberal judge in neighboring Wisconsin who was also opposed by major corporations, combine to send a message across the country that voters in cities understand what side they must be on in the continuing political battles in the country. In Los Angeles too the recent victory of Karen Bass reflected the progressive trend sweeping U.S. cities.

Morgan Elise Johnson, founder of The Tribe, noted that, “opponents of Johnson have no problem with politicians being in the pocket of powerful corporations or wealthy donors but as soon as unions or people’s organizations back someone they have a problem.”

Won for many reasons

Johnson won for many reasons, she said, not the least of which is that “he went to countless house parties where young people gathered. They turned out for him in huge numbers,” she said.

The CTU declared jubilantly in a statement after the election results were known: “What started as a movement in 2012 for better schools has blossomed into a citywide multi-racial, multi-ethnic, multi-generational movement that has done the impossible: Elect a middle-school teacher, public school parent and son of a pastor as mayor of Chicago.”

Johnson’s victory in the nation’s third-largest city capped a remarkable trajectory for a candidate who was little known when he entered the race last year.

He attracted the attention of and support of leaders in the national progressive movement including, for example, people like Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders.

Chicagoans who know and support Sanders but didn’t know Johnson took the Sanders support as a cue to come out and vote for Johnson who openly welcomed and embraced Sen. Sanders when he campaigned in Chicago. Many corporate and establishment Democrats who backed Vallas, including some incumbent members of the City Council, are likely wishing now that they had not done so.

People like Reps. Jan Schakowsky, Chuy Garcia, and Danny Davis, all progressives who rejected corporate Democratic Party appeals to back Vallas, were once again on the right side of history last night as progressives scored an impressive victory in both Chicago and in neighboring Wisconsin where the election of a progressive judge to the state Supreme Court ended 15 years of right-wing control of that court.

Taking the stage Tuesday night for his victory speech, a jubilant Johnson thanked his supporters for helping usher in “a new chapter in the history of our city.” He promised that under his administration, the city would look out for everyone, regardless of how much money they have, whom they love, or where they come from.

Johnson recalled growing up in a poor family, teaching at a school in Cabrini Green, a notorious former public housing complex, and shielding his own young kids from gunfire in their West Side neighborhood.

“In Cabrini Green, we could see wealthy neighborhoods outside of our windows on one side of the apartment, and on the other side we could see the bulldozers ready to push us out of our homes,” he said.

He referenced civil rights leaders Martin Luther King Jr. and the Rev. Jesse Jackson and called his victory a continuation of their legacies. He also noted that he was speaking on the anniversary of King’s assassination.

Despite it being the anniversary of King’s death, Johnson declared, “Today the dream is alive and so today we celebrate the revival and the resurrection of the city of Chicago.”

The victory was not just his victory, according to both Johnson himself and his supporters but the victory of a multi-racial, multi-national diverse coalition that has been being built in Chicago for quite a few years now, a coalition that rejects the old machine politics for a new politics of inclusion and progress.

Will join other fights

Members of Our Revolution, the progressive group started by supporters of Bernie Sanders, are telling People’s World that the Johnson victory has motivated them to join the fights in many more local and state elections where they say the Republican lock on power can and must be broken. They point to the coming mayoral elections in Philadelphia as an example of where they plan to be involved.

In a statement, incumbent Mayor Lori Lightfoot congratulated Johnson and said her administration will collaborate with his team during the transition.

On Tuesday, Johnson took many of the predominantly Black southern and western areas where Lightfoot won in February, along with the northern neighborhoods where he was the top-vote getter back then, according to precinct-level results released by election officials. Vallas did well in the northwest and southwest areas.

Johnson and his supporters characterized Vallas — who was endorsed by Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, the chamber’s second-ranking Democrat — as too conservative and as a Republican in disguise.

Both Johnson and Vallas have long been in the Democratic Party, showing that within that party, in Chicago as elsewhere, there are sharply different progressive and pro-corporate trends.

After teaching middle and high school, Johnson helped mobilize teachers, including during a historic 2012 strike through which the Chicago Teachers Union increased its organizing ability and influence in city politics. That has included fighting for issues such as housing and mental health care, in addition to just issues directly involving the classrooms. The strike actually increased support for the union among many parents in the city who see teachers and school staff as their allies in the fight for their children.

Vallas, a former Chicago budget director, later led schools in Chicago, New Orleans, Philadelphia, and Bridgeport, Connecticut, on disastrous paths that dismantled schools and weakened education services across the board.

Vallas catered to the extreme right-wing leadership of the Fraternal Order of Police by saying he would hire hundreds more police officers, while Johnson said he didn’t plan to cut the number of officers, but that the current system of policing isn’t working. Johnson argued that instead of investing more in policing and incarceration, the city should focus on mental health treatment, affordable housing for all, and jobs for youth. He has proposed a plan he says will raise $800 million by taxing “ultrarich” individuals and businesses, including a tax on large corporate employers and on big hotel chains raking in huge profits from tourism.

Johnson and the coalition behind him will have their work cut out for them because right wingers in the Illinois state legislature are already saying they will do battle against any plans that involve taxing the rich. There are those in the pockets of corporations who still sit on the City Council and can also be counted on to oppose Johnson when they can.

Progressives are gaining in the Chicago City Council, however. The 46th Ward that includes Uptown saw Angela Clay, an African-American woman elected last night. She had the support of the Democratic Socialists of America and backed the progressive planks advocated by Johnson. Her ward has long been considered a bellwether of where things are going politically in Chicago. The message last night was that they are going in a progressive direction.

The Johnson election was also seen as a major victory for reform of the police department. Johnson is a strong supporter of police accountability and backed the movement led by the National Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression and others in Chicago to set up police accountability boards in the various precincts.

Among Johnson supporters is State Sen. Robert Peters, who holds the seat in Hyde Park and along the Lakeshore once held by Barack Obama. Peters said yesterday that “the Johnson campaign was a composite, a progressive composite including young people and a wide variety of truly diverse groups. It is a real progressive, all-encompassing coalition. Look around here,” he said, pointing to the diverse crowd at the campaign’s election night gathering, “This is why Johnson won.”

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John Wojcik
John Wojcik

John Wojcik is Editor-in-Chief of People's World. He joined the staff as Labor Editor in May 2007 after working as a union meat cutter in northern New Jersey. There, he served as a shop steward and a member of a UFCW contract negotiating committee. In the 1970s and '80s, he was a political action reporter for the Daily World, this newspaper's predecessor, and was active in electoral politics in Brooklyn, New York.