Brandon Johnson Is Looking to Go From the Public School Classroom to Mayor of Chicago
Brandon Johnson spent a decade as a rank-and-file Chicago teacher and organizer for the Chicago Teachers Union before winning county-level elected office. Now, he’s running for Chicago mayor with the union’s backing. We spoke to Johnson about his campaign.
- Interview by
- Micah Uetricht
The city of Chicago is like many other large American cities in recent decades: it has been led by a rotating cast of elected officials with occasionally differing demographic characteristics but an ironclad commitment to urban neoliberalism that has included attacks on public education and public sector unions, privatization of public goods, rising gentrification and displacement of longtime working-class and poor residents, and constant, massive giveaways to nearly any corporation who comes calling.
What sets Chicago apart from other cities, however, is the working-class fightback that has cohered in recent years. That fight has been anchored in the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU), which has built a model of democratic, militant unionism that teachers unions and other unions have replicated throughout the country. The CTU has built a pole of working-class politics around which other progressive-minded unions and community organizations have gathered — which has found political expression in United Working Families, that movement’s political arm that has backed a number of successful candidates at nearly all levels of government, from city council to the House of Representatives.
One of those elected officials is Brandon Johnson, a former rank-and-file CTU member and staff organizer who now sits on the Cook County Board of Commissioners. Johnson is currently running for mayor in the 2023 municipal elections, with the CTU’s and numerous other unions’ backing. But he’s up against not only incumbent mayor Lori Lightfoot, but a field of nearly a dozen candidates — including Rep. Jesus “Chuy” García, who the union backed in the 2015 election against incumbent mayor Rahm Emanuel.
Jacobin editor Micah Uetricht spoke to Johnson about his personal history, the state of Chicago, his competitors in the race, and what a Chicago for the working class could look like. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
In the United States, it’s pretty rare to have people who are running for major offices who have a working-class background. Talk about your origins.
I grew up in a working-class household. My father was a public employee, a member of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, as well as a general contractor. He was also a pastor. My father worked hard, raised ten of us on a working-class salary. I certainly had my share of moments when I would come home and the water wasn’t on or the electricity was not on, and we would have an orange extension cord going from one window to another just to make sure that the refrigerator stayed on. Those were difficult times, in the 1980s. Reaganomics and austerity took root and harmed working people.
But my parents understood the value of not just work but serving our community. I became a youth organizer working for the YMCA of Chicago, but quickly ended up falling in love with being a public school teacher. I started teaching about fifteen years ago, teaching seventh and eighth graders in Cabrini-Green, USA. I started to develop my politics while teaching in Chicago, particularly in Cabrini. I began to really see the stratification in not just our public education system, but our city as a whole.
I eventually went on to teach at Westinghouse College Prep on the West Side of Chicago, where my wife and I also live. We’ve been together for twenty-five years and are raising three children.
I came up through the ranks of the Chicago Teachers Union and eventually became an organizer under the leadership of Karen Lewis. I was on the front line, organizing what became the 2012 historic strike, organizing around the city as Rahm Emanuel closed the largest number of schools in the history of America — fifty, in one fell swoop.
That led to more political organizing, and eventually led to me running for office four years ago on the Cook County Board. We took down a very entrenched corporate Democrat who believed in austerity and stripping away the public good. I was recently reelected for a second term.
The transformation that’s happened in the city of Chicago over the last decade-plus is an incredible thing to see. The Chicago Teachers Union has been at the heart of it — not just through the historic 2012 strike and the various strikes the union has gone on since then, but also in effecting a sea change in the city’s politics.
This moment has been brought to us by the concerted efforts of members of the Chicago Teachers Union. We’re talking thousands of members across the city that understood that our working conditions are the learning conditions of our students. But deeper than that, our learning and working conditions are also the communities in which our families live in.
As a union, we understood the connection between fighting for affordable housing and having a social worker and a nurse at every single school; fighting to make sure that the tax increment financing (TIF) dollars that were meant to go into blighted neighborhoods and Chicago Public Schools (CPS) being placed instead in the hands of developers that are pushing families out of communities like Cabrini-Green. We understood that fight and began to connect that struggle for a good contract for good school communities with community-based organizations.
Dr Martin Luther King once said that if labor rights and civil rights were to ever collide, it would have enormous potential. It was really that spirit of connecting community organizations with labor, civil rights organizations with labor, that labor rights are civil rights and civil rights are labor rights that guided us.
Previously, unions pretty much just took the deals [they were offered] and maintained the status quo. As long as you got your raises, the bread and butter, in your contract, labor would go away. But our union had a far more dynamic vision for the city of Chicago.
Our late great union president Karen Lewis, who died a year ago, led that fight. I served and work alongside Karen and have been a part of this movement, on the front line.
How would you characterize the state of things generally in the city of Chicago in 2022 and going into 2023? What is the story of Chicago?
The story of Chicago right now — for everyday, regular Chicago — is that it’s hard. It’s hard to live in Chicago. My family and I live on the West Side of Chicago, in Austin. Austin is a beautiful community, but it has been disinvested in. There are fewer schools that are funded; parks are closing and don’t have as many programs as they once had; homes are becoming increasingly expensive; and it is becoming less and less safe.
So we leave our neighborhood every single morning, driving all over the city just to find public schools for our kids that have something as simple as an orchestra. Our children play stringed instruments, and we don’t have neighborhood schools that offer orchestras. Schools in our neighborhood do not have libraries or librarians, social workers, counselors, or nurses.
There’s also a great deal of trauma in the city. There is a lack of access to health care and mental health care; there’s a lack of treatment for the trauma that we are experiencing. That’s for every sector: teachers are burned out, nurses are burned out, school clerks, hospital and county government workers, firefighters and police — people are just burned out. That’s what it’s like living in Chicago right now for working people. Those who are maybe barely in the middle class are sitting comfortably in the middle class, but they don’t have the basics in life that other neighborhoods around the country have access to.
There’s also an overall sense of disappointment and frustration, because the current administration made a lot of promises that were then broken. Mayor Lori Lightfoot literally took our movement’s rhetoric and copied and pasted it on her website while not believing a word of it. We demanded an elected representative school board; we got it without her, though she promised she would fight for it. People were hopeful that there would be district councils in which people could hold law enforcement accountable in this city. She fought it. Environmental justice advocates fought this administration because she was trying to move toxic industries into poor communities, mostly of brown and black folks — again, something that she promised not to do, then broke those promises.
I’m confident that Chicagoans know there is a better way. It’s a matter of electing someone who actually believes in the values in which they run on.
You’re talking about the current mayor, Lori Lightfoot. Can you talk a bit more about her record over her first term? That term saw a strike from the CTU, just before the pandemic, as well as all kinds of battles with her during the pandemic.
How would you characterize what she’s done over the course of that term?
When she was first elected, we were in the midst of a major battle to change the state constitution to shift Illinois’s taxing structure. Right now, we have a flat state tax, which means billionaires pay the same tax rate as a school clerk or a Starbucks worker. We wanted to change the constitution to change that tax system. Everybody knew it was a good idea — except people like Ken Griffin, one of the richest men in the country, who spent hundreds of millions of dollars to defeat that.
When asked about this, Lightfoot, who had just been elected but hadn’t taken office yet, said that you can’t continue to tax those with means. She said that is unfair. She took a Republican line on taxing the rich from the moment she was elected; somehow, she believed that it was a more fair system to tax Starbucks workers, warehouse workers, and public employees more than you would a millionaire or billionaire.
What’s more, she campaigned on strengthening our public schools. That’s what we were fighting for in our contracts. But she wouldn’t agree to them. It led to a very contentious strike. She said she agreed with our demands — for social workers, nurses, counselors, and therapists in schools, and reducing class size. She said she agreed with an elected representative school board [rather than one handpicked by the mayor]. And then she gets sworn in and reneges on all of those promises.
She took the position of protecting the most wealthy, even though over 70 percent of Chicago said yes to a progressive income tax. Everyone agreed that we should have an elected representative school board. And then she reneged on that.
There is so much more she has failed on. Even if you look at the resources that came from the federal government, she’s still sitting on a billion dollars and CPS money that should be appropriated for transportation. I mean, it’s just on and on and on and on. She’s not leading. She has broken promises on every single front. It’s been a real disappointment.
At this point, it’s clear who she’s not serving: the vast majority of the city of Chicago.
There is a big pool of candidates for mayor right now. One of them is Paul Vallas, the former CEO of CPS and someone the CTU is very familiar with. How do you feel running against someone who the union has butted heads with repeatedly over the years?
Paul Vallas is the grandfather of school “deform.” He ushered in this very stratified state of winners and losers. His approach toward budgeting, in particular, has always left working people out. Under his leadership, the decline of black educators really began to occur. And we began to see that nationally, because everywhere he went, that was the case.
He moved to create semiprivate institutions in public education through an application process. The idea of families having to apply for public education — that’s Vallas’s legacy. Running against someone who has left many of our communities in despair — I don’t want to engage in a debate with him, because there’s nothing that he’s ever going to say that’s going to make up for the loss and harm that he has caused — not only in the city of Chicago, but across this country.
You are also running against Rep. Jesus “Chuy” García. Representative García ran for mayor against Mayor Rahm Emanuel in 2015 after CTU president Karen Lewis had to drop out of the race due to a brain tumor. He was very much the CTU’s candidate and the standard-bearer for progressive politics in the 2015 race.
But this time around, he is running without the CTU’s endorsement. On the one hand, I was surprised by this. On the other hand, I think the way that he would probably frame it is that he has serious name recognition in the city of Chicago that has come from decades in elected office in the city. A union backing him just released a poll that showed Rep. García ahead of everyone else in the race, including Lori Lightfoot. We’ll take that with a grain of salt, of course.
But if you asked him, Representative García’s argument would probably be something like: nothing against Brandon Johnson, but García has the kind of name recognition and track record that will allow him to win this race.
What’s your interaction with his campaign and your feelings about his campaign at this point?
Eight years ago, you know, we were all excited about electing Karen Lewis. With her passing, we’re trying to fill that gap to the best of our ability. I worked hard for Chuy eight years ago. I respect Representative García. Many people do.
I’ve stood with communities fighting environmental degradation in Chicago. I’ve stood with teachers who went on strike. In 2019, I stood with the teachers, with health care workers at Cook County Hospital and University of Illinois, Chicago. I’ve been there when the Nabisco workers went on strike, I was there when El Milagro tortilla workers went on strike during the pandemic because they weren’t being treated fairly. I was there for all of those struggles. I’ve been there for all of those communities. I’m gonna be there for all those folks. I don’t know where Representative García was during those fights. I can only account for myself. And I’ve been on the front line.
You mentioned your desire to place working people at the center of your administration. A principal problem in politics right now, is that, on so many levels, things feel bleak, and average working-class people don’t necessarily disagree with progressive politics, but they think that achieving progressive policy goals just isn’t going to happen. People’s expectations have been beaten down. How would you try to change that?
Living on the West Side of Chicago, my family has experienced the hardship of disinvestment and of violence. Austin is one of the most violent communities in the city of Chicago. I’ve had to physically cover my children as gunshots rang outside of our door. And then we just get up when the shots are done, and just go right back to bed. We live with that type of trauma every single day.
The lens through which I see the world is the lens of the everyday experience of working Chicagoans. The city needs someone who is willing to center those experiences in our delivery of policy.
In terms of what those policies can look like: there’s a direct correlation between youth employment and violence reduction. As mayor of Chicago, I’m going to have the most robust youth-hiring programs that the city has seen. Not just over the summer, year round — we have to commit ourselves to that. Young people have to know that people actually care and are willing to invest in them.
The second thing is, City Councilmember Rossana Rodriguez-Sanchez is pushing an ordinance called “Treatment, Not Trauma.” This is an effort to make sure our front lines are loaded with social workers, counselors, and therapists to deal with the trauma that exists within our communities. These are the individuals who need to respond to what 50 percent of 911 calls are anyway: matters like mental health crises that could benefit from having a trained professional, to help de-escalate, to defuse the tension, and to make sure that services are being provided.
We have to reopen our mental health clinics, and we cannot be afraid to make them a part of the public space. My older brother had untreated trauma that we didn’t have a language for twenty-five years ago. Because we didn’t have that language, all my parents knew to do was just to pray for him. I wonder if his life would have shifted had he had a therapist or a mental health provider that could have helped him in his wrestling with the type of trauma that he experienced. Unfortunately, my older brother died homeless and addicted to drugs. My nephews and my niece are without their father, and we are without our brother.
As Cook County commissioner, I pushed for an entire budget centered around justice. As a result of that we have secured hundreds of millions of dollars for equity in county government. What does that look like in real policy terms? We have the largest guaranteed income pilot program in the country. We have the largest debt relief program. We are offering up to $10 million of debt relief that could relieve up to $1 billion of medical debt. We’ve appropriated $75 million to go toward housing, health care, violence interrupters — I’ve done that at the county level, working with my colleagues. I passed a law that eliminated discrimination against those who were formerly incarcerated and were denied housing — that is now against the law in county government. We’ve built two new health clinics. We’ve expanded County Care, which gave forty thousand more people in Cook County access to health insurance.
For too long, we’ve had representatives in government who run on our platform but don’t believe in it. They run on it to win, but they don’t deliver on it. They run like Frederick Douglass, and then they govern like Jefferson Davis. They take on this platform of equity and justice for the people, and then try to convince people that these things aren’t possible. As mayor of Chicago, I’m confident that the will of the people will prevail, because they’ll have one of their own in City Hall.