On Tuesday night, the tectonic plates bracing Chicago politics tilted dramatically. Brandon Johnson, a former rank-and-file member of and staff organizer for the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU), secured a spot in the runoff race for mayor, where he will face conservative privatizer Paul Vallas on April 4.
Outperforming both incumbent mayor Lori Lightfoot and Representative Jesús “Chuy” García, Johnson pulled off a shocking upset. He ran an unapologetic left-wing campaign that prioritized taxing the rich to fund social programs and reimagining public safety to increase investments in mental health and other city services. At his victory party last night, Johnson announced, “The finances of this city belong to the people of the city. So we’re gonna invest in the people of the city.”
Johnson, who now serves as an elected member of the Cook County Board, started the race with little name recognition and faced eight challengers. Just a month ago, Lightfoot scoffed at Johnson’s candidacy, claiming that he “is not going to make the runoff” and “isn’t going to be mayor of this city.”
Lightfoot scoffing at CTU’s mayoral endorsement: “They’ve endorsed Brandon Johnson. God bless. Brandon Johnson isn’t going to be the mayor of this city.”
— David Weigel (@daveweigel) January 21, 2023
Lightfoot is the first Chicago mayor in forty years to be denied a second term. She faced opposition from voters across the political spectrum, including those who supported her four years ago. After abandoning many of her progressive campaign promises from 2019 once in office, liberals grew critical of her administration, while more moderate and conservative residents blamed her for an increase in crime and other problems afflicting the city. García, meanwhile, underperformed after being widely expected to beat Johnson, due in part to having forced previous mayor Rahm Emanuel into a runoff in 2015. Whether García, who has governed as a progressive in Congress, now gets behind Johnson’s mayoral bid remains to be seen.
Throughout his campaign, Johnson made fighting inequality across the city a central theme, prioritizing working-class communities while taxing Chicago’s wealthy. He received major backing from the CTU and United Working Families, a coalition of left-wing organizations and unions that has become a highly influential player in city politics over the past decade. He also received support from national groups like the Working Families Party.
Johnson’s ascent sets up a stark choice for Chicago voters, who will decide in April whether to embrace a progressive approach to urban politics or return to the neoliberal model that created many of the problems now plaguing the city. Crime, in particular, will be central to the campaign, making the runoff a test case of whether Johnson’s anti-carceral, pro–social services approach can defeat a traditional law-and-order, reactionary appeal by Vallas.
A Movement Mayor?
Johnson got his start teaching in Chicago Public Schools (CPS) in 2007, first at Jenner Elementary in the Cabrini-Green neighborhood on the Near North Side and later Westinghouse College Prep on the West Side. He then joined CTU’s staff alongside its then president Karen Lewis, who helped reshape the union into a democratic and militant force that fought austerity not only in public education but in city politics generally. In that role, Johnson helped coordinate the historic 2012 teachers strike, worked to block school privatization schemes, joined hunger strikers at the shuttered poor and working-class Dyett High School and successfully advocated for its reopening, and fought to win an elected school board (rather than one handpicked by the mayor), which finally became law in 2021.
In 2018, Johnson was elected to the Cook County Board, where he continues to serve. In office, he has sponsored the Just Housing Amendment, which ended discrimination against the formerly incarcerated, as well as the Budget for Black Lives, which helped lead to a multimillion-dollar investment in community resources and violence prevention — including affordable housing, health care, and other supports — as part of the 2021 Cook County budget. Johnson also helped to create a program aimed at canceling up to $1 billion in medical debt, secure legal representation for immigrant refugees facing deportation, and launch a guaranteed income pilot that offers $500 per month to thousands of low-income residents.
In his mayoral run, Johnson’s stated priorities include increasing funding to neighborhood schools, year-round youth employment programs, reopening the city’s public mental health clinics shuttered by former mayor Rahm Emanuel, reducing fares on public transit, investing in new affordable housing, and instituting a “Chicago Green New Deal” to boost environmental protections. To pay for this agenda, Johnson proposed a real estate transfer tax on luxury home sales, a financial transaction tax, a head tax on large, profitable companies that do business in the city, and new user fees for high-end commercial districts. According to Johnson, “The ultra-rich and large corporations continue to benefit from the subjugation and the isolation of poverty, and my budget plan speaks to these critical investments.”
When it comes to public safety, which played a central role in the mayor’s race, Johnson plans to pass the “Treatment Not Trauma” ordinance advanced by socialist city council member Rossana Rodriguez, which would create a hotline to deal with crisis response, invest in violence prevention programs, end no-knock warrants, establish a dedicated office to deal with illegal guns, and end the city’s gang database, which opponents have claimed in a class action lawsuit is racially discriminatory.
Taken together, Johnson’s agenda represents a profound break from the corporate-friendly politics that have dominated Chicago in the neoliberal era. As the leader of the third-largest city in the country, a Mayor Johnson could be positioned to usher in a new era of urban progressivism unseen in recent memory, if he and the forces supporting him can overcome the massive pushback that capital will mobilize against him.
In order to win, however, he will first have to overcome both a well-financed opponent and a political and economic establishment fully at odds with his platform, especially as it relates to the issue of policing.
Johnson made it to the runoff — even while competing for liberal votes against García, who was the standard-bearer of left-wing politics in the city’s mayoral race two cycles ago — by articulating a progressive approach to crime that does not include massively expanding policing. He noted on the campaign trail that the Chicago Police Department’s budget of $1.94 billion is “bigger than it’s ever been, and we’re still not safe.”
Many observers have argued that, at a time when crime is a serious concern for many voters, especially working-class voters, this approach to public safety will sink left-wing candidates. In Buffalo, for example, left-wing mayoral candidate India Walton was attacked repeatedly as a “defund the police” candidate and defeated. That was not the case in Chicago last night: voters didn’t run from Johnson’s criminal-justice proposals.
But in the runoff, Johnson will be under constant bombardment on this issue. He will have to figure out how to parry Vallas’s law-and-order attacks in a way that can win the election without abandoning progressive principles.
Chain Saw Paul
On the other side stands Paul Vallas, the envoy of Chicago’s corporate class. While he has never held elected office before, Vallas has managed to do monumental harm to working-class communities across the country as an appointed administrator of austerity. The bulk of that damage has been inflicted on Chicago.
Starting in the mid-1980s, Vallas led the Illinois Economic and Fiscal Commission before being hired by Mayor Richard M. Daley, first as Chicago’s director of revenue and then, in 1990, as municipal budget director. In these roles, Vallas was responsible for implementing austerity policies like doubling parking-ticket collections and helping balloon the city’s pension debt through creative budgetary gimmicks, which would then be used as a pretense to cut social spending programs for successive decades. Vallas also guided the creation of a slew of new tax increment financing (TIF) districts, budget instruments intended to aid “blighted” areas, that have overwhelmingly benefited corporations and wealthy developers.
In 1995, Daley handpicked Vallas to become CEO of CPS, which came under direct mayoral control that year rather than being run democratically after a Republican-drafted bill designed to centralize power over the education system passed the Illinois state legislature. Vallas’s tenure at CPS included attacking and vilifying the teachers’ union, privatizing services like custodial staff, firing educators, and elevating standardized testing as a primary marker of student and school achievement, which created a path to close “underperforming” schools and replace them with charters. In line with his “business model” for education, Vallas slashed school budgets and ended key CPS programs. He also paused pension payments for CPS workers and moved money into a general fund, which led to disastrous consequences for the school district’s budget that are still being felt today.
Once Vallas’s promised future of higher test scores and better education outcomes failed to materialize, he resigned from CPS in 2001 and took a new job in Philadelphia, where he continued to pursue a privatization agenda as CEO of the school system there until 2007. In this position, he outsourced everything from curriculum writing to school management while handing over dozens of “low-performing” schools to private operators. Vallas again oversaw massive budget deficits and left the system in financial disarray, leading Forbes magazine to dub him “Chain Saw Paul.”
Vallas then moved to New Orleans, where he was put in charge of the city’s school system in 2007, after Hurricane Katrina. He quickly replaced the city’s public schools with charters and used misleading data calculations to illustrate supposed success in improving school performance. During this period, Vallas also toyed with the idea of running for office back in Chicago — as a Republican.
His next stops were abroad, in Haiti and Chile, where he continued to push a market-fundamentalist approach to both education and the economy. In 2012, he returned back to the States as the new superintendent of the school system in Bridgeport, Connecticut. The role was short-lived, however, as Vallas was swiftly removed from his post by a judge for not being qualified, or “properly credentialed,” for the job. He then joined an ill-fated Democratic Illinois gubernatorial ticket alongside Pat Quinn, which lost to Republican billionaire Bruce Rauner in 2014.
The Right’s Candidate
It’s not just Vallas’s past that should concern Chicago voters. He has run a textbook law-and-order campaign for mayor, stressing the need for an extreme police crackdown in the city. Endorsed by the Fraternal Order of Police Chicago Lodge, Vallas has campaigned alongside its president, John Catanzara, who has voiced open support for the January 6 rioters and is a strong backer of Donald Trump. Vallas’s plan calls for hiring 1,200 more cops, in a city where 40 percent of the budget is already earmarked for policing, while violent crime continues to beset residents despite continual increased investments in law enforcement.
Vallas has made tackling crime the centerpiece of his mayoral run, citing the need for more police to deal with crimes like carjackings and shootings, which are overrepresented in areas of the city that have faced systematic disinvestment. He’s received financial support from big-money Republican donors and last year spoke at a fundraiser for a far-right group, Awake Illinois, that traffics in homophobic and transphobic rhetoric. Vallas has also joined the right-wing panic against critical race theory, calling it “dangerous” and saying it “undermines the relationship of children with their parents.” He has also said, “Fundamentally, I oppose abortion.”
Vallas’s right-wing connections and record are well-documented, and so are his close relationships with Chicago’s corporate elite. Major figures in private equity, venture capitalism, real estate development, and the health care industry have been strong supporters of his campaign. If he becomes mayor, he has promised to take on organized labor — especially the CTU, which has long been a target of his professional and political career.
Runway to the Runoff
The next five weeks will test whether Johnson’s redistributive platform and a new approach to public safety can win a majority of voters who will be overwhelmed with warnings about the dangers he poses to the status quo. While Johnson has organized labor’s backing, Vallas will continue to unite organized capital behind him. And the racial stratification that has marked Chicago for decades will present challenges for building the type of “rainbow coalition” necessary to repeat the type of progressive victory achieved by former mayor Harold Washington in 1983.
If he wins, Johnson will face enormous odds as mayor of a city where corporations have called the shots under successive administrations. Forces like the Chicago Chamber of Commerce and Board of Trade would likely try to stand in the way of his progressive economic and taxation plans, while other businesses could threaten capital flight. What’s more, the police union could potentially take actions, such as “blue flu,” intended to resist reforms and even sabotage his mayorship.
Yet this is a challenge that the Chicago left-progressive movement has been hoping for and building toward for years. The fact that one of that movement’s own could soon occupy the fifth floor of city hall is a testament to the dedicated organizing that countless social justice advocates have taken up to create a more equitable city.
As Johnson said on Tuesday night, “A few months ago, they said they didn’t know who I was. Well, if you didn’t know, now you know. . . . We have shifted the political dynamics in this city.”