What Mayor Brandon Johnson Can Learn From Mayor Bernie Sanders

When he became Burlington’s mayor in 1981, Bernie Sanders was a socialist outsider who had to face down a hostile political establishment. His successful mayoralty may contain lessons for Chicago’s new progressive mayor, Brandon Johnson.

Brandon Johnson (left), mayor of Chicago, at his swearing-in on May 15, 2023, and Bernie Sanders (right), then mayor of Burlington, in 1985. (Jacek Boczarski / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images) (Bettmann Archive / Getty Images)

He’s a political outsider running on a progressive platform who narrowly won a mayoral election against a well-connected, business-friendly, Republican-backed Democrat. His opponents are in hysterics. And now that he’s in office, he’ll have to face down a hostile political establishment, which will likely try to derail most of his proposed agenda for the city.

All of this describes the situation confronting Brandon Johnson, who was recently inaugurated after beating conservative Democrat Paul Vallas by a four-point margin to become Chicago’s newest mayor. But it also would have been an apt characterization of Burlington, Vermont, in 1981, when a young Bernie Sanders had just squeaked out a victory in his first mayoral campaign.

Bernie Sanders and Brandon Johnson during a rally for Johnson at Credit Union One Arena, March 30, 2023, Chicago, United States. (Jacek Boczarski / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

There are also, of course, many differences. Chicago in 2023, with a racially diverse population of 2.75 million, is a very different city, facing different opportunities and challenges, than the 38,000-person Burlington of the early 1980s. Johnson certainly has a much bigger and tougher task governing his city than Sanders did.

Still, some of what Sanders was up against as mayor of Burlington — and what he did to overcome fierce opposition — will be relevant to Johnson’s mayoralty. Here are a few lessons Johnson might take from Sanders’s “outsider” approach to governing as mayor.

Winning the Council Wars

Johnson’s campaign platform included support for “Treatment, Not Trauma,” which would reopen health clinics closed by former mayor Rahm Emanuel and send social workers and emergency medical technicians (EMTs) rather than police to address emergency mental health calls. Johnson has also called for $800 million in new taxes on the rich to fund generous investment in jobs, public schools, housing, and social services.

In trying to enact this program, Johnson is up against powerful foes. Most immediately, Johnson is likely to face strong opposition from more conservative members on the Chicago City Council itself. A worst-case scenario would be a repeat of the “council wars” under the progressive Harold Washington, Chicago’s first black mayor, in which aldermen opposed to Washington organized to block all of the mayor’s initiatives.

Bernie Sanders dealt with council wars of his own after his first election victory. He improbably became Burlington’s first socialist mayor by winning with a razor-thin margin in a four-way race against longtime incumbent Gordon Paquette. (The original vote count had Sanders winning by twenty-two votes; a recount reduced that margin to ten.)

Paquette, a Democrat, had been in the mayor’s office since 1971; he largely deferred to business interests. “The urban renewal projects Paquette ended up supporting displaced communities and, combined with the county’s exploding population, raised rents and shrank the pool of available housing,” Branko Marcetic wrote of his tenure as mayor. “Meanwhile, as the city’s finances grew tighter, Paquette opted to cut services and fight demands for better pay and benefits from city employees.”

Sanders, like Johnson, had run a progressive campaign, with a platform of reducing property taxes, which he regarded as “regressive and unfair,” and shifting the tax burden to businesses and wealthier residents. (Johnson also pledged not to raise property taxes.) He additionally campaigned on rent control, opposing new developments that would displace low-income residents, and raising salaries for city workers.

His victory shocked and dismayed the local Democratic Party establishment that had long dominated Burlington politics. The Democrats on the city council went to fairly extreme measures to try to limit Sanders to one term as mayor.

According to Sanders, when he took office in 1981, he had only two allies on the city council: Terry Bouricius, a fellow socialist who had won on the progressive Citizen Party line, and Sadie White, an independent. Then there were three Republicans and eight Democrats. Burlington’s city charter gave the mayor the authority to appoint various staff positions, but the Democrats and Republicans on the city council rejected all of Sanders’s appointees, and even fired the secretary he had just hired.

In his first book, Sanders recalled:

We were outflanked by the opposition on every major decision. The votes were always the same: eleven to two, the eight Democrats and three Republicans on one side, Terry and Sadie on the other.

The Democrats’ strategy was not too complicated: they would tie my hands, make it impossible for me to accomplish anything, then win back the mayor’s office by claiming that I had been ineffective.

Faced with opposition like this, a different sort of politician might have abandoned his progressive platform and attempted to mollify his opponents, hoping to at least be able to score some minor achievements. But this is not what Sanders did.

Instead, he and his supporters devised a plan to oust his opponents on the city council and replace them with allies. They began building a third party in all but legal status, aiming to win a Sanders-supportive majority on the city council and change the balance of power in Burlington politics. The group was initially called the Independent Coalition; later it was known as the Progressive Coalition, and it eventually became the dominant force in city politics and the beginning of the statewide Vermont Progressive Party.

Sanders and his supporters quickly began organizing for the next alderman elections, in 1982, when they ran candidates in six of the city’s wards. A vigorous campaign through the winter of 1981–82, in which the Independent Coalition indicted the Democratic and Republican candidates for hamstringing the mayor’s agenda, produced a record-high turnout for Burlington city council elections. The coalition ended up winning three out of the six seats, giving the progressives five aldermen total and forcing Sanders’s opponents to negotiate with him; the Democrats and Republicans finally let Sanders appoint an administration.

On this score, at least, Johnson is perhaps beginning his mayoralty on more favorable terrain than Sanders. Johnson’s agenda will likely have the support of much of Chicago’s city council members backed by the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU), which totals about two-fifths of aldermanic seats, including the six occupied by Democratic Socialists of America (DSA)–backed councilmembers.

Johnson himself is a product of the militant CTU. For the past decade, the CTU has been building an independent, member-based political organization, United Working Families (UWF), that backs defenders of public education and other working-class causes. (In addition to Johnson, UWF has elected a number of aldermen, county commissioners, and Illinois state legislators, as well as one member of Congress, Representative Delia Ramirez.)

Along with other growing left groups like DSA, UWF has the potential to be the beginning of a party-like alternative to the neoliberal Democratic Party establishment in Chicago. If and when Johnson does face opposition to his platform on the city council, whether he succeeds will depend on his ability to maintain and expand the legislative coalition around these groups, including by primarying his neoliberal opponents and empowering allies.

Recently, Johnson appointed five members of the Democratic Socialist Caucus to be city council committee chairs. Socialist alderman Carlos Ramirez-Rosa in particular “will not only lead the powerful Zoning Committee but also serve as Johnson’s floor leader, making [him] the most powerful member of the City Council,” as Heather Cherone reported for WTTW. This is a hopeful sign. Johnson also appointed a former Lori Lightfoot and Rahm Emanuel staffer as his own chief of staff, but progressives appear to dominate Johnson’s major cabinet positions thus far.

Aggressive Executive Action and Opening Up City Government

That’s not to say that Johnson needs to wait for future elections to deal with aldermanic opposition. Again, Sanders’s fraught first year in office might hold a lesson, when the new mayor tried to do whatever he could without the city council’s support.

With his staff appointments blocked, Sanders set up his own informal cabinet of advisers, with which he organized a number of task forces to come up with ideas for what the city should do. His aim, he says — in line with the slogan of “Not Me, Us” that he popularized during his presidential campaigns — was to “democratize Burlington politics and open up city government to all the people.”

Some of these task forces were eventually incorporated into the city government officially, but before that they acted as a kind of “parallel government,” Sanders says. These task forces included what became the Burlington Women’s Council, for instance, bringing together a diverse group of women’s organizations, which introduced legislation on a variety of issues affecting women from domestic violence protections to job training for low-income women in male-dominated fields.

Sanders also began cleaning up municipal corruption by introducing competitive bidding for companies that were doing business with the city, which saved the government tens of thousands of dollars per year. In addition, Sanders and supporters began organizing cultural and recreational activities for the city, to demonstrate that government could improve people’s lives: they began a Little League program in Burlington’s poorest neighborhood and started a popular summer concert series on the city’s waterfront that attracted thousands of attendees and brought in entertainers from around the world.

These popular initiatives no doubt aided Sanders and the Progressive Coalition in boosting turnout and shifting Burlington’s balance of power in subsequent elections, first in the city council race and then in the 1982 mayoral campaign. Sanders boasts that, between the mayoral election in 1979 preceding his first campaign and his first reelection campaign, turnout nearly doubled, from seven thousand to 13,320. Support for Sanders and the Progressives was concentrated in lower-income and working-class wards, where he won nearly 70 percent of the vote in 1983.

Brandon Johnson can also build popular support for his agenda and the coalition behind him by creatively using executive action and promoting government participation. Johnson issued a handful of executive orders immediately upon being sworn in, including one that “instructs the Office of Budget and Management to prepare an analysis of all resources in the City’s FY2023 budget that are available to fund youth employment and enrichment programs” and another establishing a deputy mayor of labor relations, tasked with “improving working conditions, advancing new job opportunities for employment, and protecting workers’ rights,” among other responsibilities. The executive orders also created similar positions for immigrant rights and community safety.

Hopefully, Johnson will continue using his mayor’s pen to expand the remit of city government and fulfill his campaign promises wherever possible. Doing so may be necessary to get around potential intransigence on the city council, as it was for Sanders, and help Johnson rally and energize his supporters.

Building Power Outside City Hall

The opposition to Johnson will not just come from the city council, of course. Immediately after he won, Bloomberg ran a report quoting financial and business executives voicing serious concerns about the incoming mayor’s plans to impose new taxes; these executives are more or less threatening a capital strike. Meanwhile, John Catanzara, president of Chicago’s Lodge 7 of the Fraternal Order of Police, said before Johnson’s victory that there would be “blood in the streets,” predicting that police would leave the force en masse if Johnson won.

Neutralizing the threat of capital flight or a police strike will mean mobilizing supporters for their own disruptive strikes and protests, to force capitalists and rogue elements within the state (like the police union) to accept the need for progressive reforms. Johnson got his start in the CTU, where he was a rank-and-file organizer who helped transform the union into the militant force it became, leading the counterattack on the school privatization movement and demonstrating the effectiveness of strikes that speak to the concerns of teachers and the broader public they serve. That background, and his base among CTU workers and supporters, means that he is well positioned to lead the kind of mass mobilization and organization that will be required to overcome capitalist and police resistance to his program.

Johnson could, for instance, use his bully pulpit to support and encourage strikes by CTU and other unions in support of his program. Should protests against inequality and police violence break out as they did in the summer of 2020, Johnson could use the moment to push for badly needed reforms — and refrain from going to war with protesters as former mayor Lori Lightfoot did, raising bridges across the city and shutting down public transportation to try to stop the demonstrations. To mitigate capitalists’ structural leverage over the economy, Johnson can encourage nonunionized workers to organize and start democratizing municipal finance through establishing a public bank.

Brandon Johnson with Bernie Sanders’s new book, It’s OK to Be Angry About Capitalism. (Populism Updates / Twitter)

How Johnson ultimately governs will in part be a function of what kind of public pressure he faces from CTU and other activists and social movements. Even Sanders was not immune to compromising in the face of business’s power. In his first year, he angered environmentalists by greenlighting a wood-chip burning plant that later caused “long-term environmental issues for the city,” according to Marcetic. And activists claim that the city’s large public waterfront beautification project, for which Sanders has long taken credit, would have been blighted by high-rise condos and a hotel if not for public opposition. It was only because activists helped kill Sanders’s original, more business-friendly proposal, they say, that much of the waterfront has been reserved for public use.

Nevertheless, Sanders’s tenure in Burlington is largely a testament to the power of a mayor who governed by the principle “Not Me, Us,” and the strength of the movement behind him. Sanders served as mayor for four terms, until 1989. He and his supporters notched a number of victories, including establishing more progressive revenue sources, like higher taxes on commercial property; raising pay for city workers; funding community land-trust housing, upgrading public housing, and passing tenants’ rights legislation; and important environmental wins, including upgrading the city’s sewer system, shutting down an “environmentally unsound” landfill, and preventing construction of a proposed trash-burning plant.

The economic and political opposition to Brandon Johnson as mayor of Chicago is sure to be much more intense. If he proves himself somehow able to withstand these pressures, it will be because he helped organize working people to confront the capitalist economic and political establishment head on. That will be needed to significantly redistribute power and wealth from corporations to Chicago’s working class — and, as it was for Sanders and his allies, it could be the start of a broader transformation of politics across his state and the country.