Brandon Johnson Defeats Political Establishment in Chicago

Robert Bartlett

IN IN STUNNING rebuke to the political establishment in Chicago and around the country, Brandon Johnson, a Cook County commissioner, former teacher, and organizer with the Chicago Teachers Union defeated conservative, alleged “lifelong Democrat” Paul Vallas. Johnson was endorsed by the United Working Families Party of Chicago.

While the final results won’t be known until all the mail in ballots are counted, it is likely that Johnson’s margin of 51% to 49% for Vallas will likely grow. Vallas conceded at about 9:30 pm election night.

This is a rejection of the conservative politics of Vallas’ campaign to “take back our city” through increasing the number of police and “fighting crime.”Vallas himself has a long record on “education reform” that started in 1995 when he was appointed CEO of the Chicago Public Schools.

Vallaa began his career of defunding public education and fostering “school choice” by establishing charter schools. Meanwhile he “turned around” low-performing schools (based on standardized test scores) by firing the staff and hiring new teachers. As a result, the percentage of Black educators in Chicago public schools fell from above 40% to around 19% today. He also instituted a pension holiday, which reduced to a fully-funded pension fund to one that is 47% funded today.

After leaving Chicago Vallas went to Philadelphia and later New Orleans, implementing the same playbook. His crowning achievement was in New Orleans where he privatized the entire public school system. All public-school teachers were fired and the system transformed into privately-managed charters in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

In the Chicago race for mayor Vallas championed “parental choice” by promising to continue a state voucher program to allow parents to use public money for private schools. On public safety he touted his help in brokering a collective bargaining agreement between the city and the Fraternal Order of Police, who endorsed him. Vallas campaign ads focused single mindedly on public safety; in every debate Chicago’s media also attempted to make that the central issue.

“Investing in People”

Johnson centered his campaign on the idea of “investing in people” beginning with fully funding schools. He also promoted year-round youth employment. Employment opportunities add another layer of stabilizing activities as does school extra curriculars, which engage students in school and life.

Johnson wants all neighborhood schools to have a diverse curriculum that provides a quality education. He often told the story of how his violin-playing son had no school in his area with music programs. He and his wife had to send their son to a school in Hyde Park. This is the story many parents face in the disinvested south and west sides of Chicago.

While knocking doors as a volunteer in Brandon’s campaign, I talked to a student who lived in the west side neighborhood of Austin, where there is an enormous high school. But it is mostly empty. To get the courses she needed she attends Northside College Prep, a “sellective enrollment” school opened by Vallas. It, along with another elite high school, Walter Payton, is situated in an affluent neighborhood.

Crime is an issue in poor neighborhoods, but a larger, militarized police force won’t get at the root causes. Johnson’s public safety initiatives include reopening mental health clinics that Rahm Emanuel closed. He pointed out that 40% of the calls to 911 are not about violent crimes but involve mental health issues. He proposes that the city hire mental health professionals to respond to these emergencies rather than sending armed police.

A resident I talked to mentioned that when a neighbor was acting erratically, they entered her car. She called 911, then wondered if that was the right thing to do. By the time the police arrived, another neighbor had managed to get the disturbed person inside their home. She told me she was relieved that the problem had been solved without the police. But these Incidents sometimes end in tragedy: police response sometimes escalates the situation.

The lack of affordable housing is another issue. When the city demolished the large public housing projects, they never replaced them with scattered site housing. Homelessness is up 12% since 2019.

The homeless population is forcibly removed from high visibility locations including the airport. Homeless encampments near the lakeshore or downtown are forcibly dismantled and people forced into the poorest neighborhoods on the south and west sides. When they seek shelter on the rapid transit system the city officials call for more policing on public transit.

These are not easily solved problems but require finding the funding. Much of the negative ads against Brandon focused on how much his solutions would cost, not evaluating what this might mean for people in Chicago. The negative ads contended he wanted to institute a city income tax (false) and raise property taxes to pay for his programs. We can expect fierce resistance to any increase in taxes on the rich, as Brandon has proposed.

The Rise of Brandon Johnson

In October, when Johnson announced his candidacy for mayor, he was polling at 2.3 %. Of the nine candidates for the February primary, he came in second, with 22% of the vote to Vallas’ 32 %, He edged out incumbent Mayor Lori Lightfoot, who came in with 18% of the vote.

Yesterday, Johnson won 51% of the vote. How did this happen?

It wasn’t because of money — Vallas received $20 million, with half coming from 44 individuals. Fifteen individuals gave Vallas $250,000 each. Many were from the financial sector, including members of Citadel Finance, run by the formerly richest man in Illinois, Ken Griffin. (When Griffin didn’t like the results of what he spent on the 2022 elections he moved to Florida.)

Johnson’s campaign raised $10 million, much of it donated from unions including the CTU, AFT, IFT, SEIU and others. But far more important were the volunteers from these unions who spread out through the city to knock on doors and hold house parties in every neighborhood.

The back story to the election is a political shift that resulted from the 2012 CTU strike which electrified the city and beyond. The victory of the caucus of rank-and-file educators (CORE) in two years before in the CTU election galvanized the existing progressive community organizations and led to their working together.

Yet in 2013 Rahm was able to close 50 schools despite the opposition of parents and the mobilization of the union. The leadership of the CTU, along with the progressive union SEIU HCII and important community groups, made the decision to form a political organization, the United Working Families (UWF). It was a true alliance based on the issues that united them, and were not dominated by the CTU as some commentators assert.

Since its founding the UWF has attracted more union allies, the Cook County College Teachers Union, the United Electrical Workers, Workers United CMRJB, Illinois Nurses Association, SEIU local 73, National Association of Letter Carriers branch 11, and Warehouse Workers Organizing Committee. Community affiliates include Action Now, Grassroots Illinois Action, SOUL in Action, 22nd ward IPO, 33rd Ward Working Families, Action Center on Race and the Economy (ACRE), and United Neighbors of the 35th ward. As it has grown, UWF has centered its work on organizing in the community, training people from movements to be part of struggles and candidates for office. For the 2023 election, the UWF succeeded in electing 12 alderpersons out of a city council of 50.

Many, myself included, were skeptical about what we could accomplish, but the UWF leadership had a vision of expanding the scope of the possible based on the hard work of its members and organizations. (For a pre-election assessment by two UWF leaders, read this interview in Convergence magazine.) However, Johnson will be appointing 11 of the 21 members of the Board of Education and they will not be the corporate types appointed by previous mayors.

Political Divides in Chicago

Clearly the political divides that existed before the election will persist and intensify after Brandon is sworn in as mayor. After the February primary whittled down the number of candidates from nine to two the choice was stark. The division was between left and right within Black and brown communities, the within the Democratic party, and within the labor movement.

In the Black community former congressman Bobby Rush, known in his youth as a Black Panther, endorsed Vallas. Four other Black primary candidates endorsed Valles as did six Black alderpersons out of a total of 20 alters who endorsed Vallas. (See the list of endorsements for Vallas.)

Johnson was endorsed by a wide array of progressive national politicians and many state and local office holders supported by CTU and UWF. Notably, Johnson’s pre-election rally of 4,000-5,000 energized supporters with speeches by Bernie Sanders, Chicago congresspeople like Jonathan Jackson and Delia Ramirez, as well as Martin Luther King III.

The labor movement is divided primarily between the building trades who endorsed Vallas and the public sector unions who endorsed Johnson. There has been little movement politically on the part of the building trades from aligning to whichever candidate promises to put more cranes in the sky or shovels in the ground. Unions like the International Union of Operating Engineers who endorsed Chuy Garcia in the first round and donated one million to his campaign switched to Vallas and pledged the same amount to him in the run off.

Johnson’s union endorsements came from education unions, three SEIU locals in Illinois, the Illinois Nurses Association, AFSCME council 31 which endorsed a candidate for the first time in nearly 40 years and the AFGE local 704.

An aldermanic supporter of Paul Vallas, Brian Hopkins Is attempting to galvanize opposition to the priorities that Johnson put forward by his fearmongering:

“That requires a level of dedication and passion that exceeds people being paid to do it. Most of the United Working Families [and CTU] field army have both. They’re being paid. But they also believe in what they’re doing. They believe in ending capitalism and replacing it with socialism. They believe in defunding the police. They believe in closing the jails. It’s the way they want to reshape society. They believe it’s possible. And they’re fired up.”

It is true that thousands of people from unions and community groups were mobilized but most were unpaid volunteers. AS for ending capitalism and replacing it with socialism, that is certainly an overstatement similar to Trumpian rhetoric.

The city council will be divided, but with an enhanced group of progressives and socialists, although still a minority. The challenges they will face was laid out by Jesse Sharkey, former president of the CTU:

“We need to figure out how to actually invest in those neighborhoods and pull people into the political process,” Sharkey said. “I don’t think we have enough power. I think the people who make corporate opinion, I think corporate money and I think the bureaucracy of the city is largely going to be against that program. And I think we’re going to have to organize people and try to build support for a program that’s going to change things.

“We have a whole city and a whole future ahead of us.”

Robert Bartlett, who spent many hours knocking doors in UWF organized canvasses for Brandon Johnson.


  1. Excellent article. With organized and persistent hard work, the will of the people can triumph over the influence of money, as Rob’s in-depth article clearly shows. Kudos to all who went out there and knocked on doors, and congratulations on your success in this very important election.

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