On the last day of February, during an unusually mild winter evening for Chicago, hundreds of people jammed into a cavernous, squat brick building in the West Side neighborhood of Garfield Park. If the West Side of Chicago is defined by poverty, violence, and despair, then Garfield Park is its epicenter. But, on this night, excitement crackled through the air as the Cook County commissioner, Brandon Johnson, defied the odds to face a conservative Democrat, Paul Vallas, in an April runoff election for mayor of Chicago. A cross-section of Johnson supporters—teachers, activists, and organizers—danced and cheered, waiting for Johnson to address the crowd. When news circulated that Mayor Lori Lightfoot had conceded the election, the music cranked louder, as everyone surged toward a podium where Johnson would speak. He appeared with his wife and three children, to thunderous chants of “We want Brandon!” Beaming, Johnson said, “A few months ago, they said they didn’t know who I was. Well, if you didn’t know, now you know.”
Nearly six weeks earlier, Lightfoot had mocked Johnson as a candidate. When asked what she thought of the Chicago Teachers Union (C.T.U.) endorsement of Johnson, Lightfoot, with her typical sour demeanor, said, “They’ve endorsed Brandon Johnson. God bless. Brandon Johnson isn’t going to be the mayor of this city.” It was hardly a bold prediction. By the third week of January, Johnson was polling at under ten per cent, and Lightfoot was leading the pack at seventeen per cent, with Vallas running between them. It seemed as if Lightfoot was destined to face Vallas in a showdown over how to address gun violence and rising crime rates in the city. Instead, she became the first Chicago mayor in forty years to lose a bid for reëlection.
West Garfield Park was the perfect setting to understand this turn of fortunes for Lightfoot. One mile north of the site of Johnson’s party is a newly constructed, hundred-and-seventy-million-dollar police-and-firefighter training center. In this deeply impoverished neighborhood, the training center includes a thirty-three-million-dollar “scenario village” that features multiple residential brick buildings, complete with porches, basements, and garages. Four days after Lightfoot disparaged Johnson’s campaign, she celebrated the opening of the center, claiming, “This is a great day for the West Side”—a sharp reversal from her previous position. When Mayor Rahm Emanuel proposed the deal for the training center, in 2017, Lightfoot, who then was president of the Chicago Police Board, a civilian oversight committee, said, “Putting this edifice to policing in this high-crime, impoverished neighborhood where relations between the police and the community are fraught, without a clear plan for community engagement, is a mistake.”
This was not the first time that Lightfoot changed her mind. She backed calls for an elected school board as a candidate, and then reneged on the idea upon becoming mayor. She promised to reopen public mental-health clinics, and then appointed a health commissioner who opposed their reopening. But her betrayals concerning the police have cut the deepest and have come to define her quick tenure. She ran as a proponent of police reform. In 2015, in the wake of the police murder of seventeen-year-old Laquan McDonald, Lightfoot, a former federal prosecutor, was tapped by Emanuel to chair the newly created Police Accountability Task Force. The following year, the task force released a report, and its conclusion was damning: “The community’s lack of trust in CPD”—the Chicago Police Department—“is justified.” After an investigation, the task force also found that the “CPD’s own data gives validity to the widely held belief the police have no regard for the sanctity of life when it comes to people of color.” When Lightfoot announced her candidacy in 2018, she said, “To me this election comes down to two stark choices, a new progressive course or continuing the us versus them mentality that benefits the few or the many.” In her inaugural address, she said, “For years, they’ve said Chicago ain’t ready for reform. Well, get ready because reform is here.”
The national press has largely accepted Lightfoot’s self-description as progressive, but others on the ground have experienced her mayoralty differently. In 2019, the home of Anjanette Young, a social worker, was wrongfully raided by Chicago police. When they entered her apartment, Young was undressed, but that did not stop the mostly male cops from handcuffing her and making her stand nude while they figured out if they were in the right residence. In the ensuing controversy, Lightfoot lied to the public, saying that she had not been briefed on the case. During the 2020 protests, Lightfoot and other Black women mayors were profiled as progressive, but Lightfoot’s actions were authoritarian. Not only did she raise drawbridges in downtown Chicago to protect the property of élites but a report generated by the Chicago Office of Inspector General criticized Lightfoot and Chicago police for their violent handling of activists and protesters. Lightfoot was singled out for authorizing the use of pepper spray. In 2021, it was discovered that Lightfoot had spent nearly three hundred million dollars in federal pandemic funds on Chicago police; Lightfoot condemned criticism of the move as “dumb.”
The national media has read Lightfoot’s electoral loss as an indictment of her failure to effectively respond to the crime and violence that shapes so much of Black working-class life in Chicago. Conversely, the Democratic strategist David Axelrod recently lauded Paul Vallas as “brilliant” for zeroing in on violent crime as the single-minded strategy of his mayoral run. But neither of these explanations makes sense of Brandon Johnson’s vault from obscurity to the runoff. Unlike Lightfoot and Vallas, Johnson has not promised to fill the hundreds of unoccupied positions in the police force. Instead, he has emphasized “treatment not trauma,” with a guarantee to finally reopen public mental-health clinics. The perceptions of Lightfoot as a progressive were based largely on her role of fielding complaints about the police. Johnson’s claim to the progressive mantle has come through years of community activism and organizing, as part of the C.T.U.
In 2011, Johnson, a former elementary-school teacher, was hired by the Chicago Teachers Union to be an organizer. By then, the newly energized union was gearing up to fight the effects of fifteen years of corporate-minded school reform. In 2012, it led a historic strike against the Emanuel Administration, inaugurating a new era of labor struggle and community organizing. The C.T.U. believed in what they called “organizing for the common good,” which meant that they used their power to fight for a broad array of social issues, from housing to mental-health clinics. For seven days, twenty-six thousand Chicago public-school teachers and other professionals in school buildings stood on picket lines. Despite the inconvenience created by the work stoppage, a majority of public-school parents supported the teachers, largely because the C.T.U. used the strike as a platform to call attention to the poverty and inequality strangling the city.
In the aftermath of the strike, the C.T.U. launched a political organization, with the purpose of intervening in elections and politics more generally in the city. In the summer of 2014, I interviewed Johnson, along with the Jacobin editor Micah Uetricht, about this strategy. Johnson said that the organization, called United Working Families (U.W.F.), would be “building campaigns around a fair tax, building campaigns around lowering class sizes, building campaigns around raising the minimum wage.” He went on, “If elected officials are not responding to the needs of the community in a real way, then candidates could emerge from that movement.” As Jacobin has reported, “UWF has now gone through three election cycles and has elected candidates at all levels of government”—including three members of the Cook County Board and eight Illinois state legislators. Last year, the U.W.F. candidate Delia Ramirez won a seat in the House of Representatives.
Brandon Johnson advancing to the runoff election for mayor is the U.W.F.’s biggest accomplishment, and a credit to the depth of its organizing. When I spoke with Emma Tai, the executive director of the United Working Families, she described the local movement as “a lot of convergence around labor, austerity, police brutality—these things are obviously connected. And, increasingly, we’re connected.” Tai said that hundreds of volunteers had been working for Johnson, and that his campaign raised more than two hundred thousand dollars from house parties held across the city. Jackson Potter, the vice-president of the Chicago Teachers Union, said that upward of eight hundred volunteers worked on Election Day to get the vote out. Johnson may be new to voters, but he is well known among organizers and activists. Whether the issue is schools, police abuse, or housing, Johnson’s run has become a vehicle for locally based social movements to climb aboard and drive to City Hall.
Still, Johnson will have a steep hill to climb in the runoff election. His strongest support came from progressive whites in the city’s Northwest Side, and he did not win a single ward on the West and South Sides of the city. Those mostly went for Lightfoot, though some were won by Vallas and the fourth-place finisher, the progressive representative Chuy García. Those are the neighborhoods that bear the brunt of gun violence and crime in Chicago, and Vallas is backed vociferously by Chicago’s police union. (Vallas led negotiations on behalf of the police union in 2020, as they settled on a new contract with the city.) But they are also the neighborhoods that have been forced to navigate life with poorly resourced public schools and services and little to no private-sector investment. The conditions are such that, between 2000 and 2017, twenty-four per cent of the Black population left Chicago. Johnson will have a cleared field upon which to voice his different view of public safety. As he put it during the campaign, “We can deal with the immediate challenge of public safety in the city of Chicago and get at the root causes.” The day after Johnson’s improbable win, a city police officer was shot and killed in the line of duty. It was a reminder that crime and violence will remain center stage in Chicago politics. But it will be hard to paint Johnson as an out-of-touch liberal, given that he lives in the West Side neighborhood of Austin, where, he has said, “My family has taken cover in our home after hearing gunshots ring out, and replaced windows hit by bullet holes.” Vallas has proposed deep investments in policing as a remedy. Of his proposed alternative, Johnson says, “Measuring crime statistics is like measuring blood pressure. You can prescribe medication to keep your condition at bay, but there are side effects. Without long-term change in diet and exercise, there is always the potential for illness and disease.”
The runoff will be held on April 4th. It is a significant date, marking the fifty-third anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. Two years before his death, King set up shop in the West Side neighborhood of North Lawndale, to see if his methods of nonviolent civil disobedience could end slum housing, residential segregation, and the poverty that these conditions hid from the rest of the city. When the West Side boiled over into riots after King was murdered in Memphis, Mayor Richard J. Daley directed police to “shoot to kill arsonists” and “shoot to maim looters.” His words reflect how, for more than two generations, the city has responded to the poverty that has smothered the West Side of Chicago. Johnson and Vallas present two stark choices for the direction of the city. ♦