The Activist Left Made Brandon Johnson’s Victory Possible

Brandon Johnson, a former organizer for the Chicago Teachers Union, was sworn in Monday as the 57th mayor of Chicago. Activists on the Left determined this election – and are positioned to do the same for how his term as mayor will unfold. 

By announcing his victory in Chicago’s Mayoral election on April 5, Brandon Johnson cemented his place as a rising star in the Democratic Party’s progressive wing. Speaking before a crowd of staffers, donors, and supporters, Johnson emphasized his progressive credentials, and close ties to the city’s labor movement. “Make no mistake about it, Chicago is a union town,” Johnson said. Speaking about those who “teach middle school” to anyone who “provides childcare services,” Johnson promised “Chicago now will begin to work for its people, all the people.” 

Such proclamations – along with his background in the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU), and the privatization and austerity rhetoric of his opponent, Paul Vallas – are what made Johnson broadly appealing to the American left. Senator Bernie Sanders stumped for him, telling rally goers on March 30 that Johnson would “bring people together, to make sure all of our people have a decent life.” Carlos Ramirez-Rosa – Alderman for Chicago’s 35th Ward, DSA member, and chair of the Chicago City Council’s socialist caucus – endorsed Johnson, tweeting “he builds coalitions and brings people together to deliver for Chicago.” Johnson racked up endorsements from a cross-section of Democratic Party leaders, including Jaamal Bowman, Elizabeth Warren, and Jim Clyburn – infamous among the Left for securing the South Carolina primary for Joe Biden.

In many ways, Johnson is perfectly suited for our current moment. Like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez before him, he was portrayed in left media circles as the cure for America’s ills, someone who represented every hope for the future the Left wants. The lifelong union organizer willing to fight big business. A black man empowering the marginalized in a city famous for systemic racism. The outspoken progressive combating the Democratic establishment, revealing their corruption and hubris.

Some actions by Johnson in the past few weeks reassert this image. He appointed all five members of the Socialist Caucus to chair City Council Committees, and selected Ramirez-Rosa as the Mayor’s Floor Leader. The decision is already being met with resistance from local real estate developers, as former Inspector General Joe Ferguson described it as“a cause for real concern on the part of the business and development community,” in an interview with the Chicago Sun-Times.  Officially formed in 2021, the Socialist Cacus’s elevation from a small, if pugnacious, faction inside Chicago’s City Council to a major player, with leadership of committees and influence on the council’s direction, is a paradigm shift for the council and its culture.

Johnson also wielded his labor record effectively during the election, leading to 91% of his campaign’s donations coming from unions, according to Illinois Policy. Expressing his gratitude, Johnson selected Chicago Teachers Union Chief of Staff Jennifer Johnson to be Deputy Mayor of Education, Youth, and Human Services. His Transition Director is the former Vice President of SEIU Healthcare Illinois, and another SEIU Illinois alumni, Erica Bland-Durosinmi, serves as an “Intergovernmental Advisor.” Former Mayor Lori Lightfoot openly antagonized unions, rejecting pleas from the Chicago Teachers Union to increase Covid testing and halt in-person classes, saying their demand “makes us a laughingstock all across the country.” 

The Johnson administration is likely to ease tensions between the Mayor’s Office and the Chicago labor movement, while simultaneously awarding union leaders with positions in government – representation which is lacking in most American cities. This will all undoubtedly strengthen the perception many on the Left have of Johnson, but an assessment of the new Mayor cannot be made accurately without acknowledging his missteps. Flaws that are waiting to fester and calcify now that Johnson is sworn in. 

By far, Johnson’s most notable rhetorical shift during the election was his rhetoric about policing. Police unions are among the most powerful lobbies in any American city, with Chicago being no exception. The Chicago Police Department has an estimated budget of $1.9 billion as of last year, and city spending on law enforcement consumes 35% of its overall expenditures. The likelihood of Johnson receiving substantial police support was always non-existent, due to Johnson’s public comments and campaign proposals suggesting “an Office of Community Safety, reopen the city’s mental health clinics, fully fund year-round youth employment, and foster partnerships between communities and law enforcement.”

The Fraternal Order of Police quickly endorsed Vallas, and Johnson, likely trying to not antagonize them further, fought against attempts to paint him as a “radical,” on policing. Though previously remarking he hoped to cut police spending by $150 million, Johnson denied it during a debate with Vallas, stressing I wouldn’t reduce the CPD budget by one penny.” Johnson repeated this position in another interview, saying what I am committed to doing is to make sure that we are actually investing in a smart way.” After winning the election, Johnson named Fred Waller Chicago’s interim Police Superintendent. Waller is a Chicago PD favorite, getting an outpouring of support from his colleagues after the announcement. But under Waller’s leadership, Police Sergeant Ronald Watts ran rampant, engaging in a decades-long framing and extortion racket. The reason for Waller’s appointment is obvious. He’s a bone, thrown by Johnson, to appease Chicago’s police community. 

Taken together with Johnson’s selection of Rich Gudice – a lifelong political operative who served under three previous mayors – as Chief of Staff, and the tightrope Johnson is trying to walk becomes apparent: keep enough continuity to gain the trust of Chicago’s economic and political establishment, while peppering City Hall and minor offices with enough union reps, socialists, and progressives to keep his “outsider,” bona fides. This plan will likely work in the short term. However, that balancing act is difficult to maintain. Especially when well moneyed interests are pressuring you from all sides. 

“The Lightfoot administration was a dismal time for left politics in the city of Chicago,” explained Sean Estelle, Chicago DSA’s Campaign Coordinator. Estelle started out “as a student organizer in 2011, through the occupy movement,” after watching college students “occupying public spaces throughout the country.” Estelle joined Chicago DSA in 2017, and watched it become a substantial force in the city’s politics. “It’s functionally a brand new organization in a lot of ways,” Estelle remarked, citing the Bernie Sanders campaign and Trump’s victory in 2016 as both causing an “explosion of new members.” The 2019 election cycle was “in many ways, a lot of people’s first time,” when it came to electoral work, Estelle remembered. But multiple candidates endorsed by Chicago DSA won on the municipal level, including Ramirez-Rosa, an outcome that shocked the chapter’s members. Estelle took pride in their chapter’s work, saying they “showed the ruling class of Chicago,” what could be done with grassroots organizing. Estelle congratulated Johnson, recalling that his victory was “very exciting to see,” but added, since DSA is a “independent political organization,” it would be foolhardy to “ally ourselves too deeply or too immediately with Brandon.” 

What happened in Chicago is an opportunity for the Left to overcome decades of political stasis and engage in a policymaking experiment which, if successful, could transform cities across the country. Those changes will not stem from Johnson, but the socialist organizers and activists who were rejuvenated by his electoral success. Whether Johnson lives up to expectations, or embraces broken promises and half measures, will depend on the ability of this newly empowered base to drive him, and fend off the reactionary capitalist forces trying to do the same thing.