On Tuesday, Chicago voters elected Brandon Johnson, a 47-year-old county commissioner and teachers’ union organizer, as the city’s next mayor. After an election that revolved around an increasingly concerning crime rate and a surging pandemic, Johnson—who campaigned on promises to expand social welfare programs and new taxes—defeated Paul Vallas, a more conservative-minded Democrat. This victory for Johnson revealed a clear call for a more progressive vision for a city that is still in the midst of a pandemic.
Johnson, who worked as a social studies teacher before joining the teachers’ union staff, appealed to Chicagoans with his promises to improve their way of life. During his acceptance speech, he highlighted his ties to organized labor, including the Chicago Teachers Union—who employed him for the last dozen years and donated millions of dollars to his campaign. His emphatic support for unions and his progressive vision for the city share many similarities with the CTU, who have publically backed Johnson’s promises to drastically improve life for struggling residents.
Johnson ran for mayor after the last two mayors, Rahm Emanuel and Lori Lightfoot, failed to maintain safe streets. Johnson’s promises to invest in programs that provide employment and mental health treatment, as opposed to only policing, resonated with Chicagoans who have faced difficulties caused by the pandemic.His win comes despite the fact that Johnson only had 3 percent support in some early polls before eventually consolidating the progressive vote against Mr. Vallas.
The CTU has been a focal point in the recent election, due to their three work stoppages over the past twelve years. While Johnson’s close relationships to labor unions have been a positive for many Chicagoans, others have raised questions about how he would approach working with the teachers’ union. Johnson has yet to provide specific examples.
Vallas, who has been well-known in Chicago since the 90s, was widely supported by the largely white wards of the Northwest and Southwest Sides. Despite his endorsements from well-known Black politicians, he failed to capture a majority of the votes from the heavily Black neighborhoods of the South and West Sides, many of whom felt that Vallas’ “tough on crime” approach would disproportionately harm those who were already struggling.
Now, Mayor-Elect Johnson inherits a city in flux, with a downtown that is emptier than it was before the pandemic, a Police Department that has no permanent leader, and a public school system that has seen enrollment decline. Johnson has pledged to work with incumbent Mayor Lori Lightfoot, who has warned him that he faces an immense challenge in maintaining a larger-than-ever budget deficit. Johnson will be taking office in May and is sure to have a full plate of issues and concerns to address in the near future.
The Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) is a labor union that represents around 25,000 educators in the city. Since its founding in 1897, the CTU has advocated for the rights and protections of its members, as well as for better-funded public schools and healthcare options for disadvantaged communities. The union is currently led by President Stacy Davis Gates and is widely credited for advocating for progressive policies and legislation.
Paul Vallas, a longtime political figure and recently defeated mayoral candidate, is well known for his tenure as the CEO of Chicago Public Schools in the 1990s, when the district was facing a fiscal and educational crisis. In the years that followed, he led struggling school districts in Philadelphia, New Orleans, and Bridgeport, Connecticut. However, during his unsuccessful mayoral campaign, his support for charter schools and his endorsement from the local chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police detracted from his support among progressive-minded voters.