Brandon Johnson’s victory in the Chicago mayoral race last week is a major victory for the education justice movement, the 21st-century Black freedom movement, and the left in general. Johnson is a former teacher and Chicago Teacher’s Union (CTU) leader, a protégé of a legendary union president, the late Karen Lewis. One of 10 children from a Black working-class family that struggled to make ends meet, Johnson comes out of social movements more than from the Democratic Party. And he brought movement organizing, movement demands, and trusted movement allies into his mayoral race with him.
Johnson described his victory as the coming together of the civil rights and labor movements, much as Martin Luther King always envisioned. It is that and more. A new generation of organizers—sexual minorities, abolitionists, undocumented activists, socialists, and environmental justice warriors—are also a critical part of what made Johnson’s bid for mayor a historic success.
In the wake of Johnson’s triumph over his well-funded and widely touted centrist rival Paul Vallas, the pundits pondered: What the hell happened? After all, in the general election Johnson did not have high name recognition, except within labor and movement circles. Vallas had more money, more experience (albeit much of it of a dubious nature), and powerful political connections.
What was Johnson’s secret sauce? It was not, as my friend John Nichols suggests, “a string of high-profile endorsements that turned the tide”—although they did boost morale. The savvy campaign staffers who worked day and night on his behalf were indispensable. The financial support of Chicago’s social justice unions—SEIU State and local leadership, and the mighty CTU, led by Stacy Davis Gates—was crucial and foundational. But it was above all Johnson’s ground game that made all the difference. Without massive outreach and grassroots one-on-one contact, his name would never have been sufficiently known and a nasty opposition would not have been effectively countered. It took money, but it also took a lot of love and optimism.
Johnson’s campaign centered on the kind of relentless grassroots organizing you simply cannot buy. Repeatedly people told me, “We know Brandon,” and that’s why they volunteered, donated, signed up to work long hours for the campaign, and gave him the benefit of the doubt when mistakes were made.
On the night of the general election, February 28, over 1,000 of us—grateful that there wasn’t a blizzard—crammed into an unimposing little community center on the West Side of Chicago. Johnson had already gone from 2 percent in the polls to the 14 percent that put him in the runoff.
United Working Families—a labor-community coalition comprising the CTU, SEIU, and a number of progressive local groups—coordinated much of Brandon’s’ field operation. Led by longtime UWF director Emma Tai, an indefatigable organizer, and a team of field organizers, including two young campaign field directors—Asha Ransby Sporn (yes, we are related) on the South Side and Crystal Gardner on the West Side—the campaign knocked on over a half million doors. Tai is quick to add this was a movement wide effort not a single organization. The electoral arm of various groups leapt into action. People United for Action, and Southsiders Organized for Unity and Liberation mobilized their respective bases, debated issues, and countered opposition narratives. Groups like Equity and Transformation, conducted more general Get Out the Vote campaigns. And there was phone banking too. Hundreds of thousands of calls were made to Chicagoans, to make this “unknown” candidate legible to them.
Volunteers—ordinary working-class folk, young professionals, and a few older radicals who wanted an end to business as usual in Chicago politics—were another crucial ingredient. They got up early, argued with their neighbors, buoyed each other’s confidence. And they made all the difference. One volunteer who had been skeptical about elections persuaded her entire extended family to join “team Brandon,” as she put it, and engaged in intergenerational canvassing on weekends.
Officially, Johnson’s journey to City Hall began on October 27 of last year, when the then-46-year-old stood in Seward Park—across from the site of the former Cabrini Green Housing Projects where he began his teaching career—and said, “I want to be the next mayor of Chicago.” In reality, it started long before that. It is rooted in the deep Chicago organizing tradition that has yielded a new generation of fighters.
One important prelude was the 2016 “Bye Anita” campaign that ousted reactionary State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez and paved the way for the election of her progressive successor, Kim Foxx. Black progressive youth organizers in Assata’s Daughters and Black Youth Project 100 led that campaign with unrelenting determination.
But electoral challenges and legislative fights have long been part of a larger landscape of grassroots organizing in Chicago around housing, police, immigration, health care, and education. The 2015 Dyett High School hunger strike—which Johnson joined—was a community-based campaign to save the Black neighborhood school from closure.
Last year’s Treatment Not Trauma Ordinance—championed by democratic socialist Alderperson Rossana Rodriguez, and moved forward by the Collaborative for Community Wellness—was the culmination of a multiyear struggle to reopen shuttered mental health centers and to de-center police in response to mental health crisis calls. Over a number of years, anti–police violence organizers formed a broad coalition to expose the torture and forced confession practices of the Chicago Police Department, resulting in the passage of a 2020 city council reparations ordinance for torture survivors and their families. Most recently, 81-year-old movement leader Frank Chapman led a campaign—mostly peopled by young activists—which won passage of the Empowering Communities for Public Safety Ordinance creating elected civilian oversight committees in each of the 22 police districts in the city for the first time ever. That, too, was a long-fought struggle. And this entire protest and organizing tradition was essential to Johnson’s campaign and victory.
“Our union and our rank and file supported Brandon because we knew Brandon before he was running for mayor,” SEIU leader Erica Bland-Durosinmi insisted. SEIU Local 73, Local 1 and Local 1600 all contributed volunteers to the campaign. Progressive as he was, Harold Washington—the city’s first Black mayor, elected in 1983—was a party politician, not a movement organizer. “Brandon is movement,” as one supporter shouted out at his victory party.
Johnson’s camp out-organized the opposition, plain and simple. And the opposition, as hard as it tried, underestimated and miscalculated the ability of organizers to change the narrative on the ground—in defiance of the headlines consistently featured in mainstream media and on nonstop opposition ads. Fearmongering around crime did not work in Chicago—even as the racist and right-wing head of the local Fraternal Order of Police warned that cops would quit and there would be “blood on the streets,” if Johnson were elected. Turning “defund” abolitionists into caricatures, and distorting their demands, also did not work.
The April 4 runoff election night party for Johnson was held at the Marriott Marquis hotel just south of downtown. The venue was a bit more upscale than the “beer in the back” celebration on February 28—but what had not changed was who was there. Organizers from each of the struggles mentioned here were in that room, exuberant and claiming a hard-won collective victory. People who had protested in sit-ins at City Hall were sending one of their own to the mayor’s office. Now what?
How will Brandon Johnson govern? Or co-govern? He will undoubtedly face heavy pressures—and even threats—from a formidable array of forces. He is the most progressive mayor this city has ever seen. Johnson’s election comes at a time when the city and country are deeply divided between a right-wing authoritarian vision of the future and a more hopeful one. Perhaps the bold and uncompromising young state legislators in Tennessee who have risked their jobs to stand up against gun violence are pointing in the right direction: principled steadfastness in the face of unreasonable and unjust opposition—even if it means sometimes breaking the rules. It will undoubtedly be difficult and challenging, but, by every indication, Johnson is up to the task. With the energy and optimism of his grassroots supporters, and a growing cohort of progressive city council allies, he is poised to make history. Perhaps a glimpse of what kind of mayor he will be was evident in his response to faculty strikes at three Chicago public universities serving largely Black and working-class students. On April 11, Mayor-elect Johnson was on the picket line.