Cook County commissioner and former public school teacher Brandon Johnson won an upset victory last month over establishment favorite and former Chicago schools superintendent Paul Vallas in the Chicago mayoral contest. The election was a referendum on the direction of public safety and education. Chicago has been long afflicted by the stiff cocktail of poverty, violent crime, and hyper-segregation. Over the past decade, the city has seen the single largest school closure in American history, the ballooning of charter schools (privately managed, publicly funded institutions), the shuttering of most of its public mental health clinics, and the brutal murder of teenager Laquan McDonald and other acts of police violence. Powered by a multiracial coalition of labor unions and progressive groups and endorsements from Senator Bernie Sanders and Representative Jesús G. García, Johnson championed a tax-the-mansions-and-corporations agenda to pay for social and economic programs that address the root causes of crime and inequality and create a city where “no one is too poor to live.” He drew a sharp contrast to the revanchist, law-and-order demagoguery of Vallas, who called for hiring more officers in a city with one of the country’s biggest police forces per capita.
One of Johnson’s most potent attacks was calling out Vallas’s educational record—as the head of schools in Chicago, Philadelphia, and New Orleans. His campaign cut an ad with congressional representatives of the latter two cities, respectively, Brendan Boyle and Troy Carter, who detailed Vallas’s damaging school privatization plans and encouraged people to vote for Johnson. In 2002, Vallas arrived in Philadelphia and executed a previously arranged and detested takeover of several public schools by a group of for-profit companies and nonprofit organizations and opened up new charters. He enacted a punitive zero-tolerance regime and then issued contracts to for-profit providers to operate disciplinary schools that warehoused students who had been pushed out.
A key critic of this scheme was Helen Gym, founder of Parents United for Public Education, who lamented the violence of underfunded, understaffed schools that were falling apart and mold-ridden and argued that children’s pronounced social and emotional needs were not served by zero-tolerance punishment. “We have policies to suspend, arrest, punish, and potentially imprison our children,” she wrote in the Philadelphia Public School Notebook in 2007, “but we can’t have a policy for reduced class size or textbooks or open libraries in our schools.… So what’s really violent here?”
Today, Gym is one of the leading candidates for mayor of Philadelphia and hoping to join a new class of progressive urban mayors: Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson, Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass, and Boston Mayor Michelle Wu. (Disclosure: I have known Gym for several years through organizing and policy work, and she is discussed in my forthcoming book about Philadelphia, Live to See the Day: Coming of Age in American Poverty.)
A zigzag line can be drawn from social movements such as Occupy Wall Street, Fight for 15, Black Lives Matter, teachers’ strikes, and Sanders’s presidential campaigns to the rise of these mayors. Together, with the backing of organized labor, they have an opportunity to reverse austerity, invest in public goods, reimagine and strengthen public safety, and save lives in American metropolises.
The next mayor of Philadelphia, the poorest large city in the country, will face daunting challenges: joblessness; poverty; gun violence; inequitable, unsafe public schools; an opioid epidemic; and substandard, unaffordable housing. The past three years have been the deadliest in the history of the city, with some 500 killings annually—the highest per capita homicide rate among large US cities. Recently, the school district announced that 100 students have already been shot, including 20 killed, this year. A recent survey found that two-thirds of residents said Philadelphia is on the wrong track and identified crime as their top issue.
With election day next week, the first independent public poll shows a dead heat between the top five candidates. There’s ShopRite oligarch and chauvinist Jeff Brown, who owns a chain of supermarkets and was recently accused by the city’s ethics board of violating campaign finance law for colluding with an affiliated super PAC and a nonprofit. Real estate mogul and former city councilman Allan Domb is largely self-funded to the tune of more than $7 million. Former city controller Rebecca Rhynhart is running as a pro-charter technocrat, in the style of former mayors John Street and Michael Nutter, who have both endorsed her. Former city councilwoman and lobbyist Cherelle Parker, who backs stop-and-frisk policing, rounds out the top tier.
Like Brandon Johnson, Gym is a former public-school teacher and came of age organizing against the market-based urban school reform project. Pick virtually any social justice fight in the city since the 1990s: the closures and privatization of public schools, budget cuts, school funding lawsuits, the eviction crisis, the fight for a $15 minimum wage, the closure of Hahnemann Hospital, and the abuse scandal at the reformatory Glen Mills Schools, and one will find that Gym, who served as a city councilwoman for six years, was on the picket line, getting arrested for civil disobedience, building coalitions, testifying at or organizing hearings, or drafting and passing legislation.
As mayor, she pledges to advance an agenda that would “restore the village to our city.” Her policy platform is, naturally, centered on education, and she calls for turning every school into a community school with wraparound and trauma-informed supports; providing after-school and summer programming in schools, recreation centers, and libraries; modernizing school infrastructure; creating playgrounds for every school; and expanding youth employment. Not only will these investments improve educational outcomes, but research indicates that they will also reduce crime and other social dislocations. Gym released a comprehensive anti-violence plan that would invest in mental health crisis response units, violence interrupters, an improved 911 response system, more detectives to improve homicide clearance rates, and other ideas. She and Johnson share a recognition that the hackneyed tactic of simply hiring more cops cannot slow the bloodshed. Gym and several candidates are also pushing for place-based interventions, such as cleaning up vacant lots, rehabilitating abandoned houses, and improving street lighting, all of which have been found to cut down on crime.
Recently, hundreds of youth engaged in raucous flash mobs and violent skirmishes in downtown Chicago and Philadelphia. Immediately, there were calls to impose a curfew, despite little to no data validating the efficacy of the measure. Mayor-elect Johnson condemned the unrest while acknowledging that we should not “demonize youth who have otherwise been starved of opportunities in their own communities.” In Philadelphia, it was telling that Gym was the only mayoral candidate to firmly oppose the new ban on unaccompanied minors after 2 pm at the Fashion District shopping mall. “We cannot criminalize young people,” she said. “There is nothing for young people to do. We actually have to go out and create some of these things for young people to go to.”
The American Rescue Plan poured billions into Philadelphia, including historic sums for public education and before-school, after-school, and summer programs. Philadelphia’s next mayor must prepare for the imminent fiscal cliffs as those Covid-19 federal relief dollars dry up in the next year or two. Pennsylvania’s regressive uniformity clause mandates flat local and state taxes, where low-income earners are effectively charged higher tax rates than the wealthiest. So the mayor will need to be creative and bold to raise new revenue—push Harrisburg for fair funding, identify and divert wasteful spending into productive programs, and crack down on corporate welfare.
If Gym is also elected, the question will be: How can Johnson and Gym wield their power to benefit working people in the face of expected relentless obstruction by corporate interests, real estate, anti-public education billionaires, and police unions? Seventy years ago, Joseph S. Clark Jr., a postwar mayor of Philadelphia, described New Deal/Fair Deal liberalism as “utilizing the full force of government for the advancement of social, political, and economic justice at the municipal, state, national, and international levels.” This is the vision the next mayors of Chicago and Philadelphia should renew.