Brandon Johnson's Unlikely Leap from Labor Activist to MayorRoundup
tags: Chicago, urban history, Brandon Johnson, Chicago Teachers Union
Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor is the Leon Forrest Professor of African American Studies at Northwestern University and the author of several books. Race for Profit: How Banks and the Real Estate Industry Undermined Black Homeownership was a semifinalist for the 2019 National Book Award and a 2020 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for history.
If the significance of an electoral victory can be measured by those who call to congratulate the winner, then the Chicago mayoral race is a big one. Within days of Brandon Johnson’s unlikely defeat of Paul Vallas in a runoff election, on April 4th, he received calls from President Joe Biden and former President Barack Obama. A week later, the Democratic National Committee announced that Chicago will host the Party’s 2024 convention
The attention from powerful Democrats indicates the importance of the race not just to those who live in the city of Chicago but to national politics. In the aftermath of the 2020 uprisings and Presidential contest, the Republican Party went all in on two issues: opposing crime and what they describe as “woke intolerance.” In doing so, they conflated the rise of crime rates during the height of the pandemic with the political outcry throughout that summer. Within this recriminating narrative, Chicago loomed large. For years now, Chicago has been described by Republicans as the quintessential example of big-city chaos. As former President Donald Trump once said, “All over the world they’re talking about Chicago. Afghanistan is a safe place by comparison.”
The Chicago election showed that these debates were happening not just between Democrats and Republicans but within the Democratic Party. The runoff pitted the first chief executive officer of Chicago Public Schools, Paul Vallas, who promised to confront the “rampant crisis of unprecedented levels of crime” by hiring more police and prosecuting more misdemeanors, against a former public-school teacher and union organizer, Brandon Johnson, who campaigned to “direct more funds to violence prevention and community safety programming that address the root causes of community violence.” (Mayor Lori Lightfoot, who ran on police reform in 2019 but increased the department’s budget three out of her four years in office, failed to even make the final round.)
Vallas’s campaign was largely financed by Republican donors and, in one interview, he went so far as to say that he was more Republican than Democrat, but big-name Democrats backed him up. Senator Dick Durbin endorsed Vallas in the final days of the campaign, as did Obama’s Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan. Twenty of Chicago’s mostly Democratic alderpeople endorsed Vallas. So, surprisingly, did the former South Side congressman and Black Panther Bobby Rush, who, as recently as 2020, described the Chicago police union—which backed Vallas—as “the most rabid, racist body of criminal lawlessness by police in the land.”
Some of Vallas’s Democratic support could be chalked up to the cynical assumption that it’s best to be on the side of the (presumed) winner. But it also reflected the deep disagreements about how to address crime and violence in cities. When Eric Adams won the race for New York City mayor, in 2021, the new common sense was that it was time for Democrats to get tough on crime. When the G.O.P. largely flamed out while running on crime in the midterms, the lesson was that a punitive approach was losing its vigor in national races. But the national leadership of the Democratic Party was reluctant to be seen as embracing the big-government policies that they championed at the height of the pandemic; inevitably, they returned to arguing for more policing.
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