“He Is One of Us”: Brandon Johnson Wants to Transform Chicago

Brandon Johnson was running late. It had been a hectic Saturday on the campaign trail, just over two weeks before the April runoff vote in Chicago’s mayoral election, and he was being whisked out of a Mexican restaurant in Little Village to his next stop: the headquarters of the Chicago Teachers Union, where the seeds of his political movement were planted more than a decade ago. But before he left, he had to squeeze in one more interview—this time with a puppet named Chip Chicago.

“Deep dish,” Chip asked, “or tavern style?”

“I gotta go with tavern style,” Johnson replied. “I like it nice and greasy.”

“That’s perfect,” said the puppet. “And I was wondering: White Sox or Cubs?”

“How about this? Ask your parents or your grandparents—I grew up watching WGN,” Johnson said, referring to the network that broadcast the North Siders until the Ricketts moved the team to its own network. 

“Sounds like I’ve got some research to do.”

Johnson smiled: “As a teacher, I’m always gonna assign a little research.”

Kirby Callan, the recent Columbia College graduate who voiced Chip, was making an educational video for school kids about the Chicago race. He’d hoped to interview both candidates—Johnson and Paul Vallas, who led the first round of voting in February—but the Vallas campaign had declined, Callan told me. Johnson, on the other hand, “seemed genuinely excited” to participate: “Brandon clearly cares for the people he wants to serve as mayor,” added Callan, who grew up in a conservative North Carolina household but is now canvassing for Johnson. “He wants to fight for the middle-class everyman.” 

That “everyman” appeal has been key to Johnson’s rise. A 47-year-old Cook County commissioner with thick-rimmed glasses and a beard gone to white in the chin, Johnson entered the crowded race for City Hall last fall with the support of powerful progressive groups in the city. As a former teacher and CTU organizer, he might boast less name recognition than rivals like Vallas, United States Congressman Jesús “Chuy” García, and current Mayor Lori Lightfoot. But Johnson surged through the final weeks of the campaign to make the runoff, and is now running neck and neck with his more conservative, law-and-order opponent, potentially putting the city’s progressive movement on the cusp of a massive victory. 

Unlike Karen Bass—the progressive former US representative who won the Los Angeles mayoral race last year that was also animated by concerns about crime—there is a lack of polish to Johnson. Yes, he’s a good retail politician, good at rallying a crowd. “Let’s change the world, Chicago!” Johnson told a packed banquet hall at Mi Tierra, a colorful restaurant in this predominantly Mexican tract of South Lawndale, drawing loud chants of “Si se puede!” But he is also unassuming, so soft-spoken when he put down the microphone that he was nearly drowned out by the mariachi band playing on the other side of the room—just a regular guy who likes greasy pizza and makes teacher jokes. “I believe that voters see themselves [in me],” Johnson told me from a corner table in the back of the restaurant, as families went about their meals around us. “I’m a reflection of working people.” 

This race, which has attracted significant national interest, has been widely seen as a referendum on crime—a case study for how Democrats, in a deep-blue city Republicans frequently malign as a “hell hole,” address public safety. It has also underscored the long-standing racial divides here: Vallas, who is white, leads among white Chicagoans, while Johnson, who is Black, leads among Black Chicagoans, according to a WGN News poll out Monday. But the runoff has spoken to broader dynamics, as well—the teachers union versus the police union; the grassroots versus the old guard; a candidate who vows to address Chicago’s “tale of two cities” versus one who has faced questions of his own residency in the city. (Vallas pushed back, saying he’s lived in Chicago since January 2022.)

Johnson is the “people’s candidate,” said Alderwoman Rossana Rodriguez, one of his earliest supporters. “Brandon comes from the movement,” she told me. “He is one of us.”

On the day I met Johnson, he was out trying to expand that movement, to build up the kind of rainbow coalition that helped elect Harold Washington, Chicago’s first Black mayor, in 1983. “We have an opportunity…to build on the multicultural, multigenerational coalition,” said Johnson, who would become the city’s fourth Black mayor if elected. “The civil rights movement, the labor rights movement—that’s the coalition we’ve been pushing for.”

He had just gotten a boost of momentum, having picked up two key endorsements the day before: from Jesse Jackson, the civil rights icon, and from Chuy García, who finished fourth in the first round of voting last month but carried six predominantly Latino wards that could prove decisive in the April 4 runoff. “The choice is clear,” said García, whose alliance with Harold Washington made him a progressive leader here. “Brandon Johnson is the right choice.”

Polls suggest that more and more Chicagoans agree: Vallas, running on a tough-on-crime message, led the first round of voting in February with 32.9% to Johnson’s 21.6%—but Johnson has seemingly closed this gap in recent weeks, capitalizing on questions about Vallas’s political allegiances and scrutiny over his record.

Vallas has mounted three unsuccessful campaigns for office—for Illinois governor in 2002, for lieutenant governor under Pat Quinn in 2014, and for Chicago mayor in 2019—each time as a Democrat. But he has a long history of aligning himself with conservatives and attacking members of his own party. In a 2009 interview with conservative commentator Jeff Berkowitz, Vallas declared himself “more of a Republican,” and later downplayed the remark, describing himself as a “lifelong Democrat” and pointing out that the clip was taken from a nearly 15-year-old interview. But in appearances as recent as last year and the year before on the Morning Answer radio program—where he regularly subbed in for conservative cohost Dan Proft, an ally of failed MAGA gubernatorial candidate Darren Bailey—Vallas bad-mouthed multiple Democratic leaders, including President Joe Biden and three of Illinois’s most popular political figures: former President Barack Obama, former first lady Michelle Obama, and Governor J.B. Pritzker, the last of whom he suggested had acted like a “dictator” in his response to the COVID-19 pandemic. (That drew a sharp rebuke from the governor, who has otherwise stayed on the sidelines of the contest: “Leadership requires making tough choices and not pandering to the loudest voices driven by politics,” a Pritzker spokesperson said. “The next mayor of Chicago may be called upon to lead in a similar type of emergency and residents deserve to know if their next mayor will listen to experts or instead to right-wing talk show hosts when making decisions about people’s lives.”)

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