Teacher, Activist Runs for Mayor — Now is the Hard Part

Wesley Lowery

A few times each month, for the past four years, Brandon Johnson has made a 25-minute trip downtown to attend Cook County Board of Commissioners meetings — and today is his final one.

The next time he makes this Green Line commute, he’ll be headed to the other side of City Hall, to his fifth floor office, as mayor of the nation’s third-largest city. “It’s like going into high school, or going into college,” he tells me, beaming as we grip a pole for balance. “You kind of feel this excitement.”

Our crowded train makes its way through the West Side from Austin, one of the city’s most underserved communities, where Johnson, 47, and his wife have lived and raised their family for the past decade and a half, and where they once had to replace a window shattered by a stray bullet.

“You think about what the neighborhood represents and what the neighborhood could be,” Johnson tells me. “You don’t think about, necessarily, the current conditions. You think about the promise.”

Johnson is unlike any other Chicago mayor in memory. He’s the first in almost a century from this part of the city. The son of a minister, he is unabashed about his faith in a way often absent in leftist politics. He has taught in some of the city’s most challenging environments and found his political identity within the city’s grassroots labor and progressive movements, not its downtown establishment.

After the administrations of Richard M. Daley, Rahm Emanuel and Lori Lightfoot — mayors known, respectively, for cronyism, profanity and frostiness — Johnson is handsome, charismatic, even funny, and arrives with the reputation of a coalition builder.

“Not every middle school teacher and union activist can run and win for mayor in a major city in America,” says Randi Weingarten. Weingarten is president of the American Federation of Teachers.

She has known Johnson for years. She was one in a succession of progressive luminaries that included Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) to parachute into Chicago to aid his campaign.

“When he talks about hope — and contrasts that with fear — and talks about investment in people and in helping people become the best of who they can be . . . people want to follow him.”

But before his first day in the new gig, Johnson must graduate from his current one. His Board of Commissioners send-off is a jubilant affair. Even opponents offer tributes to his collegiality, willingness to collaborate and love of family, as allies gift his favorite snacks — chocolate-covered almonds and Kind bars — and jockey for his office furniture.

“You are the same age that [my brother] Rich was when he assumed the office,” said Commissioner John P. Daley, whose father and brother were the city’s two longest-serving mayors. “I know . . . you’re not just preaching, you believe what you’re saying. You want to unite the city. You want a city that is the same for all. Whether you’re in Austin, the South Side of the city, the North Side — everyone.”

About the Author: Wesley Lowery is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist.

This is a segment of a blog that originally appeared in full at In These Times on June 21, 2023. Republished with permission.

Visit Workplace Fairness’ page on unions to learn about workers’ rights.

The post Teacher, Activist Runs for Mayor — Now is the Hard Part first appeared on Today’s Workplace.

Leave a Reply