His rise from union organizer to Chicago’s new

Brandon Johnson will be sworn in as Chicago’s 57th mayor on Monday, kicking off a new era at City Hall that he promises will be the city’s most progressive and transformative administration yet.

The mayor-elect, 47, will enter his inauguration ceremony on a mission to uplift the working class after campaigning on an anti-establishment platform that denounced what he called “the tale of two cities.” A former Cook County commissioner and teachers union organizer, Johnson will succeed Lori Lightfoot after her tumultuous term, which saw widespread discontent following the pandemic and civil unrest.

Johnson’s election also comes on the heels of a polarizing race against the more conservative Paul Vallas, who fell short in the April 4 runoff by just 26,000 votes, though Johnson has said he will lead with unity and not division.

To get here, Johnson took an unconventional route compared with previous mayors. Having cut his teeth politically as a top Chicago Teachers Union organizer a decade ago, Johnson brings with him a labor-friendly resume that has galvanized the city’s political left. That coalition of progressive unions and grassroots organizations propelled Johnson to victory after their chosen candidates suffered mayoral runoff losses in 2015 and 2019.

When Johnson first announced his run, his candidacy was often dismissed. He polled in the single digits while rivals such as the CTU’s former endorsed candidate in the 2015 mayor’s race, U.S. Rep. Jesús “Chuy” García, jockeyed for the progressive vote.

Johnson’s campaign themes of racial justice and taxing the rich ultimately caught fire, however. Buoyed by cash from CTU and like-minded unions, he surged months later to knock out incumbent Lightfoot in the initial round of voting — the first time a sitting Chicago mayor had lost reelection since Harold Washington beat Jane Byrne to become the city’s first Black mayor in 1983. Johnson will be the fourth.

“There’s no question that Brandon Johnson is the strongest progressive to win the mayor’s election since Harold Washington,” said Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa, 35th, a democratic socialist and Johnson ally who represents the Northwest Side. “And as the mayor-elect has said consistently, it’s not just him coming to (City Hall’s) fifth floor. It’s an entire grassroots movement.”

Johnson announced his candidacy for mayor in October by the Jenner Academy school building, where he started his career in education next to the Cabrini-Green public housing complex. It was a fitting representation of his campaign message of investing in education and righting income inequality.

As a CTU organizer, Johnson had been an instrumental force in crafting the union’s reputation as a progressive powerhouse, but election opponents countered that Chicago doesn’t need a mayor beholden to the teachers union. He also faced frequent fire for his past support of the “defund the police” movement, or the activist-backed calls to reallocate law enforcement budgets and send the funds to other social services in the wake of the 2020 Minneapolis police murder of George Floyd.

Mayor-elect Brandon Johnson poses for a photo at the Columbus Park Refectory in Chicago's Austin neighborhood on April 22, 2023.

Though he eventually vowed the Police Department’s budget would not be “one penny” less, detractors pounced, saying he’s out of touch with Black Chicagoans residing in the city’s most violent neighborhoods after getting into the runoff with a base of primarily white progressives along Milwaukee Avenue and north of Lakeview.

But Johnson proved them wrong and swept the 16 majority-Black wards, a sign that those voters and other Chicagoans agreed crime was a pressing issue that needed not the law-and-order platform pushed by Vallas but Johnson’s more holistic approach and personal experiences as a West Sider.

Indeed, Johnson opened one of his first post-election appearances by nodding to his roots as an Austin resident, saying on MSNBC that he “might be the first mayor ever elected in the city of Chicago that will wake up every single morning in the most violent neighborhood.” He also reminded viewers of his modest upbringing.

The son of pastors who also were foster parents, Johnson grew up in northwest suburban Elgin with nine siblings, an experience that he has used to argue his bona fides on everything from negotiating budgets to digging at the underlying causes of crime.

“We tend to limit our conversations around toughness,” Johnson said the morning after the runoff. “But we also have to … (treat) the trauma that has been just very horrific, and it has gripped many of our communities in a way that has made it very difficult for people to literally breathe.”

The transition period between Lightfoot and Johnson’s administration was a busy month and a half that saw a surprising mix of old- and new-guard appointments to Johnson’s team. At the same time, ongoing crises that he will face on day one continued to mushroom.

Johnson’s picks for his two top staff members were a pragmatic City Hall veteran and a progressive-minded state legislator: Richard Guidice, the former head of the city’s Office of Emergency Management and Communications, and state Sen. Cristina Pacione-Zayas. His deputy mayor for education, youth and human services will be the CTU’s most recent chief of staff, Jennifer “Jen” Johnson.

Meanwhile, Johnson named Fred Waller, a former chief of patrol for the Chicago Police Department, as CPD’s interim boss while a permanent selection process continues. The choice was well-received by department supervisors as well as rank-and-file officers, even as Waller acknowledged the different schools of thought that he and Johnson come from: “I’m not going to front. I’m old school, as you all know. But I’m old school with integrity, professionalism and respect.”

Johnson also is keeping the vast majority of Lightfoot department heads in place as he starts his term in office, a move that has significant room for tension. On the campaign trail, Johnson had said he would fire public health commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady, who has clashed with the teachers union over COVID-19 mitigations and opposed efforts by progressive activists to reopen mental health clinics closed by former Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

City public health officials have long argued that they can better serve residents by giving grants to outside groups rather than running clinics themselves, a notion dismissed by Johnson’s core voters. How that situation is resolved will speak volumes about Johnson’s approach to governance.

On Friday, Johnson formally unveiled a City Council reorganizational plan that would override an earlier deal aldermen made ahead of the April runoff to maintain power among various factions.

The new structure pushed by Johnson would install his allies to key committee posts, including Ald. Pat Dowell, 3rd, as finance committee chair and Ramirez-Rosa as head of the zoning committee and his floor leader. But the public safety committee would be helmed by downtown Ald. Brian Hopkins, 2nd, and his vice mayor will be Ald. Walter Burnett, 27th, both Vallas supporters.

The slew of appointments reassured those who were wary of Johnson being too radical that his City Hall will make use of the institutional knowledge, while his backers said they have faith he will remain accountable to the grassroots movement he hails from.

“There are things that you’re going to have to be willing to compromise around,” said Assata Lewis, a 23-year-old education consultant and organizer with the youth activist group Good Kids Mad City who supports Johnson. “Now, obviously, the compromise does have limits if it’s disrupting the integrity and the fullness and the authenticity of what something is.”

In an interview with the Tribune after his election, Johnson said he will try to focus on issues where there’s room for consensus. And in other postelection appearances, he repeated a promise to not raise property taxes.

His 100-day agenda: doubling youth employment, finalizing a “Treatment Not Trauma” plan to send a nonpolice response to certain mental health crises, and passing “Bring Chicago Home,” a measure to hike the real estate transfer tax on properties above $1 million to fund anti-homelessness initiatives.

The Bring Chicago Home proposal, which will require approval from Springfield, has a limited window to be addressed, given that the General Assembly is scheduled to adjourn in four days, though lawmakers could take it up when they return to the Capitol in the fall.

Johnson visited both the state and federal capitals during the transition period in the hopes of forging strong relationships with Gov. J.B. Pritzker, state legislators, the White House and congressional Democrats. Johnson did so under a backdrop of snowballing controversies back home.

Chicago made national headlines in April after three teens were shot as hundreds of young people converged downtown and along the lakefront during a warm weekend. Though the chaotic scene unfolded during Lightfoot’s lame-duck period, critics bristled when Johnson’s reaction included a call to not “demonize youth.” He refused calls to speak more forcefully while still stressing that he does not condone the destruction and violence.

Last week, Lightfoot declared a state of emergency in response to the influx of migrants who have settled in the city, often under harsh living conditions, after crossing the U.S. southern border to seek asylum. Johnson will inherit the grim humanitarian crisis, which has seen some of the more than 8,000 new arrivals since August sleeping on the floors of police station lobbies as the city braces for the imminent end of its runway on financial assistance.

CTU President Stacy Davis Gates said Johnson’s 100-day agenda is “very realistic.”

“He is well-positioned to deal with the complexity of relationships and still deliver on his values and commitment to the people of Chicago,” Davis Gates said.

When he’s sworn in Monday, Johnson will complete an improbable rise from long-shot candidate to Chicago’s most progressive mayor in decades and an opportunity to deliver a leftist agenda across Chicago — and beyond.

“Let’s take this bold progressive movement around these United States of America,” Johnson said on election night. “Chicago, we can show the country — we can show the world — what’s possible when we stand on our values as one people.”

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