Adam Sachs: Brandon Johnson for Mayor of Chicago

 /  March 31, 2023, 7:40 p.m.

City Hall

Dale Cruse

Chicago City Hall

         This Tuesday, Chicagoans will elect their next mayor. After denying a second term to incumbent Mayor Lori Lightfoot, Chicagoans will now choose between Brandon Johnson, the progressive former teacher, union organizer, and Cook County Commissioner, and Paul Vallas, the centrist, tough-on-crime, former Chicago Public Schools CEO. The two candidates could not be more different – in terms of their experience, their policy proposals, their endorsements, and their vision for Chicago. Of the two candidates, Brandon Johnson is the right choice to lead Chicago for the next four years.

         Starting in 2007, Johnson worked as a social studies teacher at some of Chicago’s toughest public schools in Cabrini-Green and East Garfield Park. In 2011, he became a union organizer for the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU), negotiating with City Hall during the 2019 strike to secure better pay for teachers, more social workers, and a nurse and librarian in every school. He’s also the only candidate in the race who has held elected office before. In 2018, he was elected to the Cook County Board of Commissioners for District 1.

Vallas, on the other hand, is a Daley-era political machine technocrat who has spent his career privatizing public schools and worsening the quality of public education in the name of “school choice.” When Vallas was in charge of Chicago’s public school system under Mayor Richard M. Daley, he opened the city’s first charter schools and paid for construction projects using money from teachers’ retirement funds – creating a pension crisis that persists today. At the helm of Philadelphia public schools, Vallas converted 22 public schools into charter schools, ultimately leaving the district financially broken with a $73 million deficit. In New Orleans, Vallas privatized 83 out of 86 public schools in the city. Vallas’ track record of school privatization and financial mismanagement is wrong for Chicago.

      The two candidates also have vastly different stances on an issue that’s shaping up to be one of the most salient in the mayoral race: crime and public safety. Brandon Johnson’s plan focuses on addressing the root causes of crime and uplifting underserved communities. He recognizes that rising crime reflects the weaknesses in the fabric of our city – like poverty, unemployment, health disparities, and disinvestment in Black and Brown neighborhoods on the South and West Side. Despite false attacks that he supports defunding the police, Johnson favors reallocating existing funds towards promoting 200 detectives to improve the Chicago Police Department’s clearance rate for homicides, hit-and-runs, and other unsolved violent crimes. 

Vallas’ crime plan seems to be shouting “more police!” at every problem and hoping it sticks. As the self-proclaimed “law-and-order candidate,” says he’ll add 1,700 more officers to the Chicago Police Department, but has released no substantive plan for how he’ll accomplish that goal or where the additional funding will come from. I am skeptical about whether increasing the size of the police force will meaningfully reduce Chicago’s rising crime rates. Chicago already has more police officers per capita than New York and Los Angeles, and studies consistently show more spending on police does not lead to reduced crime. 

         As the saying goes, who you surround yourself with matters. Each candidates’ politics and values are reflected in the people and groups from whom they’ve accepted endorsements. Brandon Johnson has earned endorsements from a robust, progressive, and diverse coalition of labor unions and elected officials from across the city. Chicago is a union town, and Johnson has the backing of the powerful Chicago Teachers Union (CTU), the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and the American Federation of State and County Municipal Employees (AFSCME). Interest groups like the Sierra Club, the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs, Better Streets Chicago, and the Girl, I Guess Voter Guide have endorsed Johnson, as have Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, Congressman and former mayoral candidate Chuy Garcia, and Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul. Johnson has also garnered endorsements on the national level, from politicians like Senator Bernie Sanders and Congressman Jim Clyburn (D-SC-6), whose endorsement of Joe Biden in the 2020 presidential primary propelled him to win the Democratic nomination. 

On the other hand, Vallas’ proudest endorsements are from a hodge-podge coalition of neoliberal, conservative-minded, and eccentric Democrats. Vallas was endorsed by Willie Wilson, the Trump-supporting Black businessman who challenged Vallas in the mayoral primary; Bobby Rush, the former South Side Congressman and anti-police Black Panther activist who endorsed Michael Bloomberg in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary; and Illinois Senator Dick Durbin, who doesn’t even live in Chicago. In a city that is over 70% Democratic, Paul Vallas has walked a thin (blue) line trying to prove to voters that he is a “lifelong Democrat,” despite past comments, saying, “I’m more of a Republican than a Democrat” and “fundamentally, I oppose abortion.” 

Darren Bailey, the former MAGA Republican candidate for Governor of Illinois in 2022 and Kenneth C. Griffin, the Republican campaign megadonor, billionaire CEO of the Citadel hedge fund, and namesake benefactor of the UChicago Economics Department, have also expressed support for Vallas. He has also awkwardly disavowed endorsements from the far-right group Awake Illinois and former Trump Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

Vallas’ most concerning endorsement came from Chicago’s police union, the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP). The FOP is led by union president John Catanzara, who has an extensive record of excessive force complaints during his time as a police officer, defended the pro-Trump January 6th Capitol rioters, and said the cops involved in George Floyd’s murder should not face jail time. The union has a long history of shielding officers accused of misconduct and fighting police accountability and reform measures. That Vallas has so strongly embraced the endorsement from the FOP is cause for major concern.

         Paul Vallas is the Great White Hope of the racist, exploitative, and decaying Daley political machine. He portrays himself as the law-and-order candidate who clearly doesn’t have any love for Chicago – in fact, he doesn’t even live here. Vallas listed his home in suburban Palos Heights as his primary residence and only registered to vote at an address in Chicago’s Bridgeport neighborhood last year so he could meet eligibility requirements to run for mayor. Vallas’ personal Facebook account liked posts that referred to the city as “Shitcago” and a “hell hole.” His strongest voter base comes from white voters in North Side neighborhoods who have a visceral fear of crime, but are much less likely to experience it than marginalized folks on the South and West Sides. Vallas’ only solution to Chicago’s complicated crime problem is a baseless promise to grow the ranks of CPD with no plan for finding new recruits or ensuring they will act ethically and comply with the Federal consent decree. Like putting a small band-aid on a gaping wound, Vallas’ short-sighted plans to expand policing will not solve Chicago’s crime problems in the long-term.

Brandon Johnson, on the other hand, presents a hopeful vision for Chicago. He knows that Chicago’s highest-crime areas have suffered from decades of neglect, and the best crime-reduction strategy is to invest in those communities by building new schools, creating jobs programs, and rebuilding crumbling infrastructure. He brings on-the-ground experience as an educator, elected official, and union organizer. 

Johnson has faced some legitimate criticism for changing his position on certain issues during the campaign. For example, Johnson proposed a Metra surcharge tax for suburbanites taking the train to commute into the city, but changed his mind after pushback from public transit advocates. However, I don’t see this as flip-flopping - I view this as good leadership. I want a candidate (and a Mayor) who is willing to listen to constructive criticism from constituents and change his policies accordingly, rather than rigidly standing by unpopular positions, like Mayor Lightfoot did in her tenure. 

Johnson believes in building a better, stronger, safer Chicago by investing in neighborhoods, supporting public education, and uplifting our entire city by helping the least-fortunate among us. He has built a diverse, progressive coalition and has run a forward-thinking, optimistic campaign based on love and hope. And like Harold Washington and Barack Obama before him, Johnson will bring a wave of progressive leadership and positive change to City Hall. 

Vallas’ voters are motivated by fear, and his ominous rhetoric has attracted a coalition of anxious white Northsiders, centrist Democrats, the radical FOP, and far-right Republicans. Fear is a powerful emotion, and the latest poll shows Vallas leading with 46% of likely voters compared to Johnson’s 41%. But, as President Franklin Delano Roosevelt said, “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” In this election, I choose hope over fear. On April 4th, I’m proud to cast my vote for Brandon Johnson to be the next Mayor of Chicago, and I hope you’ll vote for Brandon, too.

The image featured in this article is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) International License. No changes were made to the original image, which was taken by Dale Cruse and can be found here.

Adam Sachs (author) and Mayoral Candidate Brandon Johnson. Photo courtesy of Paul Goyette.

Adam Sachs (author) and Mayoral Candidate Brandon Johnson. Photo courtesy of Paul Goyette.

Adam Sachs


<script type="text/javascript" src="//" data-dojo-config="usePlainJson: true, isDebug: false"></script><script type="text/javascript">require(["mojo/signup-forms/Loader"], function(L) { L.start({"baseUrl":"","uuid":"d2157b250902dd292e3543be0","lid":"aa04c73a5b"}) })</script>