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On the Chicago race for mayor

An opportunity for the Left

Kirstin Roberts argues that given the stark political choice, the broad mobilization of left and movement forces in support of Brandon Johnson, and the groundwork laid over the last decade by union and social struggles in Chicago, the elections offer real opportunities for socialists committed to political independence.

The Chicago mayoral election, set for its run-off on April 4, reflects a sharpening polarization of politics in Chicago (and nationally) and is absorbing the attention and energy of the vast majority of the city’s Left and social movement activists. On the one hand, Paul Vallas is a long-standing member of the boss class and is more than happy to blow the dog-whistle of racism and reaction in his appeals to law and order. On the other hand, Brandon Johnson wears proudly both his history as a Chicago teacher, union and social activist, AND his allegiance to the Democratic Party, albeit one he pitches with a “progressive” spin.

For revolutionary socialists—without illusions in either the depth of the threat posed by the virulent far right, or about the pro-capitalist nature of the Democratic Party, ”progressive” or otherwise—the strategic and tactical questions raised in this reality are challenging. First, the dynamism of the preceding period of radicalization and hope—most strongly embodied by the anti-racist rebellion of 2020—has receded. Second, the dynamic in Chicago is, at least arguably, unique, resting on the particular legacy of class struggle and social justice unionism led by the Chicago Teachers Union and its intimate links to the liberatory thread of radical Black politics.

Tempest is presenting what we hope to be a series of articles on the Johnson-Vallas race with different emphases and conclusions. Each is written by comrades committed to the politics of solidarity and with a political horizon shared within Tempest, in which we agree that the working class and oppressed must have a party (or parties) of their own and that there must be a definitive rupture with capitalist business as usual. Regardless of the outcome on April 4, we will continue with the assessments and continue organizing for struggle.

At an invitation from the parents of one of my students, I recently joined a Brandon Johnson for Mayor volunteer Zoom meet-up. The call was organized by United Working Families, a Chicago electoral organization supported by my union, the Chicago Teachers Union. I was tired and almost skipped it. I’m glad I didn’t.

Over 40 volunteers, almost all Black and Brown women from working-class neighborhoods across Chicago were on the call. They talked about their fear of crime—many living in the highest-poverty neighborhoods of the city—and their fear of the police who target Black and Brown kids for harassment and abuse. They talked about how their neighborhood schools were under-funded and couldn’t provide support to their children. They discussed how their paychecks are being eaten up by the rising cost of housing, food, and gas. They shared their fears that Paul Vallas, running for Chicago mayor against Brandon Johnson, would double down on more cops, the defunding of schools and other public services, and increase economic and social injustice. They also talked about their dreams for a Chicago where everyone could find affordable housing, health care, and funded public schools. Ninety percent of those on the call had never volunteered for a political campaign before.

Spaces like these are popping up all over Chicago—both virtually and in person. I’ve attended several union meetings, house parties, meetings of Independent Political Organization (IPO) within various local wards, rallies, and phone bankings over the past few months.  In all these spaces I’ve encountered new and veteran activists who see the mayor’s race as a battle between left and right and who believe the outcome will shape the future of working class Chicago and the Chicago Left for a long time to come.

In some respects, this is a Chicago mayor’s race that feels familiar: Democratic Party office holders lining up to announce endorsements, record-breaking fundraising to pay for endless campaign commercials, door-knocking and phone banks. But at its heart, this is a Chicago mayor’s race we haven’t seen before: The militant Chicago Teachers Union has built a political arm—the United Working Families (UWF)—that has mobilized thousands of volunteers behind their candidate, Brandon Johnson. Many of those volunteers are activists from various social movements across the city, including the 2020 Movement for Black Lives. Add into that mix the growth of neighborhood-based IPOs, responsible for the election of at least six socialist alderpersons, and a distinctly different sort of campaign is visible—one that I believe socialists cannot afford to abstain from.

The Chicago mayoral race of 2023 is being watched closely around the country by forces of the Left and the right, and for good reason. On election night, incumbent Lori Lightfoot went down to a humiliating defeat with a third place finish, thanks in large part to her inability to stem the gun violence that plagues Chicago’s poorest neighborhoods. Veteran Democratic Congressman Chuy Garcia came in fourth after a half-hearted run, which appeared aimed more to shore up his status as a power broker in city politics than to actually run city politics. The two candidates that came in first and second head to a runoff on April 4 as neither secured a majority of the vote.

Johnson and Vallas are widely seen as representing the different faces of the Tale of Two Chicagos. Paul Vallas was the top vote-getter on February 28. Former Chicago Public Schools “CEO” and candidate supported by the notoriously racist Chicago Fraternal Order of Police, his campaign coffers overflow with cash from the biggest real estate investors, financial sector swindlers, hospitality industry bosses, and the most conservative trade unions. He describes himself as a moderate Democrat and owes most of his former jobs to appointments by Democratic Party elected officials. He also openly courts Trump voters and schmoozes with far right organizations like Awake Illinois and the Illinois Policy Institute. A true bipartisan enemy of the working class.

Vallas’ has never held political office but has been appointed to run big and small city school systems around the country, and his name is synonymous with the corporate education defund movement characterized by school closures, charter proliferation, privatization, and attacks on education, workers’ pensions, and unions. His reign of terror in Chicago as school CEO decimated majority-Black schools and led to a historic decline in the number of Black teachers and students.

Brandon Johnson is a self-described progressive Democrat who has served as a Cook County Commissioner since 2018. He has amassed endorsements from other progressive Democrats, such as Bernie Sanders, as well as some decided moderates. Funding for his campaign comes from the Chicago Teachers Union, SEIU, and lots of smaller individual donors.

His real claim on the hearts and minds of the Chicago’s not-insubstantial left-activist milieu, comes from his history as a former CPS teacher and union militant, CTU organizer, a Black West Side resident, and political activist inside the UWF. He was a hunger striker against school closures and is a favorite speaker at rallies against police brutality, for striking workers, and a host of left-wing struggles. His campaign platform and proposed budget draft were put together with help from the CTU and other progressive unions, Black activists and scholars, and IPOs. It calls for raising taxes on the wealthy to fund social services in poor communities, including re-opening of shuttered mental health clinics, jobs programs for youth, affordable housing, addressing environmental racism, universal childcare, investments in public transit, fully funding schools, and a “reimagining” of public safety that addresses the root causes of crime, rather than increasing policing and “get tough on crime” policies.

The image is a mix of photo collage and graphic design, in greens and pinks. Two men wearing suits stand at debate podiums and each podium as the logo for the Chicago based channel ‘abc 7.’ The man standing on the left is Mayoral candidate Brandon Johnson and has the icon of the Chicago Teachers Union behind him. The man standing on the right is Mayoral candidate Paul Vallas. Chat bubbles are in the image’s forefront, with various questions. From left to right, the first asks ‘Support militant unions?’. The second asks ‘Defund the police?’ The third asks ‘Demands of big capital?’ The fourth asks ‘Support the carceral state?’
How the Mayoral candidates Paul Vallas and CTU backed Brandon Johnson respond to critical political issues brings into question who this electoral system works for. Photo Credit: Nevena Pilipović-Wengler.

The right’s attacks on these Bernie-esque policies center around two key issues—crime and taxes—and Johnson’s campaign has been thrown onto the defense around both these questions, but especially on whether to hire more cops. Vallas wants to hire thousands more police officers and is seen as the “get tough” candidate. He paints Johnson as the “defund candidate” in a constant battery of screaming campaign commercials. Debates hosted by local news outlets will not move off the issue of crime and cops, and Johnson has tried to both placate voters who are fearful of “defunding police” while also highlighting the huge sums of money spent on the police budget with little in the way of safety to show for it. Johnson has said he will promote 200 new detectives to try and raise the extremely low murder “solve rate” and also continues to speak out about some of the most notorious crimes committed by police in Chicago, including the killing of 13 year old Adam Toledo in 2021 and the humiliating abuse endured by Anjanette Young in 2019 (Anjanette Young has endorsed Brandon Johnson and has appeared at several events with him on the campaign trail.)

The majority of voters polled in higher crime neighborhoods of Chicago say they want more police—despite the fact that they also face the brunt of racist brutality and incarceration and also tell pollsters they think police are racist and do a bad job. In communities that have seen every public service defunded for decades, and where every weekend brings the death of another young person to gun violence, these contradictions are understandable. Johnson did not take majorities in many of these neighborhoods in the first round, and as he tries to make inroads, the Johnson campaign has brought about a conversation about reinvestment in mental health, education, and jobs that broadens the discussion beyond the “we need more cops to protect us” dead-end despite his platform’s limitations.

As Chicago spends more per capita on policing than almost every other U.S. city, Johnson has tried to shift the conversation to “reallocation.” While this is welcome, a movement that takes on the endemic racism inside the CPD–which shelters active members who are also Proud Boys–is necessary and overdue. How the movement finds its feet in the aftermath of the mayor’s race  will be a key area for the Left to engage with.

The ordinary people being put into motion around this campaign very much see it as the rich vs. working class and poor, the cops vs. the teachers, Black and Brown vs. white supremacy (a recent poll showed 72 percent of white voters favor Vallas, while 74 percent of Black voters favor Johnson), and progressive Democratic Party politics vs. the right wing. The discussions about the need for a party of our own, a party that could not house both a Brandon Johnson and a Paul Vallas, are being had in and around this campaign. Also under discussion is what happened to the radical Movement for Black Lives of 2020, and how to move forward a host of social movements in the post-pandemic world.

For socialists who believe a fundamentally different society is necessary, and who believe that our two-party system has served as an obstacle to that goal, some of the most interesting discussions being had are in spaces around this campaign are revolving around what would it mean if Brandon Johnson wins—as of this writing Johnson and Vallas are running neck and neck.

What happens when Johnson moves to pass taxes on corporations or their real estate transactions? The assumption should be that bosses will fight back, threaten to leave Chicago, and take jobs with them. How do Johnson and the Left that elected him respond? What happens when the cops fight Johnson’s reform attempts? Will he move to appease them and their vocal right-wing support or can he help organize Chicagoans to resist? And of course, staring down the real possibility of recession during Johnson’s term, how will the city budget be reimagined to secure the funding we need to make good on the promises of fully funded schools, public transit, and health care?

The Johnson campaign’s ability to go from 3 percent support at the start of the race—to making the runoff, and continuing to close the gap in a tight race—is a testament to the ground game UWF has built. With its close links and origins to Chicago’s fighting labor unions, UWF centers the struggles of ordinary working people. While Vallas depends on paid canvassers and millions for tv ads, the backbone of Brandon’s backers are volunteers, many of whom are rank and file union activists. IPO’s such as those in the 33rd, 25th, and 50th wards, where people come together to organize around local issues as well as elect members to City Council, predated the efforts to capture the mayor’s office, and will continue to be hubs of activism, regardless of the outcome on April 4.

Absent the massive struggles we saw across the country in the summer of 2020, many of these same activists now see this mayoral contest as the logical space to continue that work. While an electoral campaign can certainly narrow the scope of the demands, as it is a contest between two individuals seeking political office in a capitalist state, in this instance there is potential to build relationships, make connections, and deepen the politics of participants. The debates are happening and will continue—socialists can and should have a small but real influence on these discussions. For example, in my union, we are trying to increase the confidence of members to argue for alternatives to policing and the carceral state and to address the root causes of crime by contesting the arguments that Johnson needs to further distance himself from defund activists.

Many veterans and newcomers to the struggles for social justice see the importance of building bottom-up organizations as the key way to change history for the better and see electoral work as a necessary part of that work. The CTU, and Brandon Johnson in his role as CTU organizer, helped to develop this political “common sense” with a political strategy laid out in the aftermath of massive school closures in 2013.

If Brandon wins, the ability to push back against the monied interests who would resist any reallocation of resources away from their priorities would be dependent on our ability to mobilize our side beyond the electoral front. The character of the campaign has lent itself to that model, but that will not automatically translate into the struggles we need to see. That will take politics and organizing. The multifaceted movement struggles from across Chicago are represented in this campaign, and leftists who have not yet had an opportunity to participate, should join in. The activists you will meet will be important connections that will be necessary, however things shape up after April 4.

*The author wants to acknowledge the help of Dennis Kosuth, and other Chicago area activists and union members.

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Kirstin Roberts View All

Kirstin Roberts is a preschool teacher in the Chicago Public Schools. She is an active member of the Chicago Teachers Union, a community activist in the 50th Ward United Working Families, a life-long socialist, and member of the Tempest Collective.