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The Left under Brandon Johnson

Accommodation or struggle?

Brandon Johnson’s meteoric rise to the mayor’s office inaugurates a new political period for Chicago. brian bean argues that winning necessary reforms will require independent organizing and confrontation with the rich and other vested political interests. The article is being jointly published by Tempest and Rampant Magazine.

On Monday, May 15, Brandon Johnson enters office as the mayor of Chicago. Johnson occupying the fifth floor of city hall reflects both a unique and important battle being waged and a situation fraught with difficulties. These related and contradictory dynamics are illustrative of both the possibilities and the entrenched hurdles that the U.S. Left faces more broadly.

It is notable that to reach this position Johnson dispatched Paul Vallas— and for the record, fuck that guy. Vallas was the hand-picked shill of capital; a neoliberal privatizer and hatchetman of public education; a law-and-order, Fraternal Order of Police (FOP)-endorsed, Blue Lives Matter idealogue, pouring blood in the water for the sharks of the Chicago Police Department (CPD), while hob-nobbing with anti-queer bigots. While he has, per his own admission, leaned Republican, for our purposes it is important to remember that he is, objectively, a Democrat.

Potential power

Johnson is an incredibly charismatic individual, a great trade unionist, and a generally sincere guy. He is also a liberal, “the real Democrat” in the race. What was exciting about his campaign is that it wasn’t just about him. What it represented was more genuine than Bernie’s “not me, us” slogan, which in my opinion was a slogan that invoked near religious reverence for the Democratic party presidential candidate. Observers outside of Chicago may misread the Johnson campaign as typical for the Democratic party where an individual campaign is built and then amasses endorsements and support, monetary and otherwise. While Johnson is a Democrat, as a politician he and his campaign are a product of the organizing of the United Working Families (UWF), an independent political organization that genuinely reflects a cross section of the city’s Left, antiracist, and working-class organizations.

UWF was born out of the struggle of the Chicago Teachers Union‘s (CTU) successful and epoch-defining 2012 strike and their valiant attempt to stop Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s 2014 unnatural disaster of the closure of fifty schools. With union backing and collaboration with a number of movement organizations and nonprofits, UWF has built a series of ward organizations across the city that run candidates to city hall and have also played important roles in struggle outside of the election cycle. The 33rd Ward Working Families organization—one of the first of the ward chapters—went from nearly getting teacher militant Tim Meegan into city hall to playing an active role in housing struggles, anti-racist organizing, labor solidarity, and mutual aid work during the pandemic. Other chapters have done similar work from other mutual aid, to demonstrations against police brutality in the summer of 2020, strike support in 2019, political education and reading groups around books like Robin Kelley’s Hammer and Hoe, to solidarity meetings with Palestine in the 50th Ward.1

Johnson’s meteoric rise from polling at three percent at the beginning of the election season and being laughed off by Lightfoot, who lost the mayor’s seat, is a testament to the serious success of the organizing pulled off by UWF and CTU. Thousands of volunteers, including upwards of 800 on Election Day alone, tirelessly built his campaign and a whole circuit of house parties played a significant role in fundraising, raising almost a half a million dollars.  This is very different from the money of finance capital that built Vallas’ largesse.

Johnson’s platform has reflected these roots, and while I have a number of disagreements with various aspects of his program, including his softness around the police, much of the platform springs from the grassroots origin of the campaign stemming from the city’s labor and social movements. During the campaign, Johnson called for taxing the rich, and identified as a  proud union militant, who speaks eloquently from his experience of Chicago’s apartheid school system. He advanced an approach to the issue of crime that largely focuses on root causes including a series of demands that antiracist movements in Chicago have organized around, from ending the gang database, enacting the Treatment Not Trauma program, ending Shotspotter, and closing the Homan Square CPD black site.

This isn’t just politics as usual. Some commentators have raised a one-to-one correlation of this being a redux of the Harold Washington campaign. Even though I do share a cautionary approach to the legacy of Washington, this comparison is too simplistic.  While his coalition included large segments of the Left, Washington was a product of the Democratic party machine through and through. Washington had worked in the Democratic party—officially—for thirty-two years, eighteen of them in the state legislature before he won the mayorship in 1983.

Yes, Johnson won two races as a Democrat and still is one. But what is different is that UWF is a rooted organization; it is a membership organization that represents real forces on the ground engaged in social movements not just a vague electoral coalition.  It is a contested political space, one that includes many revolutionaries who sincerely want a party of our own, independent of the two parties of capital. UWF itself contends that working people need an independent party and while we can talk about the strategic choices it has made, this aim should be of interest to the Left.  As Simon Swartzman points out in his excellently detailed analysis of Chicago’s independent political organization, only one candidate for the UWF “party committee” stated in a 2020 delegate questionnaire that its strategy should be to work within the Democratic party until a future time. Respondents were more likely to be critical of this position, and as one delegate put it: “We need a political party that shatters the popular political theater both the Democrats and Republicans indulge and thrive in.”

This makes UWF different from the Working Families Party (WFP) which draws its strength in New York. The Working Families Party is a product of New York’s peculiar electoral law that allows for voters to vote on a party candidate from different ballot lines. WFP’s strategy is explicit. They see their inside-outside strategy—supporting “progressive” Democrats—as an attempt to influence the Democratic Party platform. They aspire to be the “Tea Party for the left,” as articulated by past deputy director Jon Green, in an attempt to mobilize a liberal left and “shift the narrative” of the Democratic Party. In practice, their approach is as mushy as runny grits; like the endorsement of Andrew Cuomo for New York governor and the endorsement of Elizabeth Warren against Sanders in the 2019 presidential race. The similarity of names between UWF and WFP can be confusing—especially for observers outside of Chicago—but the political difference needs to be made clear.

What is exciting about the Brandon Johnson campaign is that it shows the ability of our movements and militant labor to intervene at the level of the mayoral election and actually contend. It makes concrete the demonstration that it is possible to build a party of our own just on the basis of a ground game rooted in labor and social movements. The idea of a city-wide fight around taxing the rich, and fighting for the community programs Johnson advocates provides opportunities for struggle. It is positive that Johnson’s win occurred in the context of the howling pro-cop sycophants trying to make this election an electoral referendum on the Chicago Police Department.  And the cops lost. This of course is better than what otherwise would have been a defensive struggle against a beast such as Vallas.

However, at the same time, it would be an error to limit our politics to the aspirational or understate the challenges presented by Johnson and to Johnson. As the oft-quoted Gramsci phrase goes, along with our hope we can’t lose the pessimism of the intellect.

Pitfalls to progress

For all the promise of UWF’s attempts to build an independent party, its approach thus far has been mixed. While effective campaigns and activist work has grown the size and expectation of activists for something more independent it is also the case that ties with the Democratic party have been strengthened. This is a huge challenge for the Left if we see our tasks as extending beyond one election and towards longer-term political goals that extend beyond specific immediate policy demands. The stated potential of UWF, in facilitating the formation of a new party independent of the Democrats, is what makes its project important and the developments around Johnson interesting. At the same time the medium and long-term steps to independence from the Democrats appear largely undefined and a vagueness around the question, or fear of raising it, threatens to narrow the opening for independence. This electoral victory is of qualitatively greater significance for UWF than prior wins. This is true due to the citywide nature of the office, the national political profile of the race, and the resources (institutional, financial, grassroots) that were put into the victory. In this way, I worry that this Johnson’s victory, though increasing the strength and leverage of the UWF actually narrows the window, and weakens the energies, towards political independence.

The background for the narrowing of space for independence dwells in the tension between UWF’s stated purpose of building a new party with its recent series of wins. While Chicago municipal elections are formally non-partisan and thus UWF candidates do not officially run on a party line, UWF has exclusively run Democratic Party candidates outside of the municipal races: From positions in the Cook County Board of Commissioners (including Johnson); to eight seats in the state-level Illinois General Assembly; to winning their first federal race with Delia Ramirez winning a House seat in November. Additionally many—but not all—UWF candidates hold Democratic Party committeeman positions within the structure of the Cook County Democratic party. Ramirez, it should be noted, will no doubt join the “Squad” in the U.S. House of Representatives. Her support for military aid for Israel, and her statement that she would have voted for the Zionist state’s Iron Dome missile system, reflects the profound disorientation of any Left congressional strategy that relegates as secondary questions of imperialism.

UWF’s strategy for achieving an independent party is fairly mute on how its recent electoral wins serve the need for independence. It has appeared restrained  in its willingness to fuel the kind of political discontent with the Democratic party that would be needed to win people to an alternative. Indeed, there are some within UWF and its orbit who are seen by some—including the Democratic party itself—as strengthening the Dems. Anthony Quezada, a Democratic Socialist of America (DSA) and UWF-backed member of the Cook County Board of Commissioners, along with DSA and UWF alderperson Carlos Rosa won a “party builder” award from the Cook County Democratic party last September. Quezada’s campaign was driven by an all-out effort of the Chicago chapter of DSA who knocked on over 4,000 doors to help achieve his win. What then is the socialist movement building? Independence or a self-identified progressive “wing” within the capitalist party whose stance is more loyal than oppositional?

Advocates of the perspective of running within the Democrats—to grow and build the forces for a possible future independent party through conflicts within the party—have to explain how their actions sharpen these conflicts within the party, and Alexandria Ocasio Cortez (AOC), championing her move from disrupter of the party to “team player”, and Sanders defense of “good friend” Joe Biden seem more the rule than the exception. Running progressives, in the absence of a clear stance on the need for independence and a strategy built on understanding the antagonism with the Democrats, becomes indistinguishable from the general effort put forward by the so-called progressive wing of the party, including Sanders and AOC, to influence and reform the entrenched capitalist party. We need “party builders” but not for the Democrats. What then is the socialist movement building?

Democratic Socialist of America member, and Chicago Alderperson, Byron Sigcho-Lopez smiling and pointing enthusiastically at Chicago Mayor-elect Brandon Johnson, while standing in front of a hot-dog stand, with vendor in the picture. Taken in March 2023.
DSA Alderperson, Byron Sigcho-Lopez, smiling and pointing enthusiastically at Chicago Mayor-elect Brandon Johnson, March 2023. Photo by TDKR Chicago 101.

UWF, its array of affiliated unions, progressive organizations, and grassroots membership chapters face this challenge with the Johnson mayorship. There is tremendous excitement about the electoral win and hope for what he can deliver. At the same time, certain questions arise that supporters of Johnson must grapple with if we want to not just win gains under Mayor Johnson but pave some kind of path towards the political independence that UWF states it desires. For me the latter in the middle to long term is just as important as the first and has national ramifications. This is abundantly clear if you look at much of the national reporting that opines what Johnson’s win means for attempts to build a progressive wing of the Democratic party. Brandon Johnson as mayor is important not just for Chicago but for national Democratic party politics. Johnson himself sees this, for all for bonafides of UWF’s grassroots political muscle, the ship has long sailed on Johnson being in the mainstream of the Democratic party. His trip to Selma in March, ferried by Jesse Jackson, cemented these ties, where he secured an endorsement from high-ranking Democrat Jim Clyburn (whose support for Biden played a central role in the sabotaging of Sanders in the 2020 Democratic primary). Johnson has also been vocal in his support for Joe Biden, who, he says, “has delivered for working families.” In this there is no sense whatsoever of the need for independence.

Johnson’s role in securing Chicago as the site for the 2024 Democratic National Convention reflects this as well. With the sordid bore, Joe Biden, leading the Democratic party, and remaining essentially unchallenged in 2024, the convention is set to be a get-out-the-vote spectacle. At such an event Johnson—especially with his magnetic stage presence—will certainly be put forward as the progressive promise of the party, both lending support to the Biden center and lending false hope to the perspective that the Democratic party can be reformed. Indeed Johnson’s win is what secured Chicago’s bid as Politico reported that Biden was reluctant to grant a Paul Vallas administration the convention. Johnson’s win secures Chicago’s reputation as a union town which will be used as part of the blue branding of the world’s oldest political party. Any analysis of Johnson that downplays the win’s significance for national politics, in order to lift up what it means for Chicago, is blinkered to the national political forces at play.

These national forces, both inside of Chicago and beyond, include big business. This is noteworthy because the entirety of the UWF program depends on creating new revenue streams. Doing so means shifting the burden from austerity cuts and regressive taxation, ending special interest tax breaks, and “making sure those who profit from our city pay their fair share.” Here is why Johnson’s stance towards capital has ramifications and thus far his positioning cannot be described as combative; rather he has seemed to be bending over backward to be overly conciliatory. One of his first calls after winning election was to the CEO of World Business Chicago, the city’s recruitment arm, to assuage capital’s anxiety about Johnson’s progressive vision.  Johnson made similar rounds of calls to Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce, Illinois Manufacturers’ Association, the Illinois Retail Merchants Association, and has made known that the Civic Consulting Alliance—a nonprofit funded by the Commercial Club of Chicago tied to the city’s biggest corporations—is assisting with the transition.2 Michael Sachs, president of Grosvenor Capital Management and old advisor to Mayor One Percent Rahm Emanual, noted,

It was crystal clear the mayor-elect respects the business community and crystal clear he wants to work collaboratively with the business community to drive inclusive economic growth for the whole city.

Perhaps the argument could be made that a frontal attack on business interests is premature. Even if that were the case, one should have extreme caution about the track record of class collaboration and “partnership with business.” If the Left wants to win any increase in social spending the question of revenue and taxing the rich has to be central. Johnson has explicitly said to business that all tax and revenue proposals are “on the table for negotiation” with capital (asides from property tax increase) per senior Johnson advisor Jason Lee. Wavering on that before the starting gun has gone off should be cause for alarm. This is especially true as part of achieving tax changes would require action on the state level and billionaire Democrat governor J.B. Pritzger has already thrown cold water on Johnson’s proposals.

Still reeling from the 2008 long slump and decades of neoliberal policy, Chicago’s financial situation is poor. The pro-business Civic Federation released a comprehensive report outlining “critical problems” of debt burden, structural budget debt, and the manufactured pension crisis. Lightfoot in some ways was able to dodge the worst effects of these with the heaps of federal cash given around the height of the covid pandemic. These funds will not be forthcoming to the Johnson administration, and the general poor economic terrain, inflation issues, and looming recession brings huge challenges to social spending. A pandemic-related commercial real estate crisis threatens future crashes with Chicago’s Loop being a ground zero. In this pressure cooker taking on business interests as opposed to capitulating will be crucial.

And these will be uphill battles. Despite his overtures to business, sections of the ruling class still smart from Johnson’s defeat of Vallas, as the almost comically chafed editorial in the Wall Street Journal reflects. Capital most likely will fight tooth and nail around the question of taxing the rich, and the Chicago Police Department has already begun trying to punish Johnson and foment a crime wave hysteria even—cynically—by purposely ignoring crime victims. This is only the beginning from an organization whose current FOP president promised mass resignations and the “blood in the streets” if Johnson won.

As the auguries in the election showed, the question of the police will be central. With Johnson’s political orientation on holistic approaches to reducing crime and also “smart, constitutional policing” will be a challenge. He has thus far appointed cop insiders—like three-decade officer Fred Waller to interim superintendent and 26-year veteran commander Brenden Deenihan to his transition team. Waller has raised concerns due to his proximity to another cop—Roger Watts—who was convicted for corruption and the framing of at least 200 individuals on false and manufactured charges. Deenihan, in his tenure, had more allegations of misconduct than 58 percent of officers.

The Left’s approach has to squarely take on the police, their funding, and violence. How to do so with Johnson now serving as the boss of the cops, appointing the cop superintendent, and drawing up the cop budget? Certainly this is not an abolitionist vision and lacks the kind of forceful criticism of the police as an organization that the movements against police violence—like the 2020 rebellion—often evoke and call for. A central component of the abolitionist task is to win people to understanding that the institution of the police cannot be reformed. How do we square that task with Johnson’s vision of working with “smart constitutional policing” and concern about the morale of Chicago’s cops?

With much pressure on the new mayor in a politicized situation, and a still small minority of democratic socialist alderpeople, and with democratic socialist Carlos Rosas being empowered as “floor leader” in the council, the pulls to support the mayor at all costs will be significant. What position should the Left take about these budgets? With Brandon signaling the need to “collaborate” with the police and big business, what does that mean for the Left? Do we support this collaboration? I say clearly no and think that socialists should say the same. But these questions need to be publicly debated and not bound up with the back-channel imbroglio of much analysis of the workings of city hall. This may be a difficult battle within the movement but needs to be waged openly regardless.

UWF faced a similar question after its alderpeople split and some voted on an austerity budget in November 2020. In calls for accountability within UWF a vote on doing so was split with union staffers on one side and representatives of chapters voting to publicly name the alderpeople on the other. In a bizarre compromise the accountability commission included the very alderpeople who were to be held accountable. All in all, the need for clarity on the UWF “as a party” with a program and a certain degree of discipline would be one step towards tackling these challenges but that seems lacking.

These types of challenges now come with significantly higher stakes with “our man” being in the city’s executive office. It starkly poses the questions of what are we building if we are building a movement to support the boss of the cops? This question doesn’t arise in the election of leftist alderpeople but does for the executive position. These blurred lines are a product of the slippage that Johnson and UWF underwent throughout the campaign. Reconstituting firm lines will require a movement, and organization able to resist these pressures.

In United Working Families there will certainly be activist campaigns, to try to push Treatment Not Trauma, solutions to the city’s housing crisis, and hopefully taxation of the rich. The border crisis, exacerbated by Joe Biden’s immigration policy, brings a tremendous human crisis with thousands of migrant families arriving in Chicago. The Chicago Teachers Union hopefully will be willing to strike when their contract expires next year. However, the simple existence of an activist campaign does not describe the political content of the space being clear on independence to the Democratic party, as unfortunately the notion that Democrats can be reformed is dominant on the Left. The space within an activist campaign that has been mobilized to put a mayor in office who has securely signaled his allegiance to the progressive mainstream of the Democratic party is not neutral for purposes of open debate. It is highly contradictory and weighted against those cutting against this dominant opinion.

Overall the challenges and possibilities of the Johnson mayorship for the Left really boil down to United Working Families and if it will be able to marry the need to fight for political independence with the urgent need for harm mitigation (i.e.reforms). In some ways this is the tension of the moment, how much to blur the former or move the goalpost for our own party further down the road in order to enact something now. I fear that the Johnson win has narrowed the former in order to try to obtain the latter. With his attempts, I worry that we will find that the challenges to achieving wins in the now are quite significant. Surmounting these challenges will be more difficult with a political vision that assumes a need for “pragmatic” softness on the Democrats, the necessity for appeals to business, and “strategic” ambivalence on the question of the police. The dichotomy of political independence versus wins in the now is a false one. A synthesis is possible that fuses political independence with demands of the working class and social movements. While Johnson has highlighted the latter and could create opportunities to fight around those demands, in the long term linking these movements with what looks like a concerted abandonment of political independence will pose deeper problems. Class conflict and struggle are better terrains for taking on the entrenched interests of big business and the police than collaboration.

Even as I write these words Johnson before even taking office has backed away from committing to reopen the city’s mental health clinics, something he campaigned on and the goal of a very long struggle in Chicago going back to Rahm’s closures in 2012. Our movements should not be asked to apologize for feeble compromises and capitulations. In the context of this narrowing of the space for independent politics, there is a desperate need to be clearer and sharper, paired with the need to take up building combative forces for struggle outside of the mayor’s office. Chicago has arguably one the best organized left forces in the country. The Johnson win in some ways reflects that. With this shifting horizon we have a moment to fight and that fight has to be clear on the central needs for both grassroots struggle and political independence.

Featured Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons; modified by Tempest.

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brian bean View All

brian bean is a socialist organizer and writer based in Chicago, a member of the Tempest Collective, a part of the Rampant Magazine editorial collective, and an editor and contributor to the book Palestine: A Socialist Introduction from Haymarket Books.