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Brandon Johnson Will Disappoint Working People in Chicago

Brandon Johnson’s progressive electoral campaign attracted activists, young people, and members of the Black and Brown community. But like all Democrats, he governs for the capitalist class, not for the people of color and working-class people who volunteered for him.

Tatiana Cozzarelli

April 11, 2023
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Ashlee Rezin / Chicago Sun-Times

The next mayor of Chicago, Brandon Johnson, is a Black resident of Chicago’s west side. He is a former public school teacher, former Chicago Teachers Union staffer, and current county commissioner. Although he is a longtime Democrat, he has the backing of United Working Families, a coalition of unions and nonprofits.

Johnson defeated Paul Vallas, also a Democrat, in a runoff election. Vallas was a “law and order” candidate funded by big business and conservative donors, and he was strongly supported by the Chicago police union. He received over $1 million from Trump voters and even spoke at a fundraiser for anti-queer far-right group Awake Illinois. He is the former CEO of Chicago public schools and supports a program of pro-charter privatization, attacking the Chicago public school district and the Chicago Teachers’ Union. 

Voter turnout in this election, as in most mayoral races, was quite low: only 33.2 percent of people turned out to vote. But Johnson’s election nonetheless shows that thousands of people want change; people in Chicago are tired of a system of mass inequality and police terror. Johnson, however, who has already indicated his intention to kowtow to big businesses and to the cops, is not a vehicle for the massive progressive changes that thousands of people want. As the examples of AOC and the Squad have made clear, Democratic Party politicians may give lip service to our movements, but when push comes to shove, they are not on our side.

The lessons from this election are clear: many people want a working-class and socialist alternative, but Johnson is not it.

The Issues in Chicago

Chicago is the third-biggest city in the United States and one of the country’s (and the world’s) richest cities. The GDP of Chicago alone would rank it the 21st in the world’s richest economies. And Chicago is wrought with massive inequality: nearly one-quarter of people in Chicago live below the poverty line.

Chicago also has one of the highest police budgets in the country, spending almost $2 billion on the police, among the highest per capita spending for cops in the country. This police force has perpetrated countless violent murders and beatings of Black and Brown people— including that of Adam Toledo, who was just 13 years old, and Laquan McDonald, shot 16 times, whose murder the police lied about for over a year.

The Black Lives Matter movement was especially strong in Chicago, expressing massive discontent with the racist police force, demanding the defunding of the police, and investment in social services. But since then, the entire country has seen an anti-BLM backlash, which includes bipartisan support for increasing police funding, as well as attacks on teaching about the history of racism and more. Chicago has been at the center of these attacks, with pundits from all over the country pointing to the high rates of crime and gun violence as a reason for more policing. 

While the police are armed to the teeth, key social services and education have been defunded. Just last year, a change in state funding resulted in a $30 million loss of funds for Chicago public schools. And Chicago has long been at the center of teachers’ struggles against neoliberal attacks on the education system. The Chicago Teachers’ Union organized the massive Chicago teachers’ strike in 2012, which broke through a period of labor passivity. They went on strike again in 2019 and organized a fight against unsafe reopenings in 2021.

Lori Lightfoot was elected mayor in 2019 as part of a misdirected rebellion against the Democratic Party establishment and the previous tenure of Rahm Emanuel, the pro business mayor from 2011-19. Lightfoot, a Black queer woman, projected herself as a police reformer and as a political “outsider.” But Lightfoot governed in lockstep with big business and the cops. She clashed with the teachers’ union and attempted to force them and other public sector workers back to schools without the necessary covid protections. Under her leadership, the police tear gassed and brutalized Black Lives Matter protesters.

And as this election cycle made clear, Lightfoot was unable to satisfy the Right or the Left of the Democratic Party in Chicago; the top front-runners in the Chicago mayoral race were Paul Vallas, backed by big business and the Right, and Brandon Johnson, backed by Bernie Sanders, unions, and Chicago activists.

Johnson’s Record and Campaign

Johnson is a former public school social studies teacher. He left teaching to become a staff organizer with the CTU and was in that position during the 2012 teachers’ strike. He spoke out against police brutality and anti-Black racism, making speeches in the Black Lives Matter movement. He ran on a progressive platform, promising to invest in affordable housing, public schools, and public transportation — paid for by taxing big corporations.

But to understand Johnson, we must also look at his time as a Cook County board commissioner, where he oversaw underpaid and underfunded hospitals, and even closed an emergency room in the middle of the COVID pandemic. When SEIU organized an action against the government, Johnson stood unapologetically with the state. In fact, he said, 

As a member of the Cook County Board of Commissioners, there was an ally [SEIU 73] that supported me to become a Cook County Commissioner. They had a job action and I stood with Cook County government. An arbiter decided county government was right. I had to deliver, you know, that news to people who were friends of mine.

While at first he promised to cut $150 million from the bloated police budget, more recently Johnson said he would not cut “one penny”  and instead promised to hire more detectives. As Joe Allen highlights in Tempest, detectives have a long history of torture; detectives are cops and Johnson is promising to hire more cops. 

Johnson is not putting forward a working-class or a socialist program. Not even close. While he makes vague promises about taxing large corporations and demands only slight tax increases from the businesses that make a massive profit from Chicago’s working class. In fact, he frames this discussion of increasing taxes on the wealthy with Biden’s promises to do the same, highlighting just how much he wishes to position himself as no more than a Biden Democrat.

Johnson’s electoral campaign attracted activists, young people, and members of the Black and Brown community. These activists knocked on hundreds of thousands of doors, putting in the ground game to make up for the fact that Vallas outspent Johnson by a 2-1 margin. The enthusiasm for Johnson is not irrelevant and should not go unnoticed. It highlights the possibilities for real socialist politics in Chicago.

But Johnson’s base of volunteers doesn’t change the class character of his politics. Like all Democrats, he governs for the capitalist class, hoping that there may be space for some small concessions for working class and oppressed people. He does not govern for the people of color and working-class people who volunteered for him.

Upward and Rightward

Johnson will occupy an executive position that is meant to maintain the smooth functioning of exploitation, oppression, and capitalist profits. As the Denver Communists correctly explain in an Instagram post, “A mayor is the overseer of exploitation and oppression of a city’s residents, the boss of its public workers and the chief of the chief of police.” Johnson is about to be the boss of Chicago’s teachers, nurses, and other public sector workers.  Johnson knows it. In fact, he said, “I have a fiduciary responsibility to the people of the city of Chicago, and once I’m mayor of the city of Chicago, I will no longer be a member of the Chicago Teachers Union.”

Unlike an elected legislator, the mayor is directly responsible for running the city, including the police and the budget. Winning and taking this position is qualitatively different from taking a legislative position, where a socialist could run on an independent ticket and primarily use the position for protest votes and to advance class struggle. Rosa Luxemburg explains this clearly, saying that

But, in this respect, there is an essential difference between legislative bodies and the government of a bourgeois State. In parliaments, when the elected representatives of the working class can not win their demands, they can at least continue the struggle, maintaining an oppositional attitude. The government, on the other hand, which has for task carrying out the laws, has no place in its sphere of activity for an opposition on principle; it must be active constantly… [based on] the present order, in other words, that of bourgeois society.

Further, Johnson is a member of a capitalist party, the Democratic Party. This is not irrelevant or secondary to what we can expect from him. As Kim Moody explains in Breaking the Impasse, being a Democrat is not an empty ballot line. “The ballot is the border. If you win you cross it into the institutional framework and field of control and influence [of the Democratic Party] with its own institutions, power structure, internal rules, norms of behavior, pressures, rewards and punishments and no democratic means for bringing about change.” Johnson is now set to become a Democratic mayor for one of the biggest cities in the world; there is absolutely no question that the Democratic Party will be sure to exert decisive influence to keep Johnson in line.

And Johnson has never said otherwise. He is not a socialist or even a “democratic socialist.”

To anticipate Johnson’s trajectory, we should look at what’s become of all the DSA-endorsed democratic socialists in Congress. They have gone “upward and rightward” — toward the leadership of the Democratic Party and toward the center politically. This has led AOC to go from criticizing the Democratic Party establishment to becoming part of it. It led her to abstain from voting on Iron Dome funding and to vote in favor of breaking a railway workers’ strike. We can also look at what has become of the DSA backed alderman in Chicago, who have slowly become part of Chicago’s political establishment. The move “upward and rightward” is not an anomaly but the rule for candidates running in the Democratic Party.

Which Side Are You On?

In Tempest, Kirsten Roberts asks us,

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?

These are very important questions. While we cannot know how class struggle will develop, we do know one thing. In this struggle, Johnson will be on the side of his own party and of the capitalist state, not on our side. 

Sure, Johnson may tinker around the edges, and it’s not out of the question that he will pass some small reforms. In moments of economic surplus and prosperity, more concessions could be made to a progressive base. But, as highlighted by the recent SVB bank crash and the Fed’s continuing interest rate hikes, economic crisis may be on the horizon, and the working class will be forced to pay for that crisis. Chicago has a massive budget deficit, and Chicago public schools are set to experience an almost $600 million budget deficit by 2026. These crises leave little space for deep progressive changes because in the face of economic crisis, the capitalists make the working class to pay. Our only defense will be class struggle: our ability to strike and protest. Johnson will not defend us; nothing in Johnson’s election campaign or his time as Cook County commissioner indicates that he is ready or willing to go to war and win against big capital and the cops.

Johnson will likely pay lip service to progressive causes, but he will not be on our side and he will fight to contain class struggle and keep any struggles that erupt firmly within the confines of bourgeois legality. What happens in the scenarios that Roberts poses will depend on how strongly we organize against Johnson, not with illusions in him.

Tempest comrades have published two articles, one supporting campaigning for Johnson and one noting the limits to Johnson’s mayoral race. The Tempest comrades muddle the class line by publishing an article that fosters hope in Johnson’s campaign, arguing that socialists “should not abstain” from his campaign — in other words, that socialists should campaign for Johnson. Their arguments are not altogether different from the discussions about DSA’s support for progressive Democrats, discussions in which Tempest has clearly expressed the need for class independence. We cannot define our political support for a candidate primarily by who is campaigning for them. We must look at the class content of their program and politics. While we should not adopt a sectarian attitude toward those who voted for Johnson, and must work alongside them in class struggle and in our unions, as socialists we must understand and find ways to explain that the volunteers’ progressive aspirations will go unfulfilled by Johnson. 

We must expose that Johnson is wrong when he says, “We don’t have to choose between rich and poor… If tonight is proof of anything, it’s that false choices don’t serve Chicago any longer.” Nothing could be further from the truth. You cannot be on the side of the rich and the poor at the same time because the rich are rich because they exploit and oppress the working class. We do have to choose between the working class and the capitalists, between the cops and Black and Brown communities. That means that we should not blur class lines by campaigning for Johnson.

For a Working-Class Party for Socialism

Johnson’s election as mayor is important and indicative. While the Democratic Party and the capitalist press claim that everyone opposes Black Lives Matter and that only a tough-on-crime message will win elections, Johnson highlights that that is a lie.

Millions of people don’t want “tough on crime” policing, and they don’t want the status quo. Millions of people don’t want underfunded social services and think that the rich should be taxed.

Johnson, like all other progressive Democrats, isn’t going to fulfill the progressive aspirations of the working-class people, people of color, and leftists who voted for him. But his election highlights that, indeed, there is an opening for left ideas among people — and even far-left ideas among many people. We must fight to convince activists who campaigned for Johnson that we should have our own political party, one that is active in the fight against police violence, that organizes teachers to strike, that organizes eviction defenses, and that protests for trans and reproductive rights. We should have our own political party that is represented at the ballot box, drawing a firm class line between us and them, the capitalists and the workers. Our own political party that fights for much more than even the tepid promises of Johnson’s progressive program: not one cent to the police, full funding for public schools and social services, free and public healthcare, free and public housing, and much more. In one of the richest cities in the world, no one should be unhoused; no one should have medical debt, universities should be free, class sizes should be half of what they currently are, and we should triple the number of guidance counselors. Johnson promises so little compared to what we really need and could really have with the mass wealth of Chicago.

Refusing to support Democrats does not signify relegating ourselves to the sidelines of class struggle.  We should participate side by side  in every struggle of the working class and oppressed, discussing the need for our own party, for our own program and highlighting the need to fight to end this oppressive system. Johnson’s election highlights that there is an opening for us as socialists. Instead of promoting illusions in Johnson, we must open a discussion about how to build a working-class party that fights for socialism.

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Tatiana Cozzarelli

Tatiana is a former middle school teacher and current Urban Education PhD student at CUNY.

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