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Organizing Pays Off: Brandon Johnson’s Chicago Win

Movement organizers claimed a hard-won collective victory with Brandon Johnson's election. Now the Windy City’s first movement mayor faces a formidable array of challenges, testing him and the coalition that brought him into office.

Brandon Johnson’s victory in the Chicago mayoral race last week is a major victory for the education justice movement, the 21st-century Black freedom movement, and the left in general. Johnson is a former teacher and Chicago Teacher’s Union (CTU) leader, a protégé of a legendary union president, the late Karen Lewis. One of 10 children from a Black working-class family that struggled to make ends meet, Johnson comes out of social movements more than from the Democratic Party. And he brought movement organizing, movement demands, and trusted movement allies into his mayoral race with him.

Johnson described his victory as the coming together of the civil rights and labor movements, much as Martin Luther King always envisioned. It is that and more. A new generation of organizers—sexual minorities, abolitionists, undocumented activists, socialists, and environmental justice warriors—are also a critical part of what made Johnson’s bid for mayor a historic success.

In the wake of Johnson’s triumph over his well-funded and widely touted centrist rival Paul Vallas, the pundits pondered: What the hell happened? After all, in the general election Johnson did not have high name recognition, except within labor and movement circles. Vallas had more money, more experience (albeit much of it of a dubious nature), and powerful political connections.

What was Johnson’s secret sauce? It was not, as my friend John Nichols suggests, “a string of high-profile endorsements that turned the tide”—although they did boost morale. The savvy campaign staffers who worked day and night on his behalf were indispensable. The financial support of Chicago’s social justice unions—SEIU State and local leadership, and the mighty CTU, led by Stacy Davis Gates—was crucial and foundational. But it was above all Johnson’s ground game that made all the difference. Without massive outreach and grassroots one-on-one contact, his name would never have been sufficiently known and a nasty opposition would not have been effectively countered. It took money, but it also took a lot of love and optimism.

Johnson’s campaign centered on the kind of relentless grassroots organizing you simply cannot buy. Repeatedly people told me, “We know Brandon,” and that’s why they volunteered, donated, signed up to work long hours for the campaign, and gave him the benefit of the doubt when mistakes were made.

On the night of the general election, February 28, over 1,000 of us—grateful that there wasn’t a blizzard—crammed into an unimposing little community center on the West Side of Chicago. Johnson had already gone from 2 percent in the polls to the 14 percent that put him in the runoff.

United Working Families—a labor-community coalition comprising the CTU, SEIU, and a number of progressive local groups—coordinated much of Brandon’s’ field operation. Led by longtime UWF director Emma Tai, an indefatigable organizer, and a team of field organizers, including two young campaign field directors—Asha Ransby Sporn (yes, we are related) on the South Side and Crystal Gardner on the West Side—the campaign knocked on over a half million doors. Tai is quick to add this was a movement wide effort not a single organization. The electoral arm of various groups leapt into action. People United for Action, and Southsiders Organized for Unity and Liberation mobilized their respective bases, debated issues, and countered opposition narratives. Groups like Equity and Transformation, conducted more general Get Out the Vote campaigns. And there was phone banking too. Hundreds of thousands of calls were made to Chicagoans, to make this “unknown” candidate legible to them.

Officially, Johnson’s journey to City Hall began on October 27 of last year, when the then-46-year-old stood in Seward Park—across from the site of the former Cabrini Green Housing Projects where he began his teaching career—and said, “I want to be the next mayor of Chicago.” In reality, it started long before that. It is rooted in the deep Chicago organizing tradition that has yielded a new generation of fighters.

One important prelude was the 2016 “Bye Anita” campaign that ousted reactionary State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez and paved the way for the election of her progressive successor, Kim Foxx. Black progressive youth organizers in Assata’s Daughters and Black Youth Project 100 led that campaign with unrelenting determination.

But electoral challenges and legislative fights have long been part of a larger landscape of grassroots organizing in Chicago around housing, police, immigration, health care, and education. The 2015 Dyett High School hunger strike—which Johnson joined—was a community-based campaign to save the Black neighborhood school from closure.