With Lori Lightfoot ousted, Chicago’s mayor seat is up for grabs in a Democratic Party runoff election between Brandon Johnson and police union-backed candidate Paul Vallas. A former public school teacher backed by a wide grassroots coalition, Johnson has soared in the polls in recent months as a serious challenger to the Democratic establishment in a city where the party machine has dominated for generations. With questions of public safety and police violence at the center of Chicago’s politics, Johnson’s platform seeks to address the conjoined problems of violence and police domination of the city’s budget and politics. As part of a collaboration between The Real News Network and In These Times magazine, TRNN Editor-in-Chief Maximillian Alvarez speaks with Brandon Johnson directly to learn more about his plan to overcome Chicago’s multifaceted challenges, and build a future for all in the Windy City.
Studio/Post-Production: Cameron Granadino
The following is a rushed transcript and may contain errors. An updated version will be made available as soon as possible.
Maximillian Alvarez: Welcome, everyone, to The Real News Network. My name is Maximillian Alvarez, I’m the editor in chief here at The Real News, and it’s so great to have you all with us. The Real News is an independent, viewer-supported, nonprofit media network. We don’t take corporate cash, we don’t have ads, which means we need each one of you to become monthly sustainers so we can keep bringing y’all coverage of the voices and issues you care about most. Just head on over to therealnews.com/support and donate today.
Chicago is in the midst of a high-stakes runoff election that will decide who the Second City’s next mayor will be, after a stunning first round of voting at the end of February knocked incumbent mayor Lori Lightfoot out of the race. Equally shocking, the results of that first-round election would pit frontrunner Paul Vallas, a conservative Democrat and former CEO of Chicago Public Schools and the School District of Philadelphia, against an unexpected progressive challenger, Brandon Johnson, a former rank-and-file member of and staff organizer for the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) who currently serves as an elected member of the Cook County Board of Commissioners, representing the 1st district.
As Miles Kampf-Lassin, the web editor for In These Times magazine, wrote in an article for Jacobin:
Lightfoot is the first Chicago mayor in forty years to be denied a second term. She faced opposition from voters across the political spectrum, including those who supported her four years ago. After abandoning many of her progressive campaign promises from 2019 once in office, liberals grew critical of her administration, while more moderate and conservative residents blamed her for an increase in crime and other problems afflicting the city… Throughout his campaign, Johnson made fighting inequality across the city a central theme, prioritizing working-class communities while taxing Chicago’s wealthy. He received major backing from the CTU and United Working Families, a coalition of left-wing organizations and unions that has become a highly influential player in city politics over the past decade. He also received support from national groups like the Working Families Party.
Can the insurgent progressive candidate Johnson and his coalition of supporters carve a path to victory and to the Mayor’s office on April 4? If so, how will Mr. Johnson’s administration address the issues that matter most to Chicagoans, from crime and public safety to the cost of living and housing crises crushing poor and working people in the city? And what plans does he have for counteracting the political gridlock and the entrenched, elite-serving, neoliberal status quo that has dominated Chicago politics and engendered so much lost faith in city government among residents in the city?
As a collaboration between The Real News and the great In These Times magazine, which is based in Chicago, I got to speak briefly with Mr. Johnson on Friday, March 17, and pose these questions to him directly. We are hoping to also record an interview with Paul Vallas—so far his team has been unresponsive to our requests, but perhaps that will change. But here, for our Real News viewers and listeners, we are sharing my full interview with Chicago mayoral candidate Brandon Johnson.
Maximillian Alvarez: Well, Brandon Johnson, thank you so much for joining us today on the Real News Network and In These Times, I really, really appreciate it.
Brandon Johnson: Oh, thanks for having me. This is an incredible moment and I’m grateful to be here.
Maximillian Alvarez: Yeah, and I know we’re talking as more developments are happening by the minute. You were endorsed by Chuy Garcia today. I know that Reverend Jesse Jackson was out there as well. So again, I really appreciate you taking time to sit down and chat with us. And we got limited time here, so I’m going to hop right into this. And this is not normally how I would start an interview, but I think it would seem sketchy to not jump straight into the issue that’s on the majority of voters’ minds, especially after the forum that you and your opponent Paul Vallas participated in at the University of Illinois at Chicago earlier this week.
Everyone following this race has seen the Independent Poll Commission by Telemundo Chicago, NBC 5, the Chicago Sun Times and WBEZ that came out in February. The headline for WBEZ puts the matter pretty succinctly titled, “Chicago voters feel unsafe, unhappy with police relations and are looking for a candidate to fix it all.” And when asked to rank issues guiding their decision in the mayor’s race, the article goes on to say 44% said crime and public safety were most important distantly followed by criminal justice reform at 13% and the economy and jobs at 12%.”
And this is by no means limited to Chicago. This is really dominating races around the country. And I wanted to ask because even people who fundamentally agree with the progressive argument that more cops and bigger police budgets does not equal safer communities, that investing in the social, economic and infrastructural welfare of communities is how you address the root causes of crime in the long term, the immediate fear of crime and concern for public safety almost always wins out. Police budgets swell and nothing really changes. So how do we get out of this seemingly never ending trap?
Beyond the progressive arguments about why more cops and bigger police budgets aren’t the answer? What are the real practical steps that your administration would take to demonstrate what a progressive approach to public safety looks like? How would that approach address the immediate concerns that people, including many poor and working class people have about both public safety and abuse by the police, and how would it address the longer term vision of a Chicago that treats the root causes of crime instead of just policing the symptoms?
Brandon Johnson: Yeah, well, thank you for that question, and you’re right, it’s top of mind. It’s a concern for people all over the city of Chicago. It’s beyond a concern. I mean, it’s a real serious problem. It is quite gruesome, quite frankly, that the amount of lives that have been lost because of violence, and particularly gun violence. And I’ve said this repeatedly, I live in a neighborhood on the west side of Chicago. It’s a beautiful community, the Austin neighborhood. It’s the largest concentration of Black folks anywhere in the city, probably one of the highest concentration of Black folks anywhere in the country.
And as beautiful and as dynamic as my neighborhood is, that my wife and I are raising our three young children in, it is one of the more violent neighborhoods in the entire city. So this is something that I live through every single day, but it’s the experience that people are having all over the city of Chicago. But I can tell you just on a very personal note, we’ve had to change a window from one of the bullets that have come through our home. The day after February 28th, my son, my eldest, were up still on adrenaline and gunshots right outside our front door yet again.
And so, this is something that we live through and that we are dealing with and it is a serious problem. And so, from a perspective of someone who is living the experience every day, much like people are throughout the city of Chicago, you can do both. I’m a public school teacher and there’s nothing that I’ve ever done as a public school teacher in silo or in isolation. You can get at the root causes of crime and you can address the immediate dynamic of solving crime. And that’s what my public safety plan does, that it calls for investment.
So the first thing that I invest in is promoting and training 200 more detectives to actually solve crime. Right now, particularly in Black and brown communities, the clearance rate for violence that happens in our neighborhoods is below 20%, as low as 17%. You’re not going to engender confidence in policing if you’re not solving crime. The second thing that we have to do is actually implement the consent decree. It’s going to cost $50 million conservatively to make sure that we are adhering to the Department of Justice.
And so, this is something that we have to do and we can do right away. We can actually enforce the laws that are on the books; our red flag laws, individuals who have guns, who should not have guns, they’re getting guns here illegally, enforcing those laws and making sure that we are prosecuting those individuals and to work towards prevention. That’s really what it’s about. If you’re a mother, you would certainly rather prevent your child from being murdered and harmed than having their murder case solved, right?
Maximillian Alvarez: Mm-hmm.
Brandon Johnson: And if we’re not doing what safe American cities do around this country, you’re going to continue to have the same type of problems. So we can’t keep investing in failed policies. That’s why I’m committed to doubling the amount of young people that we hire, not just for summer programs, but for year-round employment. The data has proven that the best way to prevent violence from happening anywhere, but particularly here in the city of Chicago, is by investing in young people.
We also have to make sure that we’re opening up our mental health centers to provide trauma-related support services for everyone because all of us are experiencing trauma, every one of us. But we also have to pass an ordinance called treatment not trauma. And what treatment not trauma does that almost 40% of the 911 calls that come through are mental health crises. So we should have mental health crises professionals responding to those calls.
And this is not a radical idea. In fact, the Los Angeles Police Department, this is literally what they’re calling for. And so, by having mental health crises professionals, EMTs, responding to the 911 calls that are not violent, that frees up law enforcement to focus on the more severe crime. So we can solve the immediacy of public safety by making sure we’re training and promoting detectives, implementing the consent decree, making sure that we are actually enforcing the laws that are on the books.
We can also deal with the immediacy of violence prevention by actually investing in programs and services that we know the data proves reduces violence. And then of course, long term, really building up our mental health centers, also making sure we’re investing in housing or public education. We should be doing more to develop minds, no matter where you are. And that’s what my public safety plan gets at. In the immediate crisis, long-term solutions that ultimately leads towards a better, stronger, safer Chicago.
Maximillian Alvarez: And before I move on to the next question, I wanted to just ask: And what about the relationship between the public and the police, not just here in Baltimore, but definitely there in Chicago and around the country? I mean, there’s a fundamentally broken relationship there because of the abuses that people have suffered at the hands of the police.
Brandon Johnson: We have spent and paid out nearly a billion dollars alone over the last 10 years of police misconduct and police brutality cases. So there’s a lot of work to be done there. You know what helps with that? One, supervision. That helps. Right now in the city of Chicago, we have supervisors that supervise the supervisor. Police officers are showing up every single day and they don’t know who their supervisor is. That’s like me as a public school teacher showing up to a school building and my principal changes every other day.
But we also have to make sure, again, that we are implementing the consent decree. This is why I’m committed to doing that immediately because we’re not even investing in the universities that are charged to do the research to actually help build platforms and policies that ultimately can hold law enforcement accountable. And let’s be clear, I don’t want to blow past this. Look, there’s been tremendous harm against communities, particularly Black and brown communities where law enforcement, they’ve broken the trust.
And so, one of the ways in which we help repair that is, one, naming it, being honest and direct about it and making sure that we are doing everything in our power to have the proper supervision and implementing the consent decree that will lead to the type of reforms that can help repair the relationships. But we also have to make sure that the officers who are a part of the communities that have been harmed the most, we have to make sure that we’re providing support services as well, because in many instances, the type of trauma that police officers have been exposed to, they’re not getting the support that they need.
But more importantly, they’re being asked to do their job and someone else’s job. And by passing treatment not trauma, that will free up these interactions with the community that police officers shouldn’t be asked to respond to. Loud noise, again, domestic disputes, these are dynamics that we can create an alternative infrastructure to make sure that we’re being responsible in terms of how we are interacting with the public.
Maximillian Alvarez: I want to build off the first question a bit. I admit fully that this paints a very reductive picture and the media has played a big role in that. And while I also acknowledge that hardly anyone in Chicago is pining for more Lori Lightfoot right now, there is still a palpable sense among voters in the city that, with this race, they’re essentially being asked to choose who will run the city, the police union or the teacher’s union.
Now, from the question of public safety to the compounding catastrophes of a cost of living crisis and a housing crisis, poor and working people, predominantly Black and brown people getting pushed out of the city, just like here in Baltimore, we’ve been losing population for half a century, it feels like the narrative about how these problems are connected and how we make it better is up for grabs right now.
And so, I wanted to ask how you’re taking hold of that narrative with this campaign? What vision of fixing these problems are you and the people who support you fighting for? And how do you build a coalition that embraces your union roots, that embraces and empowers the labor movement, but that also cuts through all the divisive B.S. And extends a hand to every Chicagoan who wants to be part of the solution?
Brandon Johnson: I’m very proud that we’ve built a multicultural, multi-generational movement to get me into this position. You don’t start off at 2.3% in October in the polls and not have a coalition and be in the runoff. So let me just name that. And so, I get how you’re framing it because that’s the narrative that there’s certain outlets that want that to be the narrative. But how does a brother from the working class, again, who no one knew who I was a few months ago, get to this place unless I have a multicultural, multi-generational movement?
And here’s the last thing, we don’t have to separate our interests. It’s not a coincidence that we’re going to vote on April 4th, which is the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr, the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., Who came to Chicago fighting for housing, who was also in Memphis fighting for workers’ rights, fighting for civil rights. They’re one and the same. Dr. King said that the labor struggle and the civil rights struggle are one and the same, that the enemy of the Negro is the enemy of the labor movement.
So we are eliminating this false narrative that our interests are not aligned because it was in 1967 where Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. gave a speech at the AFSCME Convention, which was my father’s union who is a member of AFSCME who endorsed my candidacy. It’s the first time that AFSCME has endorsed a mayoral candidate since Harold Washington. And at this convention, and I’m paraphrasing, Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. said, “If the labor movement and the civil rights movement were to ever collide, what enormous potential it would have.”
We are literally the manifestation of the potential that he dreamed of. And so, of course there are going to be forces that try to divide us and simplify this narrative as if I’m only one particular dynamic. As people of the city of Chicago and people of the globe, we are everything and then some. So I’m not going to allow any reductive efforts to separate our interests because this movement is multicultural and multi-generational, and we’re building this broad coalition, not just for an election, but so that we can govern towards the interest of working people and families who are struggling to remain in middle class and those that we have to move up out of poverty.
So when you ask the question about who runs the city of Chicago, the people of Chicago run the city of Chicago. I just get to be their mayor.
Maximillian Alvarez: Well, let’s talk about that because I know I’ve got to let you go in a few minutes, but let’s talk about what that coalition looks like if and when you are in office, how you keep that coalition together and what role that coalition plays in advancing the policies that people are voting for and the changes that they want to see in the city as embodied in your campaign. There’s obviously a concern about voter apathy and burnout, low voter turnout in the recent municipal elections. I think the final tally was around 32%.
And as you, yourself, have said, I’m paraphrasing here, but Lori Lightfoot did do a lot of damage by appropriating all of this progressive vocabulary. And then over the course of her administration, giving people a lot of reason to associate progressive politics with all the grossest aspects of City Hall that people just really hate. And something similar is happening here in Baltimore, a city renowned for its corrupt politicians and police forces. People here had high hopes for Mayor Brandon Scott.
And don’t get me wrong, Lightfoot is on a totally different level than Scott, but in both cases, the end result has been an increased dissatisfaction with government, feelings of betrayal or resignation, feeling like nothing gets done or just more of the same gets done and the only people benefiting are the same people as before. So how do you get people to buy in to the faith that change can happen and that they can be part of that change? What force inside and outside government needs to be mobilized here to actually push through the changes Chicagoans want but aren’t getting?
Brandon Johnson: Well, look, you’ve really hit the nail of the head. We’re talking about having support internally, the best and the brightest who are connected to our movement, who understand the intricacies of government and how to execute government. But you’re going to continue to need people to organize. Here’s the difference, that there are people who love me, who recognize that accountability is not just simply pat me on the back and high five.
As a teacher [inaudible 00:16:57], I’ve worked within coalition to get things done. We have an elected representative school board coming to the city of Chicago for the first time in the history of Chicago. We did that, we built it together, and I’ll be the first mayor to actually participate in that transition. We have district council members who are duly elected officials who will have say so on how policing is done in the city of Chicago. These are efforts that the movement has built.
So I didn’t just get here with a bunch of petitions and with my name on the ballot. I’ve been a part of a collective struggle for some time now in the city. Here’s what I’m most encouraged by: I’m supported by Congresswoman Delia Ramirez, whose mother came up from Central America to give birth at Cook County Hospital, the same Cook County Hospital that I went to for services because I have asthma. The same Cook County Hospital that delivered the daughter of someone who was seeking refuge here is the same Cook County Hospital that I went to receive medical services.
I’m also supported by Congressman Jonathan Jackson, who is the son of the civil rights icon, Reverend Jesse Jackson. Jan Schakowsky, Congressman Garcia, who was a part of that transformation 40 years ago. We are bringing people together, y’all. I wish you could see it in Chicago. I know that I’m coming across as incredibly optimistic, but I’m a middle school teacher and I’m a Bears fan, so I have to be optimistic just naturally.
But truthfully, our campaign has caught fire, not just multicultural and multi-generational. We have people who are sitting at my table to get me elected who have been at odds with one another over a variety of issues. And these forces are coming together because they understand this collective struggle for real liberation for everyone, Black, brown, white, Asian, that people want to see the city of Chicago become a real world-class city, a city where no one is too poor to live in one of the richest cities, in one of the richest countries at the wealthiest time of the history of the world. And so, the way we organize, the way we campaign will be the way that we govern because it’s a matter of life and death for people.
The last thing that I’ll say is this: During the Great Depression, unemployment for white men was 30%, and our country called it a national crisis. They said it was dangerous and white men received shovels before there were things to dig. They received housing, they received access to education. And what we’re simply saying in the city of Chicago that there are things to dig and there are things to build and there are lives to change.
And everybody recognizes that if we’re going to be a strong, safer Chicago, that we have to make sure that those who are struggling the most is where the investments need to take place. And that’s what people are excited about and it’s why I’m looking forward to making history as the first public school teacher ever elected as mayor of the city of Chicago. Thank you.
Maximillian Alvarez: Thank you. I appreciate it, man. I know we got to let you go, but I really appreciate your time.
Brandon Johnson: God bless you all. Thank you. Hey, you all, say hi to Reverend Jackson. He’s here too.
Maximillian Alvarez: Hey, Reverend. Great to meet you virtually.
Brandon Johnson: Yeah, you see I’ve got the best coach in the world.
Maximillian Alvarez: All right, man. Thanks so much.
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