Brandon Johnson: The rise of Chicago’s next leader

There will soon be a new boss in the Windy City — Brandon Johnson has been elected the 57th mayor of Chicago, defeating challenger Paul Vallas in a runoff election. The 47-year-old Johnson is a former teacher-turned-progressive political leader who has run the ladder in Illinois politics to now helm the country's third-largest metropolis. 

Johnson's victory may have seemed like a near impossibility earlier this year. The New York Times notes that he "was little known to voters only months ago," and one early poll found him carrying just three percent support. Vallas, on the other hand, had a crucial endorsement from the Chicago Tribuneas well as important backing from the Fraternal Order of Police and other law enforcement unions in a city struggling with rising crime

Even so, Johnson managed to defy the odds, his own set of key endorsements and a strong showing of support among Chicago's Black community having helped push him over the edge. He handily beat Vallas by 15,000 votes in a victory representative of the continuing domination of progressivism in Chicago, a city that hasn't had a Republican mayor since 1931.

So, where did Johnson come from, and what propelled him to City Hall? 

Johnson's beginnings and rise

Brandon Johnson was born in the city of Elgin, Illinois. He was "the son of a pastor and one of 10 siblings," according to his campaign website, and "was raised on a foundation of hard work, faith, and service." He would eventually receive an MA in teaching from the Illinois-based Aurora University, Ballotpedia reports, and from there launched a career in education. 

He has worked at locations throughout Chicago Public Schools (CPS), WMAQ-TV Chicago reports, including a stint at Jenner Academy, located in the city's notorious Cabrini-Green housing projects. He taught at other schools before eventually joining the Chicago Teacher's Union (CTU) as an organizer, where he "led multi-racial coalitions to defend neighborhood schools from privatization, reduce high-stakes standardized testing and expand access to state funding," per his website.

Johnson eventually left education and was elected Cook County commissioner in 2018, where he "collaborated with colleagues to eliminate the gang database, secure legal representation for immigrants facing deportation, and advance recognition of Indigenous Peoples' Day."

Amidst an endorsement from the CTU — which occurred before he even entered the race — Johnson announced his candidacy for mayor in October 2022. His entrance came despite the fact that he had told Politico three years earlier that it would be "laughable" if the CTU pushed him as a mayoral candidate, even as rumors of a possible campaign swirled. 

He soon found himself skyrocketing in the polls, as educational organizations and unions began rallying behind him. Beyond the CTU, Johnson received endorsements from at least eight Chicago aldermen, in addition to the Illinois Federation of Teachers, Cook County College Teacher's Union, and numerous other labor coalitions. He also received support from a pair of high-profile progressive leaders: Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). 

Despite this, though, Vallas, a more moderate Democrat, still maintained an 11-point margin of victory in the initial round of mayoral primaries. As the runoff election crept closer, however, Johnson began to close that gap — by election day, the two candidates were basically neck-and-neck. In the end, Johnson pulled off the upset win "in a surprise victory for progressive organizing and the future of police reform efforts," Vox writes, managing to beat his competitor "despite Vallas' tough-on-crime messaging, which resonated with moderates and white voters."

His plan for Chicago

Block Club Chicago has called the mayor-elect "the most progressive Chicago mayor in a generation" — and Johnson has indeed put forth a widespread liberal agenda. When it comes to crime, his campaign "focused on addressing the root causes of violence through investments in mental health services, education, jobs, and affordable housing," USA Today reports. 

One of the ways Johnson plans to accomplish this is by establishing new priorities in the realm of policing, including "promoting 200 officers to detective rank to solve serious crimes and establishing an illegal gun unit," Slate reports. During a 2020 radio interview, Johnson had said that defunding the police was an "actual, real political goal," and for weeks would not commit to fully funding the Chicago Police Department, but he has since reassured Chicagoans that this will not be part of his mayoral agenda. 

However, while crime may be the most pressing issue for the city, it is far from the only one. Johnson, who will take office this May, will have to deal with "a Chicago in flux, with a downtown that is emptier than before the pandemic, a police department that has no permanent leader, and a public school system that has seen a decline in enrollment," the Times writes. While he has put forth a platform to tackle these issues, largely based on lifting people out of poverty through housing initiatives and sustainable schooling, it is nonetheless clear that Chicago's next mayor has a long to-do list in front of him. 

Chicago Mayor-elect Brandon Johnson.