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Emma Tai and Jackson Potter: It’s Movements vs. MAGA in Chicago

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Brandon Johnson campaigning for mayor of Chicago

More than a decade of labor-community organizing propelled a clear progressive into Chicago’s mayoral runoff. Now voters can choose: reaction or transformation?

Candidates for mayor and all 50 seats on the Board of Aldermen faced off in Chicago’s Feb. 28 primary election. No candidate for mayor won a clear majority. The April 4 runoff will pit the most progressive candidate, Brandon Johnson, against the most right-wing, Paul Vallas. A handful of the races for alderman went to the runoff also, but a majority of the candidates endorsed by the Chicago Teachers’ Union (CTU) won outright. On balance, this represents another shift to the left for the board. If Johnson is elected, Chicago would have one of the most progressive big-city governments in the US.

The two mayoral hopefuls represent opposite poles in Chicago’s struggle for public goods. Johnson began his career as a public-school teacher in the city’s Cabrini-Green neighborhood. He went on to become an organizer with the CTU before the pivotal 2012 strike. In 2018 he won a seat on the Cook County Board of Commissioners. Paul Vallas was appointed CEO of the Chicago Public Schools in 1995, the same year the state legislature put the district under the control of the mayor. He went on to preside over the post-Katrina privatization of the New Orleans public school system.

Chicago Teachers Union Vice President Jackson Potter and United Working Families Executive Director Emma Tai spoke to Convergence editorial board member Marcy Rein about the backdrop to the election, the stakes, and the organizing that made this movement moment possible.

Convergence: What’s the top line on this upcoming Chicago election?

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Jackson Potter: The April 4 runoff election for mayor of Chicago is a proxy war for the forces of reaction and transformation in our country at the moment. What happens here will have huge repercussions for what’s possible, not just in city elections across the country, but in our national elections.

Emma Tai: The issue fights that define the terms of the election have played a key part in making this moment possible. You can’t materialize those out of thin air in the six to eight weeks that you’re running an electoral campaign. Those have to exist on the ground, and the role of organizers on the ground is to polarize them and to push them forward so that when an election comes around, there are clear sides of the debate. In Chicago, we’ve had a 10-year fight for public mental health services that laid the groundwork for this election.

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Convergence: Can you tell us a bit more about that 10-year fight?

ET: In 2011, Rahm Emanuel’s first budget after he became mayor closed the city-run public mental health clinics, many of them in Black and brown neighborhoods, similar to the school closings. This cut off access to public mental health care for poor and working-class people. In the fight to keep the clinics open, there was an occupation of the Woodlawn Clinic, a camp-out in front of another. The city still closed them and people died as a result of losing access to that care. But the issue stayed alive. We continued to beat the drum about this and folks like the Collaborative for Community Wellness and Southside Together Organizing for Power kept the issue in the forefront.

What had been sharpened with the 2011 clinic struggles took on a new form in the 2020 uprisings when an alderwoman we helped elect in 2019, Rossanna Rodriguez Sanchez, introduced legislation called Treatment Not Trauma. This legislation would send trained mental health professionals to respond to 911 mental health calls as opposed to armed police officers—and the way to have the infrastructure to do that would be to reopen the public mental health clinics.

Just last fall, folks from UWF and from the ward independent political organizations, from the Southside organizations that had been helming the fight to keep the clinics open, and from the defund movement, put a referendum on the ballot to reopen the public mental health clinics and provide social workers and mental health professionals to respond to mental health emergency calls.

It was a non-binding referendum, but it passed overwhelmingly and gave us a way to put folks in motion and keep the issue alive—but it wasn’t the only way. With each city council budget there was tremendous amount of pressure to reopen the clinics and to fully fund Treatment Not Trauma.

The organizers who were part of the 2011 clinic occupation as well as the 2020 uprising, and the 2022 referendum and the 2019 to 2022 budget fights about reopening the clinics. were all a part of the ground game for Brandon Johnson. And you know, it’s in different parts of the city and people have different roles, but we’re all out here building on the organizing that folks laid the foundation for years and years prior to this moment.

Convergence: What were some of the conditions that produced such a stark choice in this election?

JP: This year’s election took place as Chicago dealt with the tensions and fissures that are occurring all over the country as cities grapple with some of the violence and disruption that the pandemic has created.

There’s been a real sharp increase in the mental health needs of the general public and young people in particular. That has a lot to do with the lack of clarity around the public health approaches that were going to keep people safe when we didn’t quite know what COVID was going to do, and how many people it could kill and how dangerous it was. We had to make some choices based on incomplete information that also had negative consequences for public health and mental health.

But also, the poorest Americans were facing the greatest economic dislocation during the pandemic. It exacerbated a lot of the inequities, notwithstanding that there was some significant federal aid and state programming and pandemic assistance that mitigated some of those harms. Many people who are on the margins did not get the kind of support or assistance that would have alleviated the worst aspects of fallout and dislocation and suffering and trauma that many of our communities experience. Once aid is withdrawn, as we’re seeing in this moment, we see increases in homicides across American cities, whether they’re Republican or Democrat. So what is the appropriate set of policies to address the needs that people are experiencing and the different results of this really once-in-a-lifetime situation? What does it look like to address the equity gaps and the racial disparities in our system?

You see Mayor Eric Adams in New York saying, “Oh, we need more police. We need to criminalize homeless people, we need to deport immigrants,” and using a lot of Republican talking points. Then you have Mayor Michelle Wu in Boston saying, “No, we need rent control. We need to provide more affordable housing, we need homeless students to have actual affordable units.”

Convergence: And this reflects specifically in the Chicago campaign?

JP: So, yes, we’re in a moment of stark contrasts. You can go towards kind of a Trump, DeSantis, in some ways a Paul Vallas model. Vallas really is a MAGA-style politician that has flown under the radar because the media has treated him with kid gloves, and he’s the only white candidate in the race. In many public statements he’s said he doesn’t believe in abortion. He thinks that school vouchers are appropriate, that Black history undermines the self-worth of white children and Black children and produces criminalized behavior, very similar to what DeSantis is saying in Florida. And yet he runs us as a Democrat in Chicago primarily because you probably couldn’t get elected otherwise.

Johnson comes right out of the union movement, was a key organizer during the 2012 strike. He believes in our efforts to tax real estate to build public and affordable housing. He truly shares our view that you need to fully fund neighborhood schools and cut off vouchers and not allow charter proliferation and tax wealthy corporations to ensure that we can reopen mental health clinics. So you really can’t have a sharper comparison between these two worldviews.

Convergence: Do campaign contributions tell a part of this story as well?

JP: All this money is coming in, from the Koch brothers, from Republican donors, from Ken Griffin of Citadel, and they’re giving it to Paul Vallas because they see an opportunity. They’re seeing Chicago as a microcosm. And rightfully so, because if they can get this foothold and undermine some of the popular efforts to fund schools, tax the rich, build affordable housing, eliminate some of the advantages that wealthy real estate has at the expense of renters, and small homeowners, they can like keep this thing afloat, where exploitation reigns. The 31 largest donors to Vallas are all multimillionaires.

Convergence: In an earlier article, Jackson talked about the coalition work that would be needed to realize the possibilities of this election. How has that come together?

ET: Coalitions are moments in time when people who have a set of common interests come together for a common cause, and they’re not meant to be permanent formations. I think the permanent formation is the ecosystem. And that requires a much deeper level of trust among organizations that may play different roles but are in agreement on our common politics and vision. At this point, a very large coalition has come together to support Brandon in the face of who Paul Vallas is and everything that he represents.

I think the ecosystem that made this moment possible is a smaller set of people. That includes the four founding organizations of UWF: Action Now, Grassroots Illinois Action, SEIU Healthcare and the Chicago Teachers Union. But it also includes organizations like the Chicago Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression, Southsiders Organized for Unity and Liberation, SEIU Local 73, The People’s Lobby, Cook County College Teachers Union, and dynamic ward organizations like 33rd Ward Working Families, People United for Action, and United Neighbors of the 35th Ward.

Some of them are affiliated with UWF and some of them aren’t, but the organizations in the ecosystem—who have that deeper level of alignment—have some important things in common. They all endorsed Brandon early on, making it possible for him to get to the runoff. And they’ve all played different roles—going on strike, fighting school closings, electing their own members–in bringing us to this moment.

There’s a bigger and broader coalition now as support consolidates behind Brandon for the runoff, but we should be clear about the ecosystem-level of collaboration that was necessary to make this moment possible.

JP: The ICIRR endorsement was unusual. I think it’s the first time they’ve endorsed a mayoral candidate. Mijente, which is one of the largest national Latino organizations, just endorsed Brandon. He just had a meet and greet where a plethora of Latino advocacy organizations attended and it was a packed house. We’ve just never ever seen anything like that in our work as a union.

By virtue of being a child of a pastor, Brandon has a deep connection with the Black church. We’re seeing many, many black churches inviting him to their services. Reverend Hatch, who had previously endorsed Mayor Lightfoot, endorsed him, so that was a break from the stranglehold incumbents tend to have on clergy.

Convergence: Have national organizations turned up to support the campaign?

JP: I’m not seeing the national organizations lending so much an army of ground troops as an echo chamber of support throughout Chicagoland. We’re definitely seeing the American Federation of Teachers (and the Illinois Federation of Teachers) throw down and send a lot of support and staff. We had an educator day of action March 18, with people across the country, including educators coming from New Orleans, Philly, and Bridgeport, Connecticut who can speak to the real damage that Vallas did in their towns. They’re going to come door-knock for Brandon. Sierra Club just endorsed him, as did the National Organization for Women and a number of LGBTQIA+ organizations. I’m seeing a lot of activity and canvasses. The amount of enthusiasm the number of people coming out for canvasses is just exponentially greater than anything we’ve ever seen.

Convergence: What are the main obstacles to overcome in the remainder of the campaign?

JP: People are reluctant to believe that anything less than what they are familiar with will address the things that they think need addressing. And so it’s a contradiction, right? We don’t have a lot of confidence or faith in the political class. I hear that over and over again on doors. People don’t think these candidates will appropriately represent them, and don’t feel safe. They’re not sure this idea of addressing root causes is sufficient because if somebody’s pulling out a gun on their block, frequently, they can’t afford to figure out the root causes piece. So there’s a healthy skepticism based on real experience.

Brandon’s challenge is going to be to both hold that, recognize it, appreciate it, and simultaneously challenge it. Because really, that’s what his candidacy and our movement has been about. It’s saying look, we can’t afford to do it the same way. The ways in which Black people and brown people are murdered in this town are a direct result of not valuing Black lives, not impact-investing in poor Black and brown communities. Until we really tackle that, it’s going to actually exacerbate the oppression, the lack of services, the disparate treatment that we’ve come to expect.

Convergence: Has the fight for public education been a theme in the campaign?

JP: It did come up in the candidates’ debate on how they would meet the needs of the Black community. In reference to a question about vouchers, Brandon noted that we’ve seen vouchers before, and it was in the South when white families did not want to integrate. And this is a version of what Paul Vallas is promoting: this idea that you can take money and go wherever you want. Brandon says no, public education is actually a result of the Black freedom struggle, and the demand for equity, and the refusal to allow a Jim Crow system. What Vallas wants is a Jim Crow system. In every city he’s gone to we’ve seen the percentage of Black educators cut in half, whether it’s Chicago, Philly, or New Orleans. That’s not an accident. That’s a direct byproduct of his policies. And Brandon has really been clear about Vallas’ reign of error and not allowing the mythology about him as some kind of policy wonk or whiz kid, which is how the mainstream media portrayed him in primary election.

ET: Brandon as a history teacher has talked a lot on the campaign trail about public education as made possible by the Black-led governments of the Reconstruction South, and about Dr. King’s vision of the Civil Rights Movement and the labor movement coming together. You can see there’s a historical nature of this moment. It doesn’t just stretch back 10 years to the closings of the schools and clinics. This encapsulates some of the real tensions, struggles, contradictions of the American project, and the ways in which race and economy are at the heart of that.


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