The TRiiBE sat down with the 2023 Black mayoral candidates to learn more about their political views. Read their Q&A profiles here. Visit The TRiiBE Election Center to learn more about the Chicago municipal election taking place on Feb. 28.

Last fall, Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson entered the 2023 Chicago mayoral race with a truly progressive platform and campaign centering coalition-building across racial lines.

Since then, Johnson has gotten endorsements from politicians such as U.S. Reps. Jonathan Jackson (IL-1) and Delia Ramirez (IL-4); the Chicago Teachers Union, SEIU Healthcare, Cook County College Teachers Union, and the Illinois Federation of Teachers. He’s got $1.8 million on hand.

“I’m in a position to be the next mayor of Chicago because the movement is being heard, and I’m a reflection of that movement,” he said. 

On Jan. 3 Johnson, who lives in Austin with his wife and children, invited The TRiiBE to principle barbers in North Lawndale. After getting a quick edge-up by his friend Bobby Price, he discussed his vision for Chicago.

Throughout our interview, Johnson repeatedly emphasized the need to invest in people first and foremost. He advocates for sustainable community schools, employment opportunities, affordable housing, and funding robust summer youth programs and a gun violence and prevention office.

He reiterated his commitment to redirecting funds from police and jails to public services, one he led as commissioner in 2020.

“You prioritize based upon the values that you have,” Johnson said. “I believe in our people. I love our people, and everything that I want for my children, I want that for every single child in the city of Chicago, and I want parents to be able to deliver that.” 

A former Chicago Public Schools teacher, Johnson started at Jenner Academy in Cabrini Green. As a CTU organizer, he was part of the 2012 strike and connected with community organizers who shared the union’s progressive social vision. Many, like him, are now elected officials: State Rep. Lakesia Collins (9th), and Alds. Jeanette Taylor (20th), Byron Sigcho-Lopez (25th) and Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th).

With Taylor, he joined parents and community members in a 34-day hunger strike in 2015 demanding the city reopen Washington Park’s Walter H. Dyett High School. The hunger strikers saved the school. Revived as Dyett High School for the Arts, its first class graduated in 2020. 

Johnson’s district is anchored by Austin on the east side and suburban Bellwood on the west. He told The TRiiBE he wasn’t initially trying to be a politician but felt compelled to because elected leaders “we were pushing wouldn’t react, so we had to beat them.” 

Read our full interview with Johnson as part of our 2023 Before the Polls mayoral candidate interview series.

The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Quick jump

1 Background

The TRiiBE: Growing up, what shaped your politics and outlook on life?

As leaders and pastors, my parents helped shape my worldview. 

The simplest way I can articulate this is that we are not our own, we have a responsibility to one another, and are only as strong as we are collectively. So the type of selflessness is the act of service recognizing that we are ultimately accountable to something bigger than ourselves. That's what shaped my view of the world. It's how I've led as a husband, a father, teacher, organizer, and as county commissioner, and what my intentions will be as mayor of Chicago.

You would be the first mayor living on the West Side. How has living and working in Austin shaped your views?

Yeah, so not a native South sider. But the dynamic on the West Side of Chicago, particularly Austin, it’s the largest Black city inside the city of Chicago. It's a beautiful place. It has a tremendous rich history. Many of our relatives and family members and Black folks in general—during that second migration—set up shop on the West Side of Chicago. 

It's also the place, of course, where Dr. King visited. We're in North Lawndale. So this is where Dr. King wanted to ensure he was connected to people he described as the world's most realest people.  That's what the West Side of Chicago is. It's the place where it doesn't get more authentic. The full expression of blackness is on the west side of Chicago, working people. You know, middle-class folks, political leaders. You have artists. So you have everyone from Dorothy Tucker to Robert Townsend.  

The West Side of Chicago has certainly been a place where Black political power and Black existence have found its richness in a variety of disciplines. And it is the place where again, everyday working people come just to be able to experience that which is like righteous, but that which is, to some extent, just chill.

The dynamic on the West Side of Chicago, particularly Austin, it’s the largest Black city inside the city of Chicago.It's a beautiful place. It has a tremendous rich history. Many of our relatives and family members and Black folks in general—during that second migration—set up shop on the West Side of Chicago.

It's also the place, of course, where Dr. King visited. We're in North Lawndale. So this is where Dr. King wanted to ensure he was connected to people he described as the world's realest people. That's what the West Side of Chicago is. It's the place where it doesn't get more authentic. The full expression of Blackness is on the West Side of Chicago, working people. You know, middle-class folks, political leaders. You have artists.So you have everyone fromDorothy Tuckerto Robert Townsend.

The West Side of Chicago has certainly been a place where Black political power and Black existence have found its richness in a variety of disciplines. And it is the place where again, everyday working people come just to be able to experience that which is like righteous, but that which is, to some extent, just chill.

2 Safety & Policing

Gun violence is a significant issue in Chicago. On your website, you cited it as a city's biggest problem and pledged to take preventative measures to address it. How will your administration invest in safety?

Studies have indicated that youth employment reduces violence. It does. The most dramatic thing that we can do to reduce violence is to hire young people and give them opportunities that have been missing from our political space for too long. We just haven't done enough.

We can’t simply nibble around the edges. This is why I’m calling for a very robust youth hiring program that will provide the type of opportunities and purpose that young people need.  The second thing is the launch of an office of gun violence and violence prevention so that we are putting together all the tactical solutions that get guns off the street.

The third thing is that Chicago is under enormous trauma. If we're not treating that trauma, and we're only doing things that further exacerbate it, then we're not being very honest about our desire to see transformation in the city of Chicago. So that requires, again, someone who believes in public accommodations. And so reopening our health clinics, which many organizers, Black organizers, particularly around the city of Chicago, have been pushing for that.I'm going to respond to that. The Treatment Not Trauma ordinance is sponsored by the 33rd Ward alderperson [Ald. Rossana Rodriguez Sanchez].We have a lot of Black organizers around the city who've been pushing for that. I'm gonna respond to that positively.

As you know, last spring, Mayor Lori Lightfoot extended the citywide curfew after the shooting of a 16-year-old in Millennium Park, despite critics saying it would disproportionately harm Black and brown youth. How do you suggest that we non-punitively support youth within CPS and outside CPS? What initiatives or policies need to be drafted?

We know that schools can be hubs for the community as a whole.The second thing is this: we have these amazing parks that do not get supportedin a way that can be a place for young people. Let’s just start there. My children attended Garfield Park over the summer.The summer program ends at one o'clock. Thank God for Memaw; that's my mother-in-law. Otherwise, it wouldn't work.

So, the initiative, besides expanding community spaces within our public school system, but it’s also our park districts.

All those things are important. I’m going to invest in those things. But it’s also about ensuring young people experience purpose and know someone loves them and cares for them. As mayor of Chicago, especially as somebody who has taught in public schools, I know what the look of desperation looks like. 

If young people are prepared and willing to go through programming, and they’re willing to work, there’s going to be a space for them. We’re going to find the resources to fund it. So that it’s not just a place for young people are kicking it. It’s a place where they’re contributing. Because the best thing that you could do for any human being is to help them find purpose. And as mayor of Chicago, I’m gonna do that.

You introduced a nonbinding resolution that the Cook County Board passed in the summer of 2020 that supported redirecting “funds from policing and incarceration to public services not administered by law enforcement that promote community health and safety equitably.” Do you still support reallocating dollars away from police?

The addiction that this city, and quite frankly this country has on jails and incarceration has proven to be problematic. Are we any safer? Are our communities walkable? So my 15-year-old son, who's a student in Kenwood, in his third week at school, one of the students leaves out for lunch and gets murdered, and we're spending $5 million a day [on policing].

We're talking about a $3 billion budget. and the clearance rate for solving crimes is abysmal. Folks still don't have a trusted, strong connection between law enforcement and the community. We spend more money on jails and incarceration than we do on housing and violence prevention. Here’s the impetus behind it. As mayor of Chicago, I’m about doing what works.

If we’re saying that we have to get at the root causes of the ailment that has plagued communities that have been disinvested in for generations, then let’s do that. The whole point of the 2020 resolution was to provoke us into doing what works, and to remove ourselves from these really bad habits that only exacerbate the conditions in which we’re saying that we’re trying to transform and change.

Let's do what safe communities do. They fully fund their schools. Look at Oak Park, two fully funded school districtsin one town.They have libraries that stay open to nine o'clock at nightwith programs. They have parks that are fully supported. They love their children so much that they will provide opportunities for children to be able to experience childhood. Why is that any different for those of us who live in Chicago? It shouldn't be. It shouldn't be. And as mayor of Chicago, we’re transforming that.

We’re going to stop relying upon these age-old systems that continue to harm and terrorize our communities. When we know that things that work require us to love our children, to love the people who are raising those children and to invest in them. So clearly, my position is still the same. I love our people enough to invest in them and will do that as mayor of Chicago.

The main question that people will want to know and have a clear answer to is about CPD’s budget. Is that something you would increase or decrease as mayor?

The police budget is almost $3 billion, and our communities aren’t safer.  I don’t know how we can continue to go down a path that has demonstrated that it doesn’t work.

It’s about where our priorities should be. I can say emphatically, and based upon the record that my priorities are going to be in education, housing, mental health, jobs, transportation and our parks. That’s where our priorities are gonna be. Look, we’re going to have to examine every aspect of the city’s budget, but this one, in particular, has demonstrated that the return that folks said we would get as a result of these investments that return hasn’t manifested.

There’s no return on that so-called investment. I’m not going to commit to anything budgetarily that has demonstrated that it has failed our people and failed our communities. So you know, as I’ve committed to justice for Black lives, budget for Black lives, that doesn't change when I’m the mayor of Chicago. We have to invest in the areas in which we know that work. Right now,the way this budget is situated, particularly around policing, hasn't worked.

Brandon Johnson
Brandon Johnson // Photo by Alexander Gouletas for The TRiIBE

3 Youth & Education

What initiatives and policies will you enact for neighborhood elementary and high schools so that Black and brown children won't have to be in their communities to go to school? Many have to leave because their schools don't have the resources they need to thrive.

I will be the first mayor in recent history that actually believes in public education because not only am I a product of public schools, my children are the students in Chicago Public Schools. So when you talk about the dynamics within the community, my wife and I live in Austin, and we take two babies — eight and ten years old; they’re in the third and fifth grades —  20 to 25 minutes northwest to Portage Park.  

Our 15-year-old [is] a freshman at Kenwood. So we take him 25 to 30 minutes south, primarily because we don't have a school in Austin that fully supports the arts. So we had to leave our community to have orchestra, sports and a nurse. These are not unattainable things. 

The first thing that I'm going to push for is something called Sustainable Community Schools. It's a policy we've been promoting through the work of community-based organizations and labor, where labor and the community are coming together to provide the type of enriched or fully supported school communities that are needed.  

The second thing, of course, is making sure that we have a plan to help transform our high schools because, as you mentioned, it's important to note that the decline we are experiencing is by design.

This is not something that occurred by happenstance. You've had administration after administration in this city that has disrupted public housing. They've closed public schools and eliminated public employee work, which Black folks, in particular, benefited from. So it shouldn't be a surprise that the number of students and families we lost during the school closings is almost equivalent to the number needed to keep a Black ward.

Is simply investing in schools enough to address the declining enrollment?  What are other long-term things needed? You mentioned sustainable community schools, and the second point is a plan to transform high schools. What other things would you propose outside of that?

The best thing you can do for a child's education and academic success is to ensure their parents have W-2s. However, we do have to have a commitment to public education and funding.

If children are coming to school every single day unhoused, hungry and sick, they’re not thinking about drawing conclusions or the author’s approach or balancing equations or the periodic table. 

As mayor of Chicago, my top priority is to make sure that people will have access to economic security without a baseline of economic security. Everything else becomes not just a stress on that particular family. It becomes a stress on the community and it becomes a stress on the government. To relieve that stress, we have to provide you with opportunities. The big thing that we have to do is create opportunities for folks that have to go to work every day, have decent-paying jobs, access to insurance and they have dignity and respect in their workspaces.

So beginning in 2025, Chicago will have an elected school board. So if elected, how will you work to support this effort? And who would you appoint to the hybrid board?

I'm very excited that in the midst of a country where democracy is being curtailed, we're actually expanding that in Chicago. The mayor of Chicago [Mayor Lori Lightfoot] promised that, and then she flaked and went against one of her campaign promises.So I want to lean into that a bit because it's actually incredibly disrespectful because of the work, time, effort and sacrifices people put forward to have that type of democratic accountability.

We've lost schools, and we've lost Black educators, and the curriculum has been narrowed around mayoral control. Mayoral control has been a failure for Black people in particular, but for the system as a whole. Here’s what I’ll do in 2024 because we don’t get the fully elected board until 2026.

I’m going to go to the community, and I’m going to the City Council to make sure that the representation that we have for those 11 seats reflects the values that actually promoted the elected representative school board in the first place. It has to be people who actually believe in public accommodations. 

They have to believe that a budget has to speak to the needs of people. They have to believe that the teaching force and the entire education force, whether you’re a teacher’s assistant, a teacher, a nurse or custodial, that the workers should be supported. Those are the baseline for anyone who is going to be on the board going to go through a vetting process with the community and City Council, and they have to stand up for those three principles. Anything less than that would be will be irresponsible. It’ll just simply be more of the same.

4 Mental Health

What are your plans to reopen closed mental health clinics?

I'm working with mental health advocates. Part of my criteria has to be where violence and poverty per capita is at its worst. Let's look at neighborhoods like Englewood, North Lawndale, Garfield Park or Roseland, where violence and poverty per capita has been described in certain parts of the city as [comparable to] developing nations. This is one of the wealthiest cities in the world, and we have pockets of the city that reflect and mirror developing nations.

The advocates who understand and know this work will help guide how we reopen and how we classify these spaces. I’m incredibly impressed with the young Black organizers who have been leading on this. They will have not just have a seat at the table on the fifth floor. They will get to help set it. All I’m saying is that [at] the very least, the baseline has to be violence and poverty per capita. Where those two dynamics intersect, we should start to build up from there. I’m gonna lean on the experts and the organizers to help guide that in my administration.

5 Affordable Housing

What policies or initiatives will you enact to support renters and homeowners from displacement? And also, what will you do to support people experiencing homelessness?

No one should be too poor to live in the city of Chicago. No one. So part of what we have to do is make sure that the real estate transfer tax gets a real look and figure out how to appropriate dollars towards those unhoused families.The second thing that we have to do is that we have to have a real commitment to public housing.So that's why I'm supportive of not building anything on land that was once the home for public housing.

The third thing is the type of investments that we need to make in our communities, particularly around revenue. That’s something that, as mayor of Chicago, I’m going to be very much focused on, progressive revenue, to be able to make the type of investments to address the economic insecurity that is playing out, particularly in housing.

You mentioned the Real Estate Transfer Tax. Does that mean you support Bring Chicago Home?

Yes, I do support it.

You specifically mentioned homeowners, but a lot of our readers are renters. What type of support do you see for helping people be able to afford rent?

It's two-fold. If we're not providing real economic opportunities for folks [to] actually get jobs and give well-paying jobs whether that rent is $675 or $1,200 dollars month, if you don't have real economic opportunity to have a good decent paying job, we're going to continue to lose talent, especially within our community.

So that’s everything from creating opportunities in the public space that I will have jurisdiction over challenging our corporations to incentivize them actually to hire our people. So one of the things that we are pushing is that for our larger corporations, there are ways in which we can provide tax incentives and raise revenue and tax incentives. Hiring our people in these big corporations could alleviate some of the tax burdens that some of these corporations want some relief from. At the same time, if you’re not prioritizing our folks, then you can contribute more skin in the game since you ain’t hiring us.

So a lot of these initiatives, quite frankly, we're going to need intervention from Springfield, of which many of those things that have been proposed as an organizer, very supportive of them. It's going to require those relationships, especially around how we look at rent, and how we make sure that rent is not outpacing the income that many of our young Black professionals particularly are stuck in. I very much understand that it does require some intervention from the state to make sure that that relief is available.

6 Accountability

You've received major financial endorsements from several national and local labor unions, including the American Federation of Teachers, the Chicago Teachers Union, SEIU Healthcare and United Working Families. In what ways are you accountable to those labor unions that are endorsing you? And what is your relationship with those groups?

I'm accountable to all the people who I will represent. I'm accountable to working people. I'm accountable to those who are struggling to exist in the middle class. I'm accountable to those families that are experiencing poverty. I'm accountable to those families who have experienced some economic security but still don't feel safe.

My relationship to the labor movement is deeply tethered to a long history in this country where civil rights and labor rights have worked hand in hand to ultimately bring economic justice to Black folksSo that's my relationship. As a social studies teacher, I'm aware of that. I'm conscious of that. I was raised by someone who was part of the labor movement. My father was a public employee who was a part of the AFSCME Labor Union. So there's a long history of Black workers tethered to the labor movement who were also fighting for civil rights in Chicago, and I'm a part of that history.

We’ve witnessed mayoral candidates of the past co-opt progressive and abolitionist organizer language, and make big promises to Black Chicagoans while campaigning, only to go back on those promises when in office. If elected, how can Black Chicagoans hold you accountable for the policies you promised them while campaigning?

Accountability is important. Look, as I said, I'm one of 10 [children]. So I've learned how to be responsible for my younger siblings, but also accountable to my older siblings. The best way in which the movement can hold me accountable is to stay connected with the administration. You don't have to wait on my administration to call for a community gathering, or for a family sit-down.  

We're going to pass one of the most dramatic budgets by the third year of my administration, because of the structural challenges that previous administrations have ignored. I'm gonna need the family to help me do that. I am. I hope that the family will hang in there with me and also take a look at what I've done thus far.

There’s no other candidate that put together an entire budget around Black people. I don't know if anyone's done that in the entire country. I'm the only candidate in this race that specifically called for investing in the things that work and not in jails and incarceration. No one had to come in and pound on my door to do what I promised to do. 

There will be forces out there trying to disrupt that and separate us from one another. Those forces have been trying to do that for how many years in this country, separating Black folks from our interests. I'm a social studies teacher, I'm clear on how that looks. I want to bring the family together. That's why I'm running to be the mayor of Chicago, let's bring the family together. When it gets tough, let's hang in there together and let's build it together. The administration that I'm going to lead as mayor of Chicago is all about building bridges; it's certainly ain't going to be raising them.

There’s no other candidate that put together an entire budget around Black people.I don't know if anyone's done that in the entire country. I'm the only candidate in this race that specifically called for investing in the things that work and not in jails and incarceration. No one had to come in and pound on my door to do what I promised to do.

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is a multimedia reporter for The TRiiBE.