Cook County Commissioner Richard Boykin raised his political profile considerably last year as a leader of the successful effort to repeal the county pop tax, even emerging temporarily as a potential challenger to Board President Toni Preckwinkle.

In the process, Boykin also managed to cement himself as a prime target for removal by Chicago’s labor unions, which are now throwing their weight behind his re-election opponent, Brandon Johnson.

Johnson, a former social studies teacher who became a Chicago Teachers Union organizer, has already been the beneficiary of nearly $300,000 in campaign donations from a broad coalition of both public and private sector unions, records show. Unions also are supplying Johnson’s campaign with volunteer manpower.

The union assistance dwarfs the support Boykin has received from the beverage industry, which plowed millions of dollars into the pop tax repeal effort. Records show Boykin has received less than $50,000 during the last five months from various allies in the pop tax fight.

“They’re coming at me hard,” Boykin said this week in an interview at his County Board office. “And you know it’s been a real struggle to keep pace and compete.”

To remain competitive, the Oak Park lawyer said he has had to put his own money into the campaign, which he said has become “almost like a pop tax redux, if you will.”

“It’s how do we take out the guy who championed working families,” Boykin said.

Johnson, 41, a resident of Chicago’s Austin neighborhood, said he believes those “working families” were ill-served by Boykin’s votes and actions extending far beyond the pop tax, which Johnson said he also would have opposed because it was regressive.

Boykin has put a misplaced emphasis on cost-cutting in Cook County government instead of making sure it has enough revenue to deliver needed services, Johnson said.

“I think county government is grossly underfunded. We don’t have enough to do what is right for people,” Johnson said last week while campaigning door-to-door in Maywood.

Chicago Teachers Union organizer Brandon Johnson, shown here campaigning door to door last week in Maywood, is running in the March 20 Democratic primary against Cook County Commissioner Richard Boykin. Mark Brown/Sun-Times

Johnson said he supports a head tax on employers within the county and a financial transaction tax long favored by the CTU. He also promises to be an advocate in Springfield for a graduated state income tax.

Boykin said Johnson’s revenue ideas are unworkable, labeling the head tax proposal in particular as “goofy.”

He said he prefers to stick with a budget-trimming reform plan that includes reducing litigation costs, consolidating information technology and, most important, reducing violence, which he said could save the county “billions of dollars.”

Johnson says the county needs fully funded services that benefit families if it is to reduce violence.

Bob Reiter, secretary-treasurer of the Chicago Federation of Labor, said the unions are backing Johnson because “we believe we need a strong advocate for county workers, for the county hospital system in particular,” both for the jobs and the services they provide.

CFL President Jorge Ramirez is chairman of the investor group that owns the Sun-Times.

Voters wouldn’t even know the pop tax was an issue from reading either candidate’s campaign mailings.

Johnson’s mailers hammer Boykin for everything from his suggestion of bringing in UN peacekeepers to address Chicago street violence to his work as a lobbyist on behalf of a charter school network before he became a county commissioner. Boykin’s mailers tout his credentials as an “independent progressive voice with a heart for the people.”

Cook County Board Democratic Primary Candidates Brandon Johnson, left, and Richard Boykin met with the Sun-Times Editorial Board Tuesday, Feb. 13, 2018. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times

Boykin contends he was misunderstood about peacekeepers and never was interested in bringing in troops, although his comments at the time suggested otherwise.

He said he is proud of his work for Youth Connection Charter School, which operates alternative schools for dropouts, but says public education is not a legitimate issue in a county commissioner’s race because the county plays no role in schools.

The 1st District that Boykin represents extends from the near west side of Chicago to the western suburbs.

Boykin is a political protégé of U.S. Rep. Danny K. Davis for whom he served as chief of staff. Boykin retains Davis’ support and also claims the backing of aldermen Emma Mitts (37th), Edward Burke (14th) and Chris Taliferro (29th) among others.

In addition to the unions, Johnson is supported by Secretary of State Jesse White, Ald. Walter Burnett (27th) and Ald. Jason Ervin (28th), as well as U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders and the Our Revolution organization.

Boykin said he is confident voters “will see right through” the campaign being waged against him. Johnson said he expects to deliver the “biggest upset in Cook County” on Election Day.

Editor’s note: This article was edited after publication to note that County Commissioner Jesus “Chuy” Garcia has not endorsed a candidate in the race.