Mayoral candidate Brandon Johnson talking with supporters

Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson, who made it to the runoff for mayor with the backing of the Chicago Teachers Union.

Ashlee Rezin / Sun-Times

How the CTU marched from picket lines to political powerhouse

From its battles between ex-Mayor Rahm Emanuel and its late leader Karen Lewis in 2012, the Chicago Teachers Union is now hoping to help homegrown candidate Brandon Johnson win the runoff to be Chicago’s mayor.

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In 2013, Brandon Johnson was the Chicago Teachers Union’s deputy political director and was talking about having persuaded members to walk out the previous year in the union’s first strike in decades.

“Convincing our members to wear a red T-shirt on Friday was a task,” Johnson told a crowd at the Socialism 2013 conference in Rosemont. “It took us a year to convince CTU members that it’s OK to associate yourself with labor.”

That speech was featured in an attack ad last month calling Johnson, now one of two surviving candidates for the runoff election to succeed Mayor Lori Lightfoot, a socialist.

It also provided a glimpse into how far the union has come, from struggling to rally its members for a contract fight to taking its best shot yet at sending an ally — this time a homegrown one and former teacher in Johnson — to the fifth floor of City Hall.

The CTU’s political activism grew out of the 2012 fight against Mayor Rahm Emanuel during Chicago’s first teachers strike in 30 years and solidified in a brutal battle over Emanuel’s closing of nearly 50 Chicago public schools in 2013.

That’s when the union, then led by Karen Lewis, made a choice: If we have to go to such lengths to fight City Hall, why not take over City Hall?

That began an effort to move from bargaining tables and Board of Education meetings to the Chicago City Council chambers and City Hall offices.

First, the union endorsed like-minded candidates. As it built its political infrastructure, the CTU shifted to developing and launching homegrown ones. In 2015, Susan Sadlowski-Garza, a school social worker, became the first CTU member elected to the City Council.

Lots of time and money previously have been spent to win the mayor’s office, to no avail.

In this mayoral election, rather than back a friendly outsider, the CTU put forth one of its own.

“You do not get Brandon Johnson, who was virtually unknown as a candidate just two months ago, into a runoff without the full support of his union siblings,” says Stacy Davis Gates, the CTU president, who was the union’s political director in 2013 and chose Johnson as her deputy.

A CTU endorsement these days comes with more than headlines and increased recognition. It usually includes cash, a vast network of community relationships and volunteers who saturate neighborhoods to spread the word.

The CTU endorsed Johnson and 17 City Council candidates in Tuesday’s election. Twelve won outright or advanced to a runoff — a 67% success rate.

The union and its two political action committees gave all but two of those candidates a total of $1.56 million — $1.07 million to Johnson and between $10,000 and $60,000 to those running for the City Council.

Angela Clay, a Chicago Public Schools graduate and housing organizer, didn’t get the CTU’s endorsement in 2019, when she finished fourth in the 46th Ward City Council race.

This time, Clay got the CTU’s backing — including $30,250, according to campaign filings — in garnering the most votes and advancing to a runoff.

“Their support does go bigger than just a head nod,” Clay says of the CTU. “It goes to the hard work that’s been put in before I even thought about running for this seat. For them to not just say that they support us but then to also resource our campaign, send people with boots on the ground to help us in every inch that we needed, whether that was petition collection or door knocking, you name it, they really supported us.”

In response to claims that many CTU members are upset about the union’s political activity, Davis Gates says: “My members are on fire right now. ... They have sacrificed for that for the last 10-plus years, and now they see the manifestation of it.”

Now-Mayor Brandon Johnson (left) with other Chicago Teachers Union officials in September 2022 for the dedication of Honorary Karen Lewis CTU Way, holding a street sign.

Current and former Chicago Teachers Union leaders including Stacy Davis Gates (second from left) and Jesse Sharkey (center), stood with current mayoral candidate Brandon Johnson (far left) last Sept. 30 as they held a copy of the honorary Karen Lewis CTU Way street sign that would hang inside the union’s headquarters. It was during Lewis’ tenure as the union’s leader that CTU began growing into a political power player.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere / Sun-Times file

Bob Bruno, a University of Illinois labor professor who has studied the CTU and written a book on the 2012 teachers strike, says it’s a mistake “to think they don’t speak for the will of their membership or they’ve lost influence in the community.

“They figured out how to educate their members, how to represent their issues,” Bruno says. “They figured out how to mobilize them. It’s grassroots politics, which, quite frankly, is truer to the principles that the country was founded on.”

Before entering the political fray, the union didn’t even feel comfortable endorsing candidates, says Delmarie Cobb, a progressive political strategist.

“Then, suddenly they realized you need to do that so you can get candidates in office who believe in what you believe,” Cobb says.

Lewis could have had a chance to run against Emanuel in 2015, which she decided against after being diagnosed with a brain tumor.

“I think the people do not feel heard in this city,” Lewis said when she was considering running in 2014. “I think they feel that Rahm only listens to people he respects, and he only respects people who have money.”

At that point, the CTU’s political hopes were built as much on Lewis’ bigger-than-life charisma and smarts as anything.

Former CTU president Karen Lewis, who was considering running against then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel in 2015 had she not become ill with a brain tumor.

Former CTU President Karen Lewis was considering running against then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel in 2015 before she become ill with a brain tumor.

Maria Cardona / Sun-Times

Lewis’ illness led the CTU to persuade Jesús “Chuy” Garcia to take up its cause in 2015, then watch as Toni Preckwinkle, another outside ally, failed spectacularly in 2019, losing to Lightfoot. Garcia and Precwinkle got enough votes to force runoffs, but they also cost a lot of money in losing runs.

And neither came from within the CTU.

Meanwhile, the union was developing its own candidate. In 2018, Johnson won a race for the Cook County Board — an elected office that has nothing to do with the city’s schools. The CTU’s political arm has pumped money into his campaign fund since then in amounts beyond what he needed for his county races.

Davis Gates calls the union’s political strength a “manifestation of what [Lewis] laid out” a decade ago and says this week left her “emotional,” thinking of what Lewis started.

The Lewis-led leadership’s racial and social justice strategy traces back to Paul Vallas, Johnson’s opponent in the mayoral runoff, as much as to Emanuel.

Months after Lewis famously called Emanuel a “murder mayor” — “He’s murdering schools. He’s murdering jobs. He’s murdering housing. I don’t know what else to call him,” she said — she blamed Vallas, a former CPS chief executive officer, for “devastating” the public schools.

“Vallas ushered in an era of massive expansion of standardized testing, the privatization of public schools through outsourcing and charter school expansion and the devastating policy of school turnarounds, which resulted in the firing of scores of Black and veteran teachers,” Lewis said in 2013, criticizing then-Gov. Pat Quinn’s choice of Vallas as his running mate for lieutenant governor.

Vallas was Mayor Richard M. Daley’s first schools chief when the Illinois Legislature gave the mayor control of CPS in 1995, abolishing the traditional post of schools superintendent. Vallas stayed in the role until 2001 and ushered in some of the privatization and school-choice policies the CTU has vehemently opposed before moving to school leadership jobs in Philadelphia, New Orleans and elsewhere.

“There’s a straight line that you can draw from Vallas’ time as CEO — which was the beginning of non-educators and the beginning of the mayor taking control of CPS — straight through Rahm closing 50 schools,” Cobb says, “and straight through kids committing crime and the violence that we have out here. Because there are people who never went back to school after the closings.”

At a news conference Thursday, Vallas said he has successfully separated himself from Chicago’s school closings, which he laid at the feet of Emanuel and Arne Duncan, the former Chicago Public Schools CEO and U.S. Education secretary. No CPS schools were closed while Vallas was in charge.

Paul Vallas.

Paul Vallas.

Ashlee Rezin / Sun-Times

“I think I’m doing well because I’ve already changed the perception by just talking about my record, talking about my history,” Vallas said. “And obviously, with the financial support I’m receiving, I’m going to be able to do that.

“My field organization on the South and West sides will be second to none.”

Now, when the CTU’s influence is high, it’s in a fight two decades in the making — and a race to make it past a mayoral runoff for the first time in three tries.

Davis Gates says the union is engaging various communities “as real stakeholders in this city and not just as people who get the byproduct of policy” and that the CTU’s support of Johnson will “manifest in a variety of ways, up to and including financial contributions.”

“They haven’t won, but, in some ways, they have,” Bruno says of the CTU and Johnson. “He got more votes than a sitting mayor and a congressman. No matter how you cut it, the teachers union is critical now to the political outcome of the city and choosing the next mayor.”

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