CTU ally Brandon Johnson, mulling mayoral run, portrays himself as the ‘collaborative’ and ‘visionary’ leader Chicago needs

A former teacher and an organizer for the Chicago Teachers Union, the county commissioner told the Sun-Times he is “grateful for the vote of confidence” from working people urging him to run. He promised a final decision in the next few weeks.

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Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson speaks during a news conference at the County Building in the Loop on May 9, 2022.

Brandon Johnson

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times file

Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson on Friday portrayed himself as the “collaborative” and “visionary” leader Chicago needs to reduce violent crime, create “fully resourced” neighborhood schools and make the city affordable for working families.

An organizer for a Chicago Teachers Union that has fought Mayor Lori Lightfoot tooth and nail, Johnson said Chicago “deserves so much more than what it’s getting” from Lightfoot.

He lives it every day as a father of three in the West Side’s Austin community.

“We have experienced levels of violence that have created a great deal of anxiety in our community. My oldest son is 14 years old. We cringe at the idea of him riding his bike in our neighborhood because, unfortunately, for many families in Chicago, riding a bike in a community ends in tragedy,” Johnson, 46, told the Chicago Sun-Times.

“Until families like mine can feel absolutely comfortable and safe riding our bikes, walking to a neighborhood school that is fully funded and resourced, being able to actually afford to live in our communities … no one should be patting themselves on the back.”

Lightfoot is campaigning for reelection on her signature Invest South/West plan to revive 10 long-neglected neighborhood commercial strips.

She’s also claiming credit for an 18% reduction in both homicides and shootings compared to last year’s record levels and even greater progress in the 15 most violent neighborhoods where her so-called “whole of government” approach is taking hold.

Johnson is not impressed. He branded Lightfoot’s approach to both violence and neighborhood disinvestment as “petite and mediocre” and “nibbling around the edges.”

“Chicago needs a visionary. Chicago needs public schools that offer everything. My wife and I had to leave our neighborhood to find a public high school for our son because he plays baseball, soccer and the violin,” he said.

“Chicago requires in this moment, not just rhetoric and petite investments that do not meet the demands of the social ills we’re confronted with. It also requires collaboration. ... This city needs to be revived and restored in a way where we’re not working in silos and isolation.”

Earlier this week, Chicago Teachers Union President Stacy Davis Gates told the City Club of Chicago that Lightfoot has “failed marginalized communities,” but she would not be a candidate for mayor.

Instead, Davis Gates suggested that Johnson might be the candidate of a union that backed County Board President Toni Preckwinkle over Lightfoot in the April 2019 runoff.

On Friday, Johnson told the Sun-Times he is “humbled by and grateful for the vote of confidence” from working people urging him to run for mayor and he’s “listening.” He promised a final decision in the next few weeks.

If Johnson decides to enter the race, he will have two built-in advantages: financial support from a deep-pockets union that helped bankroll Preckwinkle’s campaign and an army of precinct workers among his union brethren.

Johnson taught social studies and reading at Jenner Elementary and Westinghouse College Prep. He still considers those teaching days as the happiest moments of his working life.

But what shaped him most was his giant family.

Johnson is one of 10 children who grew up in a home with cousins and foster children. His father was a retired state employee and pastor at the Church of God in Christ. His mother died of a rare heart disease after his dad lost his job and the health insurance that came with it and “could not afford the medication.”

“I was that kid who had asthma. ... My parents had to rush me to the emergency room just to be able to catch my breath. And when my father lost his insurance, I’m that kid that stood in the line at the Fantus Clinic [at] Cook County Hospital where you get in the line at 6 a.m. The doors open at 7 a.m. You hope to see a doctor by 8 a.m. Then, when that prescription is filled, you’ve got to come back at night and wait in that line,” he said.

“Waiting for my inhaler, I saw Chicago — Black, Brown, white, young, old, undocumented families just looking for a health care system ... to actually treat the conditions we live in. When I talk about being collaborative and loving people and being bold enough and willing to see humanity [that’s where it comes from]. Our approach has to be centered around the humanity of people. That’s what I learned growing up in a home with one bathroom and nine brothers and sisters.”

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