With support from the University of Richmond

History News Network

History News Network puts current events into historical perspective. Subscribe to our newsletter for new perspectives on the ways history continues to resonate in the present. Explore our archive of thousands of original op-eds and curated stories from around the web. Join us to learn more about the past, now.

Brandon Johnson Built a Coalition to Win in Chicago. Can He Keep it to Govern?

On Monday, May 15, Brandon Johnson takes the oath of office to become the 57th mayor of Chicago – a moment echoing Harold Washington’s path-breaking election, forty years ago this spring, as the city’s first Black mayor. The historic parallels between 1983 and today, however, are less about who Johnson is – the 46-year-old former teacher and union activist will become the fourth Black mayor in the city’s history – but more about how he got to the fifth floor of City Hall and the challenges that face him and his administration.

Not unlike Washington, Johnson won a narrow victory against a more conservative white opponent in Paul Vallas, a former city budget director and schools CEO who emphasized law and order and other racial dog whistles throughout the campaign. Johnson built a multiracial coalition with an overwhelming Black vote and substantial Latino and white support to beat Vallas. Younger voters, who had largely eschewed the first round of the mayoral campaign, came out in larger numbers to help push Johnson over the top in the runoff.

Similarly, by the time Harold Washington delivered his inaugural address in May 1983, he had vanquished three prominent white opponents in two elections with an astounding 99 percent of the Black vote, nearly 80 percent of Latinos, and a small but significant number of white progressives, including much of the city’s burgeoning gay and lesbian community. Promising to make the city a fairer, more inclusive place, Washington inspired high hopes among his supporters that he indeed could open up the city to all.

But while Washington’s new administration made some important strides, the reality of governing proved even harsher than most had predicted. The explicit racism Washington and his allies faced during the campaign continued as a white City Council majority thwarted most of his policies and appointments for the first two-and-a-half years of his mayoralty in what was called the Council Wars. Deindustrialization, a hostile Reagan White House, and crises posed by crime, drugs, and AIDS proved just as daunting to his policy agenda. When Washington was successful, it was often not only because his allies had his political back, but also because they were willing to maintain their own pressure on the new mayor to follow through on his campaign promises.

For instance, when Washington moved slowly to incorporate Latinos in his new administration, activists such as Nena Torres, Miguel del Valle, and Linda Coronado threatened to establish their own independent Latino affairs commission. What became the Mayor’s Advisory Commission on Latino Affairs started as a provocation to the new mayor to take them and their issues more seriously. The commission, formalized in 1984, became an essential voice for Latino interests – from affirmative action and redistricting to infant mortality and urban renewal – and a model for mayoral commissions representing other groups. But the commission only came into existence though intense lobbying by Latinos.

Washington’s historic choice of Fred Rice as the city’s first African American police superintendent offered another example. While important symbolically, Rice’s appointment did not change the culture of what remained a highly dysfunctional police department known for harassment and even torture. Excessive force complaints, in fact, rose during the first two years under Washington and Rice. And yet Washington supporters and activists at the time generally tread lightly on his management of the department, knowing that sharp public criticism of the first Black mayor’s handling of the police would simply add fuel to his opponents’ efforts to discredit him.

Forty years later, Brandon Johnson faces the same kind of high expectations that Washington did, but in a city far more unequal and financially strapped than it was under Washington. As the new mayor navigates issues of rising crime, under-resourced schools, and now a growing migrant crisis, staying in the good graces of the diverse and inherently fragile coalition that elected him may prove difficult.

Ultimately, as in 1983, it will be up to those Chicagoans who voted for reform – including the powerful Chicago Teachers Union, of which Johnson once was a member and organizer, to decide how much patience and grace to show their now elected ally. How accountable will they hold him to his campaign promises to govern differently than his predecessors? Or will another chance at reform in the Windy City slowly blow away?