One warm evening last July, SEIU Local 73 President Dian Palmer got a call out of the blue from Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson, who wanted to meet.
The two had interacted during labor actions, including the longest strike in Local 73′s history the year before. But they weren’t close, so the call took her by surprise. The two met at Park Tavern near Palmer’s Chicago office and sat on the outside patio, where Johnson said he was considering a run for mayor.
“Of course, my No. 1 question was: What is your platform and what is your path to victory?” Palmer said.
The meeting was so intense that, as the night went on, they realized neither of them had ordered anything. Palmer felt bad for taking up a table and just ordering ice water, so they shared a pretzel and continued the dialogue.
“I walked away from that meeting thinking, ‘Hmmm, he might have something here,’” she recalled.
Months later, Johnson would announce his candidacy. And the rest-is-history part — his unlikely rise from a little-known progressive among nine candidates to mayor-elect of the U.S.’s third-largest city — seems unlikely to have happened without local Black labor leaders like Palmer who supported his endeavor and whose unions propelled his candidacy with money, support and volunteers.
“If Dian Palmer is not leading SEIU 73, Brandon Johnson is not mayor of Chicago,” Chicago Teachers Union President Stacy Davis Gates said. “Dian played a clarifying role in the embryonic stages of this endeavor.”
Davis Gates would know, as she was also a driving force behind the Johnson campaign, along with regional SEIU Healthcare President Greg Kelley and Vice President Erica Bland-Durosinmi.
The role SEIU and CTU played in the election of Johnson — a former teacher and a CTU organizer who’s served just over one term on the county board — was further underscored by the mayor-elect naming three people with SEIU connections to his transition advisory team, including Bland-Durosinmi, who was given the title of intergovernmental affairs adviser.
As Palmer considered who she and her union might back this cycle, she began to study Johnson: the work he’d done, his answers to tough questions and even how he moved to see if he had a “mayoral way.”
As her boxes gradually were checked, she went back to her colleagues at SEIU — many of whom were less than enthusiastic. Some told her that “he could never make it through,” that his name recognition was too low and his connections with CTU would make him unpopular citywide.
“‘Dian, that will not work, you just don’t know Chicago,’” Palmer, who lives in Wisconsin, remembers one colleague telling her.
But she was steadfast, and after weeks of meetings with boards, committees and colleagues, as well as more meetings with the candidate, Palmer navigated the union’s endorsement for him, which came shortly after CTU’s support.
In the subsequent five months, SEIU Local 73 and CTU provided the candidate with a majority of his funding and hundreds of volunteers for his ground game and coaxed support from other labor groups.
Over the course of his campaign, Johnson received about $5.65 million in contributions from teachers unions at the local, state and national level and $4.4 million from SEIU affiliates, combining to make up the vast majority of his war chest.
While SEIU and CTU have been aligned for many years on progressive issues, the relationship in the past has mostly been about supporting one another’s specific union plans, and historically it revolved less around a singular candidate, Kelley told the Tribune. That changed eight years ago.
“We really started — CTU and SEIU — in the (mayoral) election of 2015 and we supported (then-Cook County Commissioner Jesús “Chuy”) García. That was the first real formal way in which we operated in electoral politics like that,” Kelley said.
At CTU, Davis Gates helped shape that strategy when she served as political director under late former president Karen Lewis. Though García lost to then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel that year, he forced the incumbent into the city’s first mayoral runoff, and later won the seat in Congress that he still holds. In the 2019 mayor race, the CTU- and SEIU Local 73-backed candidate, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, lost big to Lori Lightfoot.
Still, those attempts were important in moving the groups’ causes forward, Bland-Durosinmi said.
“We will never win if we don’t try,” she said, adding that Johnson’s victory “didn’t happen overnight.
“Our movement has been building and pushing the issues forward, calling for corporations to give TIF dollars back that were taken out of communities that needed them, making sure that there was a minimum wage, making sure that renters could keep renting in this city.”
So when Johnson began putting feelers out to these union leaders, they saw someone who they thought could not only build on their past electoral efforts but also someone who could connect with Black and other minority voters. Johnson ended up winning about 80% of the Black vote.
“African American men don’t really think about tomorrow, because it’s not good today. Why would I want to think about this for tomorrow?” Palmer said, paraphrasing from a conversation she had with her sons. “I want to restore that in people, that tomorrow is going to be better and the day after that is going to be better than that, and I think Brandon can do that.”
Securing the support of the unions was critical for Johnson to win over Black voters, and not just because the financial backing helped get his message out, Kelley said.
“We know that Black people in unions tend to do better, they tend to make significantly more than Black people that aren’t in unions, they have greater benefits, so we are excited to have one of our own elected,” Kelley said.
García also entered this year’s mayoral race but, like Lightfoot, failed to advance to the runoff. He’d been an obvious choice for the unions’ support: a well-known progressive who’d received labor backing in the past and whose early polling was promising, in large part because of his connection with Latino voters and decades of experience in Chicago politics.
But Davis Gates said the CTU’s decision on whom to support came down to members.
“It wasn’t that there were a few people going into a room and figuring out who to support,” she said. The process included questionnaires, member meetings and committee voting sessions.
Johnson was put through extra close scrutiny, considering that he was a union member, Davis Gates said.
“He wanted to earn it, and so he went through the process of interviews, he went through the process of one-on-one conversations, he made himself available to the hard questions, he made himself available to the criticisms,” she said.
In interviews, all four of these labor leaders talked about Johnson’s support of union causes over the years. He penned an op-ed in 2019 calling on the city to treat teachers better, reduce class sizes and add more counselors.
In a news release, SEIU member Eugenia Harris said that Johnson “was there, standing up for us and working as a Cook County Commissioner to help us win our contract,” referring to the union’s 18-day strike in 2021.
“He’s always been supportive of our members. It didn’t really matter what fight we were involved in, he was there with us,” Kelley said. “Whether it was during COVID, trying to get PPE (personal protective equipment) or fighting for safe staffing for hospitals, contract fights when we were out on strike. On so many issues, Mayor-elect Johnson was just there, not just there, really advocating and pushing on behalf of our members.”
Being connected to unions wasn’t popular among everyone. In former Chicago Public Schools CEO Paul Vallas, Johnson faced a foe whose financial backing was more centered in the business and investment communities.
Vallas also got union support, more typically from the trades and, notably, the local Fraternal Order of Police. And he spoke to fears that a Johnson win would give CTU outsize influence at City Hall and that he would not be looking out for the interests of taxpayers or the business sector.
But Robert Bruno, director of the Labor Education Program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, said there is also a reason to think Johnson’s union ties might be a strength of his administration.
“You address crime by understanding the importance of your workforce, your educators, your first responders,” Bruno said. “I think he may have the most insightful voice any mayor has had in being able to speak to how these institutions all really need to be equal partners as opposed to maybe — and I’m sure for the CTU’s perspective — always feeling like the business community was the dominant institution.”
Union leaders have also tried to dispel such concerns.
“We’re not going to be running the city of Chicago,” Kelley said. “But we will certainly have a seat at the table because we know that the city of Chicago doesn’t work without business and I think Brandon fundamentally gets that.”
The crucial role labor played in Johnson’s success was not just monetary, Bruno said.
“Yeah, there were resources that CTU and SEIU put into it, but he got outspent by a lot. It was really the forces on the ground,” he said. “For the third-largest city essentially to choose its mayor that way, I think that is really an exception.”
While it’s a milestone to get Johnson into office, the next four years will be challenging, with a City Council that is using a change in mayor to reassert its independence. Union leaders hope Johnson can realize his progressive agenda, including more nonpolice crisis responses, expanded mental health resources and an increase in high-end real estate transfers taxes to fight homelessness.
The union leaders contend that Black Chicagoans in particular will have a mayor who understands their needs and can deliver on his promises.
“Black voters need a regular advocate, someone that they can depend on and someone who will deliver for them. Once you’re their person, you’re their person,” Davis Gates said. “There are a lot of politicians who go in for votes and come out after they get the votes. The commitment that our team made was that we weren’t just going to go and get votes but that we were going to go and build community.”
Bland-Durosinmi says voters from all backgrounds will benefit from a Johnson administration.
“I think everybody should be hopeful. Let’s not pigeonhole it to just Black voters,” she said. “This is about working-class people in this city — Black, white, brown and yellow — who are hopeful because there is a mayor who ran on issues that they care about.”
Chicago Tribune’s Gregory Pratt and A.D. Quig contributed.
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April 14, 2023 at 10:59PM