When Chicago Teachers Union President Stacy Davis Gates spoke to civic leaders and community organizers in downtown Chicago last week, she made two things clear: She is not running for mayor, but her union will take on the incumbent in the 2023 city election.
“You all know you need a new mayor,” Davis Gates told the crowd during her speech on Aug. 22.
Davis Gates put to rest months of speculation that she might run for mayor against Lori Lightfoot. But she simultaneously fueled the idea that another union staffer will run in her place: Brandon Johnson, who joined her at a press conference after the speech.
Johnson, a CTU organizer and Cook County commissioner, told WBEZ on Monday that he hasn’t made a final decision about running, but that petitions are being circulated on his behalf.
“It is humbling that there are a number of people who are asking me to do this,” said Johnson, who worked as a Chicago public school teacher and lives on Chicago’s West Side. “It’s a matter of recognizing a moment and being incredibly humbled by it.”
Whether Johnson has the funding or name recognition to galvanize voters is unclear. But the prospect of a CTU-backed candidate raises a tantalizing political question: Does the city’s most powerful union have enough clout and power to install one of its own in City Hall?
Some dismiss the suggestion. The union came up short in 2019 when it backed Cook County President Toni Preckwinkle against Lori Lightfoot, who won in a landslide. Still, candidates are lining up for the CTU’s endorsement, and the union has proven in other political battles that its money, army of members and influence carries substantial weight.
“You have to go to war with Lightfoot”
The Chicago Teachers Union was arguably at its peak politically during the 2019 teachers strike and under former president Karen Lewis, who was eyeing a mayoral bid when she was diagnosed with brain cancer in 2015. Lewis was forced to step down and died last year.
The pandemic has left the union somewhat battered, after it faced competing factions that disagreed about how to safely bring staff and students back to school.
Former U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan didn’t see the CTU as a threat when he considered jumping into the mayor’s race earlier this year, said Peter Cunningham, Duncan’s longtime confidant.
“They made Chuy competitive,” he said, referring to U.S. Rep. Jesús G. “Chuy” García, who ran for mayor in 2015 against Rahm Emanuel after being recruited by the CTU. “They did not seem to help Toni at all. They have a terrible track record.”
Cunningham is placing his bets on Lightfoot. As an incumbent, Lightfoot had more than $2.5 million on hand at the end of June — the most of any candidate aside from businessman Willie Wilson, who is largely bankrolling his own campaign with $5 million. Also, many think turnout will be low during the February voting, which usually benefits the incumbent.
However, Cunningham said if anyone is going to beat her, it is going to be someone who is willing to go after Lightfoot in the public arena.
“You have to go to war with Lightfoot,” he said.
The CTU and Davis Gates have been willing to do that.
The CTU spent nearly $2.6 million over the last three years on political activity and lobbying at the city, county and state level, according to a filing unions must submit to the U.S. Department of Labor.
Some of the money is spent directly on candidates through its two political action committees. In 2015, the CTU PACs contributed $339,832 to their candidate, Garcia, and, in 2019, $355,047 to Toni Preckwinkle — either through direct contributions or payments to vendors for campaign services.
A CTU endorsement could mean hundreds of thousands from the union’s PAC alone.
The value of the CTU’s endorsement
But perhaps more importantly, the CTU’s endorsement signals that a candidate represents the values of the progressive left. An endorsement offers considerable sway with other unions and community organizations, many of which are supported by the CTU Foundation.
For instance, the American Federation of Teachers in 2015, following the lead of CTU, shelled out more than $1 million to Garcia. The AFT is CTU’s parent organization.
Eric Bailey, communications director from SEIU-73, said the union won’t start the mayoral endorsement process until after the November election. Like most unions, a political education committee made up of members will review surveys and interview candidates.
Bailey said the CTU’s endorsement means a lot to members of his union. “It is going to carry weight with folks, absolutely,” he said.
He points out that many SEIU members work in schools alongside teachers as aides for special education students or at park district facilities as recreation leaders. Also, Bailey said they are mostly Black and Latino women and many of them see the CTU as an organization that stands up for them.
Once elected, Lightfoot worked to build relationships with unions that supported her opponent in the race, including SEIU. A major accomplishment on that front was the passage of an ordinance that requires employees to give workers advance notice of schedule changes, and compensate them for changes in some instances.
At the same time, Bailey said some of his members take umbrage with Lightfoot’s handling of the pandemic and are grateful to the CTU for demanding greater protections.
“Many of them felt disrespected by the agencies they worked for, like the school district and the park district,” he said. “I think that there was enough culpability to go around for everybody to say, ‘Listen, when you’re trying to solve a problem, you need all the stakeholders at the table, and that includes our members who are on the ground.’ ”
What’s more, many on the left see the CTU as successful, even perceiving Garcia’s 2015 mayoral loss as a win. Garcia, who was a county commissioner at the time, gained even wider name recognition after forcing a runoff against then-incumbent Emanuel.
Robert Bruno, labor education professor at the University of Illinois Champaign, also points out the CTU has successfully helped get several of their members elected aldermen and to the Illinois General Assembly.
This is rare for unions, he said. Bruno said the CTU does not just endorse candidates, but its leaders “aspire to be kingmakers… They are not interested in deferring to any political party, they are clear about that.”
However, Bruno said the union’s candidate would have to find an issue beyond education to galvanize voters, something Johnson and Davis Gates are already doing
But the CTU’s potential success will turn heavily on the candidate they choose, said Rebecca Williams, a progressive political strategist in Chicago. The 2019 mayoral race featured a debate between Preckwinkle and Lightfoot over who represented a “true progressive” in a fight for left-leaning voters, Williams said. She thinks a successful 2023 candidate will need to appeal to a broader spectrum of ideologies.
“Because we already know Lori much better now, we’re not speculating about who she is,” Williams said. “And the progressives, the younger, Bernie progressives, have been pretty consistent in being like, ‘She hasn’t gone as far as we’ve wanted.’”
Williams doesn’t think Lightfoot can get those progressive voters, nor will she go for them. “I think the challenge isn’t just simply locking in the progressive base. It’s actually all the other folks across the other ideological spectrum.”
Johnson has made a name for himself among progressive circles — supporting county legislation, for instance, to reallocate funding from the police. But it’s unclear whether he, or another CTU candidate, will be able to appeal to other swaths of voters disenchanted with Lightfoot or who are otherwise up for grabs.
The race for the CTU nod
Still, the progressive vote matters in Chicago. And there is a battle among the city’s progressive candidates for the union’s endorsement — it’s a seal of approval many are determined to nail down.
Ald. Roderick Sawyer, who announced his run in June, said he’s been on the frontlines of numerous fights for CTU.
“I’ve caught pneumonia twice on CTU-related issues [after] being out in the street advocating,” Sawyer said. “I at least deserve a hearing and a shot to talk to the members about what I feel is the future of our Chicago and how I can help.”
A spokesperson for Ald. Sophia King, who represents the South Side’s 4th Ward and is chair of the council’s progressive caucus, said in a statement she has “spent years in the classroom” teaching chemistry at Chicago’s Latin School and said she helped found a public school on the South Side. She said she “looks forward to earning the votes of teachers and parents.”
Candidate Ja’Mal Green, a progressive activist known for taking on Chase Bank for its dismal lending rates in South and West side communities, said he believes it’s a foregone conclusion the union will support Johnson. Still, he said, “I think that their members, hopefully, will look at our candidacy as one that is actually energizing voters.”
State Rep. Kam Buckner, who was rumored to be the union’s potential pick early in the race, highlighted his work pushing for Chicago’s new elected school board.
Among the candidates already in the race, Sawyer has gotten the most money from the union historically, raking in more than $31,000 over the years. The union has also given around $1,000 to $1,500 each to King, Buckner and Ald. Raymond Lopez, one of the council’s most conservative members.
But all of that is dwarfed by the $143,798 the union has given to Johnson, mostly to support his 2018 run for Cook County commissioner. The union’s most recent contribution was $10,000 in March.
A changed CTU, and memories of pandemic disputes
Regardless of who the CTU endorses, there are questions about whether the union’s 28,000 members are unified enough to lift a candidate to the fifth floor.
Davis Gates’s caucus, CORE, only won 56% of the vote in a May election. It was the first major challenge that CORE had faced since first elected in 2010.
The Members First caucus, which came in second with most members winning about 27% of the vote, argued the CTU leadership under CORE was too political and too focused on taking down Lightfoot. And the CTU is already facing criticism from Members First for the apparent anointing of Johnson.
Froylan Jimenez, who ran on the Members First slate, wrote in the Chicago Sun-Timesthat members should be cautious about Johnson. He argued Johnson was “double dipping” as a CTU organizer and a Cook County commissioner, though most Cook County commissioners have additional jobs. Johnson was paid $83,526 in 2021 as legislative coordinator for the CTU, according to Department of Labor records. County commissioners currently make $85,000 a year.
Davis Gates and CORE were especially vulnerable coming out of the latest pandemic fight in January where CTU members refused to work in person as a safety agreement was hashed out. School was canceled for five days and teachers and staff never recouped pay.
Many CTU members felt that union leadership was disorganized and that they had lost pay without gaining much in exchange. Some parents who usually stood by the union seemed tired of the drama and wanted their children back in school.
It appears Lightfoot will attempt to seize on this divide on the campaign trail. In response to questions about the CTU and Johnson, a campaign spokesperson focused on Lightfoot’s stance during the pandemic.
“Through focused leadership, Mayor Lightfoot fought to keep schools open safely and made sure every Chicago kid had access to the high-quality education and services they need and deserve — especially amid the public health crisis,” the statement read.
The memory of this could work against CTU as it pushes a mayoral candidate. Political strategist Delmarie Cobb acknowledged the CTU is in a different era than it was under Lewis, but noted Davis Gates is still catching her bearings as president. The former CTU vice president was elected in May and sworn in earlier this month.
“I don’t think you can dismiss their importance,” Cobb said. “And I think the fact that Stacy has decided that she’s not going to run is significant. The fact that she understands that this is not about ego, and that it’s about policy, I think that’s major. Remember, Karen Lewis wasn’t always Karen Lewis. Karen Lewis became formidable. And I think Stacy has that same ability to do that.”
Mariah Woelfel covers Chicago city government at WBEZ. You can follow her at @MariahWoelfel.