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Chicago Sun-Times
Chicago Sun-Times
Tessa Weinberg | WBEZ

Brandon Johnson: From church youth group leader to teacher on a path ‘to do better for others’

Mayoral candidate Brandon Johnson (left) before a debate earlier this month; Brandon Johnson (right) in grade school. (Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times; Provided)

Along with his political aspirations and his progressive beliefs, Brandon Johnson’s faith seems to permeate most facets of his life.

His faith led him to his wife. It helped shape his upbringing. And it permeates the message he shares in auditoriums and debate stages as he vies to become the next Chicago mayor — at times addressing his audience more like a congregation. 

“Now I’m the son of a pastor, y’all know what the truth does,” Johnson said at a recent debate to murmurs of “sets you free” from the crowd.

Opting out of a future in the church for a career in public service, Johnson rose through the ranks of the Chicago Teachers Union, the powerful union that propelled his bids for elected office and endorsed his mayoral campaign before he even formally announced his candidacy.

The campaign has rocketed Johnson from a little-known Cook County commissioner to a leading contender for the city’s top job — a post he previously tried to help others win. On April 4, Johnson will square off against Paul Vallas, a former Chicago Public Schools CEO.

The election has put Johnson, who was first elected to public office in 2018, in a spotlight he’s never experienced — with his past, his words and campaign promises scrutinized daily.

“This is really a faith walk,” Johnson, who turns 47 on Monday, said in an interview with the Chicago Sun-Times and WBEZ. “It really is.”

‘He found his path and found his purpose’

The middle child in a family of 10 children, Johnson jokes on the campaign trail that he learned his negotiating skills by growing up in a three-bedroom Elgin home with just one bathroom. 

Johnson’s parents were also foster parents, and as pastors, their home was always open to all, with more than just siblings packed around the table for Thanksgiving dinners and holidays, Johnson said. 

“Sharing is something that I’ve just become accustomed to, because it was the only way in which we could be fulfilled, right?” Johnson said. “There’s having enough to go around. And there’s finding ways in which to divide it multiple ways so that there’s enough.”

Brandon Johnson in his freshman or sophomore year of high school. (Provided photo)

While it was a loving environment, it could also be a difficult one when the family couldn’t make ends meet, Johnson said.

When Johnson’s father lost his job at the Elgin Mental Health Center, the family’s health insurance went with it at a time when Johnson’s mother was suffering from congestive heart failure, and later, other health issues.

After his mother died, Johnson, who was already in college, helped to carry the ministry forward, leading the youth group and driving them to gospel singing competitions in a 15-passenger van. The family also entered gospel contests, with Johnson serving as the drummer.

The family was originally part of the Church of God in Christ, with Johnson’s grandfather serving as a pastor. But the Johnson family was uneasy with some of the church’s visions and left the church to begin their own ministry, his younger sister Andrea Johnson Williams said. 

Williams now presides over Community Center Christian Ministries, the family’s church in Elgin. She said everyone thought it would be her brother who would go on to lead it one day.

“And he wasn’t willing to say, ‘OK, just because everybody said that that’s what I’m supposed to do, that’s what I’m going to do,’” Williams said. “He found his path and found his purpose, and he’s been in pursuit of that from a very early age.”

Brandon Johnson (center with sweater vest) in the spring of 1995 with (clockwise from center top) his father, Andrew; sister Andrea; brother Aaron; sister Ashley; sister Joy; brother Jeremy and cousin Jamie. (Provided.)

‘Our faith is what grounds us’

Johnson first met his wife, Stacie, at an annual religious convention. Their parents had discouraged the couple from marrying young, said former state Rep. Deborah Graham, who employed Johnson as her chief of staff while he earned his master’s in teaching from Aurora University.

“But he and his young wife had made plans. They were going to stick to that plan, and they were going to prove all of the folks who said, you know, live life a little bit before you marry,” Graham said.

They got married when Johnson was 22, and got their first apartment in the city a few years later. Johnson now lives with his wife and their three children in Austin on Chicago’s West Side.

Brandon Johnson and his wife, Stacie, in the summer of 2007. (Provided)

“We really both believe that our faith is what grounds us,” Johnson said, later adding: “We always saw our love for one another as a reflection of the love that God has for humanity. Our marriage is built around that.”

It’s their faith that propelled their travels across the globe to places such as South America, Africa and Cuba, where Johnson said they aimed to better understand the “connections that the transatlantic slave trade could never break” between Black people across the globe.

But Johnson fights back on the characterization that they were “missionaries.” 

“We didn’t go around proselytizing the world. That was not our objective. It was more about just understanding the unique qualities and the makeup of our people in the commonality,” Johnson said of his trips. “That even though we had been separated physically, that we are still very connected spiritually, ideologically, emotionally.”

Johnson said he took those experiences with him as a social studies teacher, drawing parallels for students between the favelas of Salvador de Bahia in Brazil to the public housing that was in Cabrini-Green on the city’s Near North Side.

“It’s a very powerful display and mechanism to highlight not just the conditions in which we have been forced to live in, but the resilience and the political power that we are seeking all over the globe to eradicate the torment and the torture of white supremacy,” Johnson said. “And that’s not missionary work. That’s liberation work, and that’s why I became a teacher.”

‘Mr. Johnson’

From 2007 to 2010, Johnson taught middle school social studies at Jenner Elementary Academy of the Arts — with some of his students living in the surrounding Cabrini-Green public housing complex.

Students could see the housing being torn down through their classroom windows, said Mary Beth Payne, who worked as a math teacher at Jenner during Johnson’s time there.

“Having students watch their home literally be bulldozed, and like big wrecking balls going and seeing your house go down, and yet, your teachers telling you, ‘OK, focus on what we’re doing in class,’” Payne said. “It was such a difficult time.”

But Johnson was all about setting an example for his students. He called his students “Mr.” or “Miss” and their last name, to show them respect — and he wore a suit every day.

When he coached the boys basketball team, he made his players wear button-up shirts with collars and neckties on game day — wardrobe items many students didn’t have. So Johnson corralled his friends and colleagues, bringing in extra shirts and teaching the boys how to tie ties. It was a game-changer, Payne said.

Brandon Johnson in 2007 after his first day teaching middle school at Jenner Elementary Academy of the Arts on the Near North Side. (Provided)

“They had such pride in how they looked and being a part of the team,” Payne said. “He affected the culture of that school significantly during his time there.”

Johnson landed at Westinghouse College Prep high school in 2010, where he taught for less than a year before the Chicago Teachers Union came calling. 

Strolling through the Taste of Chicago festival with the downtown skyline around them, Payne remembers how conflicted Johnson was about leaving teaching.

“He told me at the time that he really did feel like the union was going to be great experience, but ultimately a steppingstone to greater political aims,” Payne said.

“It’s so Mr. Johnson to have a bigger picture, to know the steps he wants to take to get there, to do better for others for the city that he loves,” Payne added. “And here he is.”

For all his talk on the campaign trail about teaching, Johnson has spent more time as a CTU organizer and registered lobbyist with the union — from 2013 to the present — than in the classroom. But he has emphasized those teaching days as being impactful.

Brandon Johnson (center), a Chicago Teachers Union organizer, and Anne Wagemaker (right), a CPS teacher, speak outside of the Chicago Board of Education headquarters in 2012. (Andrew A. Nelles~Sun-Times Media)

The politicians he looks up to — Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, U.S. Rep Danny Davis, former Cook County Commissioner Bobbie Steele, former 28th Ward Ald. Ed Smith and former Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White — are all former public school teachers.

“Public school teachers in Chicago are best suited and fit to run government,” he said.

Preckwinkle, who has endorsed Johnson, agreed, saying “being a teacher is the best preparation for public life.”

Preckwinkle, who was defeated by Lori Lightfoot in the 2019 mayoral election, also said that she has had a “number of conversations” with Johnson about the trials and tribulations of running for mayor.

‘Who better to deliver bad news to friends than a friend?’

Despite his meteoric rise as the CTU’s pick to lead the city, Johnson has been criticized for his ties to the union, his limited experience as an elected official, and for his waffling on particular policy plans, including distancing himself from his past support of the “defund the police” movement.

“There are people who want to see the police budget defunded …” Johnson said at a debate focused on public safety issues earlier this month. “I said it was a political goal. I never said it was mine.”

CTU President Stacy Davis Gates has defended Johnson’s track record, arguing his Cook County Board seat has already taught him to help run a government.

“He is a Cook County commissioner. He has almost 400,000 constituents. He does run government. He does pass his budget. He is responsible for public safety,” Davis Gates said in a podcast interview with Sun-Times City Hall reporter Fran Spielman. “Heck, he is responsible for the Cook County Jail.”

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle endorses Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson for mayor earlier this month. (Pat Nabong/Sun-Times file)

But Ja’Mal Green, a community activist and former mayoral candidate, has repeatedly called Johnson a “fraud,” accusing him of being disconnected from the Black community and using his family home in Austin to his advantage. 

Green earlier this month opted to endorse Vallas over Johnson, saying he believes Vallas will improve the lives of African Americans. A number of other prominent Black elected officials, including White and former U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush, have also endorsed Vallas. 

Green offered a personal critique of Johnson, accusing him of not focusing on issues that are important to the Black community.

“Why I say he’s fraudulent is because he may use the language to highlight Austin or to make it seem like he really cares about the South and West sides, or poor people, or Black people. But the reality is far from the truth,” Green said, arguing “he’s never really been tied to Black issues.”

“Black people in his district have never seen him. He has very low name recognition in his district. He lost his own district in the race,” Green said, also accusing Johnson of neglecting “issues of Black communities” as commissioner.

Green said he’s concerned about Johnson’s ties to the CTU — a connection Johnson has repeatedly defended but said he’d work to distance himself if elected, including stepping down as a dues-paying member.

“The teachers union is going to have high influence in appointments and running City Hall,” Green said. “And I think that’s dangerous. And I don’t think that they should be able to wield this much power.”

The Johnson campaign declined to respond to Green’s critiques.

Cook County Commissiner Brandon Johnson waves during a news conference where he announced that he is running for mayor of Chicago at Seward Park in the Cabrini-Green neighborhood in October. (Pat Nabong/Sun-Times file)

Vallas has also accused Johnson of being “a wholly owned subsidiary of the Chicago Teachers Union.”

Despite being repeatedly pressed to do so at debates, Johnson has avoided identifying an area where he’s disagreed with the union, which has poured over $2 million into his campaign, despite the grumblings of some members. 

At a forum earlier this month, Johnson said he may not always be able to meet the union’s demands.

“There might be a point within negotiations that the Chicago Teachers Union’s quest and fight for more resources, we may not be able to do,” Johnson said. “So who better to deliver bad news to friends than a friend?”

Tessa Weinberg covers city politics and government for WBEZ. Tina Sfondeles is the chief political reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times. 

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