The Democratic primary race, which is tantamount to election in Cook County, is heating up in the 1st District County Board race.

Chicago Teachers Union organizer and Austin resident Brandon Johnson is mounting a vigorous challenge to incumbent Richard Boykin (D-Oak Park).

Boykin has been an unusually active county board member in his first term on the County Board. He has made waves leading the opposition to the now repealed sweetened beverage tax and emerging as a frequent critic of Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle. He publicly flirted with the idea of challenging Preckwinkle for County Board president before demurring and deciding to run for re-election as a commissioner.

Johnson, meanwhile, has been endorsed by Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis, and his campaign has received $50,000 from the CTU Political Action Committee. In late December, Johnson’s campaign received a $25,000 from the Service Employees International Union Healthcare PAC.

Saturday morning, Boykin and Johnson appeared before a standing-room-only crowd of nearly 100 people at the headquarters of the Democratic Party of Oak Park (DPOP).

Johnson, who once worked as staffer for state Sen. Don Harmon (D-Oak Park) the DPOP committeeman, criticized Boykin for suggesting that the county needs to reduce spending and freeze hiring.

“I believe austerity budgets are racist,” Johnson told the crowd. “Public sector jobs have secured the middle class for black families.”

Johnson called for a progressive income tax and supports a head tax on businesses, i.e. a tax based on the number of employees a business has.

“We have to find a way we can generate revenue in a progressive way,” said Johnson, who noted that he opposed the so-called pop tax because it was regressive.

Boykin talked about the need to control spending and touted his leading role in getting the pop tax repealed. The repeal of the pop tax has caused some layoffs and led to a budget that calls for the county not to fill around 1,000 county jobs. Boykin also talked about his efforts to reduce gun violence by sponsoring and getting passed a county-wide ammunition tax, and sponsoring a bill doubling the penalty for being caught with assault weapons.

Some members of DPOP reacted favorably to Johnson.

“I was very impressed by Brandon Johnson’s insight and candor about the issues facing the 1st District of Cook County and what he plans to do about it,” said Erika Washington. “I think he was very genuine and authentic. That’s something I look for in a candidate.”

Alex Weber liked Johnson’s forthright call for more revenue.

“I think we do need leadership regarding revenue in Cook County,” Weber said.

Forest Park resident Julie McShane, a teacher in Lyons and a union official, also liked Johnson.

“I thought he was very well spoken, very dynamic, and he had some good solutions to Cook County’s issues in terms of a progressive income tax, incentives for hiring high school graduates at the County and other places,” McShane said. “And he’s a public-school teacher so he understands pensions and having more support in schools and classrooms, so I think he’s a great candidate.”

Bob Haisman said that while Boykin is a clear improvement over his predecessor, Earlean Collins, Johnson stirred his emotions.

“The guy is not afraid to be a Democrat,” Haisman said of Johnson. “He just impressed me: his passion and kind of a belief in the New Deal Democrat stuff. He just really impressed me.”

Nick Albukerk was impressed by both candidates.

“They both seemed knowledgeable, they both seemed really passionate,” Albukerk said. “I think we’d do well with either one. It’s hard for me to make a decision right now, frankly. They both sound good and I think we’re lucky to have two good candidates.”

Harmon said he will survey the DPOP membership to decide whether members would like to make an endorsement in the race.

“I expect we’ll send out an email to all of our members to ask them to share their thoughts about what happened [Saturday] and whether they would like us to take up an endorsement in February,” Harmon said. “I hate when friends run against friends, but we had two very well qualified, well-seasoned candidates present their credentials today. I’ll be interested in hearing what the members of the organization think.”

Boykin has never been especially popular among DPOP members despite living in Oak Park.

Four years ago, when he was elected to the County Board, DPOP endorsed Blake Sercye in the primary. Sercye, who was also endorsed by Preckwinkle and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, walloped Boykin in Oak Park in the 2014 primary with Sercye getting 59 percent of the vote in Oak Park compared to just 21.4 percent for Boykin.

But Boykin, a lawyer and former chief of staff to Congressman Danny Davis, won the race, bolstered by strong support in other parts of the district. Boykin, who is also an ordained minister, has strong support from many ministers. His campaign is well funded and has received at least $10,000 from the beverage industry-backed political action committee Citizens for a More Affordable Cook County. Boykin’s campaign has also received multiple contributions from out-of-state executives at Dr. Pepper/Snapple.

Boykin told Wednesday Journal he is not worried about Johnson’s challenge.

“I’m not concerned at all,” Boykin said. “I think once the voters hear our message and what we’ve been able to accomplish on the county board, I think I’ll be re-elected resoundingly.”

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