Brandon Johnson, the Chicago Public Schools teacher and Chicago Teachers Union organizer, entered the Democratic Primary race to replace incumbent 1st District Cook County Commissioner Richard Boykin as a serious underdog.
By Monday, however, Boykin — a first-term elected official who seemed to have the visibility and political prowess of a veteran, and the backing of suburban mayors, high-profile leaders like businessman Willie Wilson, and Congressman Danny K. Davis — had conceded.
By the time the polls closed on March 20, Johnson was up on Boykin by fewer than 400 votes, with no more than a dozen precincts still to be reported. Those outstanding votes left Boykin with an opening to stave off a concession call until provisional ballots had been counted.
Since last Tuesday’s election, however, Johnson’s lead had gradually opened up to 436, with all precincts in the city and suburbs reported, according to online election data from the Cook County Clerk’s office and the Chicago Board of Elections.
During a March 26 phone interview, Boykin said that he made the call Monday afternoon.
“I thought it was time to go on and put closure to this and I also pledged to work with him in a smooth transition,” Boykin said. “I wished him well and told him I’m here if you need me. I plan to finish out my term and I hope we work together. I thought he was gracious in victory.”
The results of the primary election shocked many of Boykin’s supporters, who were confident that the first-term commissioner — a clear contrast to his predecessor, retired commissioner Earlean Collins — would win reelection comfortably.
Early in his tenure, Boykin was outspoken about the Chicago area’s crime and seemingly ubiquitous in local media outlets as he pushed for various solutions, including a 7-point plan to end gun violence.
Most of the particulars of that plan were overshadowed by Boykin’s proposal to charge shooters as domestic terrorists, an idea that generated some pushback among community leaders.
The commissioner’s voluble criticism of an unpopular penny per ounce sweetened beverage tax pushed by Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle channeled a majority of retailers and consumers in the county that lined up against the measure.
The issue tarnished Preckwinkle’s image and seemed to have buoyed Boykin’s popularity enough that he flirted with challenging the powerful political figure for her board presidency before ultimately deciding to run for reelection to his own seat. The beverage tax was repealed last year, with Boykin legitimately laying claim to a not insignificant share of credit for the rollback.
Boykin was also outspoken about his ability to bring money back to his district in the form of grants for roadwork and nonprofit support, among other uses. Boykin often reminded constituents that the millions in revenue he discovered while in the commissioner’s seat was in stark contrast to the relative dearth of revenue that came from Collins.
But the commissioner’s record, along with his high visibility in the 1st District (regularly hosting job fairs, award dinners and choir concerts, among many other functions), was not enough to inoculate him against campaign criticisms made by Johnson, who was able to mobilize Boykin’s achievements into apparent liabilities.
Johnson, who garnered the support of national progressive political organizations like Sen. Bernie Sanders’ Revolution Illinois and MoveOn.org, described Boykin’s recommendation to charge shooters as terrorists as shortsighted and draconian.
Johnson also seized on Boykin’s support of a $5.2 billion budget that included over 300 layoffs and the elimination of over 1,000 vacant positions in order to make up for the $200 million in projected revenue lost from the repeal of the sweetened beverage tax.
During an interview with Austin Weekly News in November, Johnson offered a caustic description of Boykin’s first term in the commissioner’s seat, alleging the commissioner, an attorney and lobbyist by trade, had aligned himself with the Republican Party.
“Unfortunately, what you’re hearing from Richard is about cuts, closures, consolidations and efficiencies,” Johnson said. “He’s going after working-class people. Those are the talking points of the Republican Party.”
Johnson said that instead of supporting cuts, he would eye more progressive revenue options, such as a county head tax on corporations.
The challenger was able to leverage nearly $500,000 in donations, mostly from unions like the Chicago Teachers Union PAC, the Illinois Federation of Teachers COPE and United Working Families, to get his message out.
Around $224,000 of the roughly $400,000 that Boykin raised came from the candidate himself, with most of the rest coming from organizations that stood to benefit from the repeal of the sweetened beverage tax, such as the Illinois Beverage Association PAC and the American Beverage Association,
The candidates’ respective funding sources were consistent with their characterizations of each other.
Boykin painted Johnson as a puppet of the unions and of Preckwinkle, who endorsed him late in the election; while Johnson painted Boykin as a closeted conservative who was out of touch with many of the needs and concerns of his working-class constituents.
When asked on March 21 whether he was surprised at last Tuesday’s results, Boykin instead talked about Johnson’s campaign, which he called “very negative and deceptive.”
Boykin referenced “$500,000 in negative advertising calling me a Republican” and hundreds of fake campaign signs that described him as a Republican that appeared across the 1st District the weekend before the election.
Boykin said he doesn’t know “how many people were confused by the signs and decided to vote against me.”
On March 20, Johnson said that “people obviously wanted something different in the 1st District and I’m glad to be part of that.”