Brandon Johnson, the Austin resident and former Chicago Public Schools teacher, pulled off a narrow, seemingly unlikely, victory against incumbent Richard Boykin to win the 1st District Cook County Commissioner seat by running well to the left of his opponent.
Now that he’s been sworn-in, the veteran organizer is poised to be the most vocally progressive member of the Cook County Board of Commissioners.
“There’s opportunity for real, bold progressive ideas to come from the county level of government,” Johnson said in his first interview with Austin Weekly News since taking office.
The former Chicago Teachers Union organizer said that he’s still committed to many of the most ambitious proposals he called for while on the campaign trail — proposals, he said, that he’s advocated for years as an organizer and activist.
Top of the list are ways of redistributing revenue that has been hoarded by wealthy individuals and corporations, so that it equitably flows to its highest and best use, he indicated.
“There’s a whole host of things the district can benefit from with a progressive revenue stream,” Johnson said, adding that the range of likely revenue sources spans a spectrum of political possibilities.
The legalization of marijuana, which given the election of Gov. J.B. Pritzker could happen quickly and lead to an influx of tax revenue, is “well-positioned to become a reality,” Johnson said, before adding that he believes the additional revenue has to lead to more opportunities for 1st District residents, particularly those in marginalized communities, to own businesses and have decent jobs.
A more distant possibility is the implementation of a county-wide corporate head tax, something the new commissioner said that he’s still exploring. A head tax would require large corporations to pay a tax on each of their employees.
“The corporate head tax is important,” Johnson said. “Corporations continue to get tax breaks, over and over again. Donald Trump continues to release any of these folks from any real responsibility to invest in our communities.”
Johnson said that he has some ideas about how the tax can be structured and what the revenue can go toward, adding that he’s willing to explore ways to provide companies some relief of the corporate tax if they’re willing to hire locally.
One particularly ambitious plan that the county might be able to fund from the additional revenue is Medicare for All, which Johnson adamantly supports.
“It’s one thing to offer a decent salary, but that benefit packet is what many families look to now,” he said. “The county needs to lead the way in Medicare for All. I believe there are ways we can phase it in, maybe looking at folks who are 55 and older. Access to healthcare is a human right.”
Johnson said that implementing Medicare for All — which means that health care for people who qualify for the program would be funded by the government, as opposed to a patchwork of private insurance providers — could be a boon even to businesses, since it would ease the burden of paying for their employees’ health care.
As a whole, Johnson said, his approach to achieving these policy wins is rooted in the unapologetic progressivism that won him the seat. Far from limiting his radicalism to the relative provincial demands of a county commissioner’s role, Johnson said, he intends to expand the office.
“If anyone believes that I’m going to limit myself as the county commissioner and stay in some imaginary lane, they’re wrong,” he said. “The people of the first district voted for change. They voted for a bold, progressive, radical approach to how government works.”