It’s been nearly a century since a West Sider served as Chicago’s mayor.
That’s changing soon: Austin resident Brandon Johnson defeated Paul Vallas in the April 4 runoff election to succeed Mayor Lori Lightfoot. Johnson has lived in Austin for more than a decade, making him the first West Side mayor since Anton Cermak, who died in office in 1933.
West Siders pushed Johnson to victory, overwhelmingly supporting him. Now, they are celebrating — and hoping he’ll bring change to neighborhoods that have for decades struggled with disinvestment.
Once a teacher at Westinghouse College Prep in East Garfield Park, Johnson said during his victory speech that his experiences living in Austin inspired him to improve things for all Chicagoans.
Johnson said he’s “had to shield [his] children” from bullets outside his front door, and a student once told him he should be teaching at a “good school.” Too many Chicagoans don’t think they deserve value,” he said.
“That changes under a Johnson administration. Because there’s more than enough for everybody in the city of Chicago,” Johnson said.
Johnson had overwhelming support in his home base: He picked up 66.57% of the vote in the 29th Ward and 80.39% in the 37th Ward.
Austin residents said they hope having a mayor from the West Side will give their community a platform. The area has long struggled with disparities that can affect every aspect of life: Life expectancy is significantly lower for West Siders than for other Chicagoans, some areas are food deserts, crime is high in some neighborhoods and there are fewer business openings and developments than in many North Side neighborhoods.
Johnson has said he’ll prioritize tackling crime holistically, but he also wants to keep Lightfoot’s Invest South/West Initiative to bring more investment specifically to parts of the West Side. He’s also said he’d use more programs to give a boost to small businesses and developers and has supported affordable housing initiatives.
“I might be the first mayor of the city of Chicago to live in one of the most violent neighborhoods in the entire city. I have the lived experience. I love the West Side, I love living in Austin, but it is one of the more violent communities in the entire city,” he said at a March 14 public safety forum.
James Coleman, director of community wellness for Westside Health Authority, said he was thrilled to know someone from his community is leading the United States’ third-largest city.
“We’re greatly encouraged here to see Brandon as our next mayor,” Coleman said. “He represents hope to the residents that have lived through the struggles to survive on a daily basis. He knows the issues firsthand and deals with them on a daily basis.”
Activists and residents in the neighborhood said Johnson is a beacon of hope who can improve conditions in Austin. They said they hope he’ll prioritize safety, youth outreach and bringing in a grocery store.
Aisha Oliver, director of the Root2Fruit Youth Foundation, said the election can increase Austin’s presence in the city and inspire local children to reach higher.
“Personally, I am proud of Brandon for pulling this out, especially in such a critical time,” Oliver said. “Chicago politics is a monster, and he fought hard. He could have a great impact on the lives of young people in Austin who may or may not know that he is one of our very own.
“I have been vocal about Black residents who do well and accomplish great things. A child can’t be what they can’t see.”
Leaders in the church community said they had hope as they worked to get out the vote in Austin during February’s election and this runoff. Cornelius Parks, a pastor at First Bethel Baptist Church Austin, said he credits younger votes 25-34 as the catalyst that pushed Johnson’s campaign to victory.
“I think what he stands for is good for the city of Chicago,” Marks said. “We need to hold him accountable to make sure he does what he said he would do for the community.”
Maurice Gaiter, a pastor at Empowerment Community Church, said he met Johnson when the mayor-elect first ran for his seat on the Cook County Board of Commissioners. Gaiter said he wants Johnson to succeed where Lightfoot fell short.
Gaiter and Marks said their biggest hope in Johnson’s administration is that the community sees more investment and does not fall to the wayside. They want greater economic development, community safety and greater transparency and visibility.
“He’s got a bright mind and good head on his shoulders,” Gaiter said. “It’s exciting to see someone from your backyard elevated to that position. All I’m asking is for Chicago to give him a chance.”