Rep. Jim Clyburn (S.C.), the assistant House Democratic leader, announced Thursday that he is endorsing Brandon Johnson for mayor of Chicago.
Clyburn’s blessing is a major coup for Johnson, a Black and progressive Cook County commissioner, running against Paul Vallas, a white centrist and former CEO of Chicago Public Schools. Specifically, the nod from Clyburn, a staunch moderate with a national profile, stands to help Johnson consolidate the support of Black voters, including those older Black voters who might otherwise be skeptical of Johnson’s left-wing views on policing and taxation.
The endorsement is also one of many that Johnson’s campaign hopes will help cast the officially nonpartisan race as a contest between a Democrat in Johnson and a Republican in Vallas, despite Vallas’s insistence that he is a “lifelong Democrat.”
Rep. Clyburn said in a statement provided first to HuffPost: “I am proudly supporting Brandon Johnson for Mayor of Chicago. Commissioner Johnson is a man of family, faith and public service, and I know those core values will guide his leadership as Mayor.”
Clyburn also pointed to their shared backgrounds as former schoolteachers and the sons of Christian ministers.
“Commissioner Johnson and I share many characteristics: our spirit of activism, our professional beginnings as public school teachers, our commitment to justice, and we are both PKs (Preacher Kids),” he said. “Commissioner Johnson will be a Mayor who does everything in his power to make Chicago safe for all, and I am proud to support him.”
Clyburn, a prodigious fundraiser, has been “bundling,” or gathering campaign donations for Johnson for weeks now, according to the Johnson campaign.
The two men bonded in person when Johnson went to Selma, Alabama, on March 5 to join the annual commemoration of the 1965 “Bloody Sunday” march for voting rights. Clyburn connected with Johnson on a personal level, discussing their common upbringings and shared admiration and love for the history and legacy of the 20th-century Black civil rights movement, according to the Johnson campaign.
Johnson, who accompanied Chicago-based Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr. throughout much of the march, also met with President Joe Biden briefly while he was there. Jackson’s son, Rep. Jonathan Jackson (D-Ill.), was an early supporter of Johnson’s bid.
Clyburn, who, in 2007, became the first Black American to serve as House Majority Whip, is one of the most powerful Democrats and Black elected officials in the country. His endorsement famously helped Biden win the South Carolina primary — and ultimately the Democratic presidential nomination — when Biden’s campaign was flagging. Clyburn’s influence was subsequently evident in Biden’s support for making South Carolina the first state on the Democratic presidential primary calendar.
“Mr. Clyburn has had a history of supporting candidates with whom he has common ground and shared values.”
Clyburn’s support for Biden reflected a focus on electability and incremental progress that puts him squarely in the centrist wing of the Democratic Party. In 2021, Clyburn’s endorsement provided crucial support for U.S. Rep. Shontel Brown (D-Ohio) in her Democratic primary win over progressive favorite Nina Turner, a former Ohio state senator, and ally of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).
Notably, Clyburn, a veteran of the Black civil rights movement in the 1960s, was an early and consistent critic of the “defund the police” slogan taken up by some progressive activists after the police murder of George Floyd in May 2020. He expressed concern that it would undermine the Black Lives Matter movement the way he believed that some radical factions had undermined the ’60s civil rights movement and blamed the phrase for Democratic underperformance in the 2020 election.
By contrast, Johnson, a former public school teacher and organizer for the progressive Chicago Teachers Union, spoke positively about calls to “defund the police” in 2020, interpreting the policy to mean redirecting resources from law enforcement to social programs. As a candidate, however, Johnson has promised not to cut police funding, proposing instead to use efficiency savings to fund the addition of 200 detectives by promoting existing officers.
HuffPost has not received any information to suggest that Clyburn discussed the specific issue of police funding with Johnson when they met in person. But his endorsement could still help reassure voters skeptical of Johnson’s past positions that Johnson can be trusted to fight for public safety in a city where a spike in violent crime since 2020 is disproportionately afflicting predominantly Black neighborhoods.
“Mr. Clyburn has had a history of supporting candidates with whom he has common ground and shared values,” said Antjuan Seawright, a political adviser for Clyburn. “Not to mention, he has a history of supporting candidates whose life experiences reflect those of the constituents they’re hoping to represent.”
Seawright noted that Clyburn also tends to endorse candidates who he thinks will win.
Johnson surprised some election watchers when, with a considerably smaller war chest, he defeated Mayor Lori Lightfoot for a second-place berth behind Vallas in the first round of the mayoral election on Feb. 28. Although Vallas got about 33% to Johnson’s 22%, neither candidate got an outright majority, prompting a runoff election.
Johnson still has an uphill climb ahead of him in the final weeks. Vallas has been using his funding advantage to hammer Johnson on TV as a police de-funder and tax raiser. He may soon get help disseminating that message from a super PAC slated to begin spending on his behalf.
But years of unforced errors from Vallas have given Johnson plenty of fodder to depict him as a Republican with ties to the far right. For example, in a 2009 TV interview, Vallas said he was “more of a Republican than a Democrat.” And in a 2021 interview on a conservative radio show, Vallas spoke derisively about former President Barack Obama, former First Lady Michelle Obama, Biden and Illinois Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D), to whom Vallas previously made a campaign contribution.
The first independent, public poll in the race, which came out Monday, showed Vallas leading Johnson by six percentage points. Johnson released an internal poll last week showing him ahead by five points. Both surveys showed a sizable pool of undecided voters.
Ken Snyder, a Chicago-area Democratic consultant, who is not aligned with either mayoral candidate, said that bringing in Clyburn is potentially part of the right strategy for Johnson.
“The more Vallas can define Johnson as off to the extreme left, the more Vallas looks centrist,” Snyder said. “It’s incumbent upon Johnson and his supporters to make this more of a Democrat versus Republican race and not a center versus left race.”
There are signs of a Democratic convergence on Johnson’s behalf. He already has the support of Toni Preckwinkle, chair of both the Cook County Board of Commissioners and the Cook County Democratic Party. And Clyburn’s endorsement comes on the heels of Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul (D) backing Johnson earlier this week.
But Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker (D), Lt. Gov. Julianna Stratton (D), Illinois Sens. Dick Durbin (D) and Duckworth, and Cook County Prosecutor Kim Foxx (D) have yet to weigh in on the race.
“If the Illinois Democratic establishment, the most high-profile elected officials in the state, coalesce around Brandon, it would define the race in a hurry in Brandon’s favor,” Snyder said. “It remains to be seen whether that is happening. And the clock is ticking.”