Chicago Teachers Union’s big spending on Brandon Johnson for mayor draws criticism over union influence and pushback among some members newstrendslive

The Chicago Teachers Union is all in on Brandon Johnson for mayor.

So far, CTU has given the Cook County commissioner nearly $1 million in his bid to unseat Mayor Lori Lightfoot. The powerful teachers union is even borrowing dues money against future contributions to its political fund to make sure Johnson has the resources he needs for TV commercials and get-out-the-vote efforts.

But that commitment to Johnson’s campaign is a double-edged sword that is drawing criticism from rival candidates and even CTU members who feel the union isn’t being transparent or responsible with teachers’ money. It also draws attention to a history of campaign finance violations by Johnson that have led to thousands of dollars in fines.

“They didn’t ask the (union) House of Delegates. They didn’t present financial statements showing how we’d be paid back,” said Therese Boyle, a retiree delegate who worked in Chicago Public Schools for 35 years and ran against the current union leadership in 2019. “It feels like they’re putting all of their eggs in this basket, and not thinking about the other important things for our union, like establishing a strike fund.”

CTU released a statement without individually addressing the Tribune’s questions about its support of Johnson’s campaign. “From defending members from bully principals to working on political campaigns to advocating for transformative legislation like an elected Chicago school board, CTU’s operations are all oriented toward bringing about the schools and city Chicago’s students deserve,” the statement said in part, adding that the union is governed by its constitution and abides by legal disclosure requirements.

Johnson sought to emphasize his base is working people, aiming to separate himself from “several of my opponents who are being supported by dark money political committees.”

“My campaign has been funded primarily by organizations representing tens of thousands of working Chicagoans who deserve the same voice in city government as the powerful wealthy corporations supporting my opponents,” he said in a written statement to the Tribune.

Johnson, a former teacher, is a CTU organizer, and much of his campaign war chest comes from teachers. In addition to CTU’s donations, its affiliates, the American Federation of Teachers and Illinois Federation of Teachers, have also contributed about $1 million and $440,000, respectively, to Johnson since September, according to state campaign finance data.

But it’s the money from CTU that has drawn the most attention.

On Feb. 9, the day after the union’s monthly House of Delegates meeting, CTU reported transferring $415,000 from union operating funds into its political action committee funds, campaign finance records show.

CTU said its executive committee decided to transfer the money to its PACs as a loan, to ensure its favored candidates are competitive in the Feb. 28 mayoral and City Council election and the expected runoff on April 4.

Cassandra Greer-Lee holds up a sign in support of mayoral candidate Brandon Johnson at the Chicago Teachers Union on Jan. 16, 2023.

“The loan to the CTU’s Political Action funds simply moves money from when we collect it (after the 2023 municipal election) to the time we need it (during the 2023 municipal election),” said an email bulletin to members Feb. 12. “The loans will be repaid with political funds we collect between the end of February and the end of June.”

Campaign finance records show the transfers aren’t without precedent. The CTU contributed around $323,000 in 2015 to the CTU-led Chicagoans United for Economic Security super PAC, which is a committee allowed to raise and spend unlimited funds advocating for or against certain candidates. The union separately gave around $570,000 that same year to then-Cook County Commissioner Jesús “Chuy” García’s unsuccessful campaign for mayor.

García, now a member of Congress, is running for mayor again. And while he might be competing with Johnson for progressive votes, García lacks the official backing of CTU, which came out for Johnson even before he formally entered the race.

Boyle and Alison Eichhorn, a fellow delegate and former union trustee, claim that only a fraction of the money the union transferred in 2015 — to help a candidate it’s no longer endorsing — has been repaid. Four years later in 2019, the Chicagoans United for Economic Security super PAC transferred around $72,000 back to the union, campaign finance data show. Boyle said a repayment plan for the remainder of the loan was included in the CTU budget that year, but that no budget since then has reflected any payments.

The union, in its statement to the Tribune, did not answer questions about the 2015 loan or why the recent transfer to Johnson wasn’t voted on at the House of Delegates meeting.

Eichhorn said she understands CTU leadership sometimes needs to make crunchtime decisions, but she considers the transfers made, without a vote, crossing the line.

“What makes our union beautiful is that we do try to hold ourselves to a high standard of democracy,” Eichhorn said. “It’s really important members know where their money is going.”

Chicago Teachers Union president Stacy Davis Gates, right, and American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten, center left, along with Chicago mayoral candidate Brandon Johnson, background, join striking faculty members at a rally on the University of Illinois Chicago campus on Jan. 17, 2023.

According to state elections board data of contributions since January 2022, of about $1.9 million CTU has donated to campaigns and committees, Johnson has received the vast majority, most recently reporting a Feb. 7 CTU donation of $290,000.

Among City Council candidates, the union has contributed varying amounts, from $1,500 to 22nd Ward Ald. Michael Rodriguez to $70,000 donations to CPS teacher and 36th Ward candidate Lori Torres Whitt.

CPS teacher and embattled 50th Ward candidate Mueze Bawany has received at least $58,455 from the union, which stood by his campaign after Bawany apologized for offensive tweets he wrote in 2019. CTU did not respond to a request for comment after a second batch of controversial tweets from Bawany emerged.

CTU also made donations in the tens of thousands to other committees, including the United Working Families and Chicago Federation of Labor PACs.

Boyle said she’s proposed a uniform structure for CTU political donations. “If you’re running for alderman and we endorse you, you can get $5,000,” Boyle said as an example. “If there’s a special circumstance why this candidate needs more than $5,000, then it would come back to the House of Delegates.”

Without a formal process, she said union finances are akin to runaway train. “There’s no one putting the brakes on.”

Lightfoot’s campaign also recently faced scrutiny regarding special interests, after WTTW first reported multiple firms with contracts to do business with the city funded the 77 Committee super PAC, which recently released an attack ad against Johnson. Garcia and Vallas’ campaigns have also received super PAC funds, including from undisclosed donors, or what’s known as dark money. The Tribune didn’t identify any dark money donations among Johnson’s contributions.

Mayoral contender Paul Vallas, a former CPS CEO, has also found his biggest union endorsement — the Chicago Fraternal Order of Police’s — to be a mixed blessing. He has repeatedly had to answer for the stances of its controversial, Donald Trump-supporting president, John Catanzara. On Friday, Vallas condemned the union’s decision to host an event with potential presidential GOP nominee Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.

Ald. Gilbert Villegas, who is facing CTU-backed Torres Whitt in his 36th Ward reelection bid, says the volume of contributions to Johnson from the union necessitates another look at the city’s campaign finance rules.

Villegas, who is supporting García for mayor, said he’d like to see unions like CTU subject to campaign finance limits similar to those placed on companies doing business with the city. Villegas sees CTU’s support of Johnson and several aldermanic candidates as an attempted power grab ahead of the new CTU contract negotiations and school board appointments awaiting the mayor in the coming years.

The recent CTU transfers aren’t the first of Johnson’s campaign contributions to draw scrutiny.

His fundraising committee, Friends of Brandon Johnson, has been dinged seven separate times by state authorities for various failures to disclose contributions during his first run for Cook County Board. Many had ties to the CTU.

The violations, which mounted throughout 2018 and 2019, racked up fines exceeding $33,000, according to records maintained by the Illinois State Board of Elections and obtained by the Tribune.

Chicago mayoral candidate Brandon Johnson speaks at a rally on Martin Luther King Jr. Day at the Chicago Teachers Union on Jan. 16, 2023, in Chicago.

The vast majority of the fines relate to late reporting of contributions to the state elections board. Depending on the proximity to Election Day, candidates are required to promptly file what is known as an A-1 reporting contributions received that are $1,000 or more. Johnson’s fund was faulted 18 times for not disclosing contributions on time, ranging from one or two days late to more than 20 days. One report was 34 days late.

Six of those were in-kind contributions of staffing or communications from United Working Families, a progressive organizing group backed and funded by CTU. A $5,000 in-kind staffing donation from CTU was reported 29 days late, not until after the 2018 primary in which Johnson defeated incumbent Commissioner Richard Boykin.

An in-kind canvassing contribution from Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle’s committee was also reported late, meaning her direct assistance to the campaign was not made public until after the primary. A $23,000 transfer from Greater Austin Independent Political Organization — whose sole donor was the Chicago Teachers Union PAC — was disclosed three weeks late. Three donations totaling $7,500 from the Cook County College Teachers Union COPE were reported between four and 26 days late.

While the initial fines levied totaled more than $33,000, the board reduced the amount owed for first and second offenses. The committee paid its first fine — $766 — in September 2018. But despite other fines adding up, Johnson did not pay off the rest — $17,637 — until March 2022. At that point, Johnson risked not being put on the 2022 primary ballot for reelection to the Cook County Board for failure to pay.

Other CTU contributions to Johnson during his 2018 campaign raised the question of potential violations of state limits on labor donations. After he’d already raised more than $150,000 from CTU and affiliated PACs, the Sun-Times identified tens of thousands in additional contributions to Johnson from three union allies that mirrored donations those three had received from the CTU. State law bars anonymous contributions or contributions in the name of another person, but such “pass-through” donations are difficult to prove.

The Johnson campaign said his fundraising committee has not received any citations for late disclosures during the current election cycle, that he’s in full compliance with campaign finance laws and that “the legality or even the propriety of our contributions from labor organizations or anyone else has never been questioned by the IL State Board of Elections as was noted by the Sun Times in 2018.”

That year, Johnson said in a statement, he was running a grassroots campaign with a small staff and volunteers who “made a few honest clerical errors in reporting. We’ve rectified those errors and we’ve paid all associated fines.”

Conflict with CTU has been a hallmark of Lightfoot’s time in office. The disputes include the 2019 strike that put students out of classes for more than two weeks and two bitter work stoppages over the reopening of schools amid the pandemic. Lightfoot has said the union is more interested in harming her politically than negotiating in good faith, while the union has criticized her for breaking campaign promises.

Chicago mayoral candidate Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson greets morning commuters while campaigning at the California CTA Blue Line stop in Chicago on Feb. 15, 2023.

If Lightfoot is reelected, that contentious relationship is unlikely to change. A Johnson administration is far more likely to work closely with the teachers union — which leads some to question whether a Mayor Johnson would be able to properly balance the sometimes-competing interests of CPS employees, families and taxpayers.

A union may have interests in broader issues but it fundamentally exists to represent its members. Along those lines, CTU has been criticized for what some say are overly expensive and unrealistic staffing plans. Lightfoot and Vallas have each been critical of the way the union handled COVID-19 by refusing to teach in person to demand tighter safety standards. Johnson has said union members were trying to save lives.

García last week questioned whether Johnson could negotiate with CTU on behalf of all members.

“Will Brandon, if he’s elected mayor, be able to say that he is impartial? That he is fair? That, in negotiations with the union, that he’ll make the best decision for children and taxpayers as issues in education, in the Chicago public school system as other bargaining units come to the table to negotiate?” García said in a Sun-Times interview. “(That’s) a really tough situation to be in, and he’ll have to grapple with that.”

As Johnson campaigns for mayor, he has dismissed and downplayed criticism of the union’s role in local politics. He’s stressed he would be the mayor for all Chicagoans while also touting his advocacy of working people.

During one candidate forum, Johnson was asked to name an issue he disagrees with the union on. He did not answer the question.

“If you’re asking me if I do not believe in public education, what kind of question is that?” Johnson said.

Chicago Tribune’s Hank Sanders contributed.

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