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Chicago Brawler: The Woman Who Could Beat Rahm Emanuel

Chicago Brawler: The Woman Who Could Beat Rahm Emanuel

By Emily Cadei

Aerial photo of New York City


The Chicago mayor’s race could have implications for the national discussion about race, class and inequality that continues to roil American politics.

By Emily Cadei

The rumor going around Chicago political circles these days is that Karen Lewis has a soft side.

Yes, the same Karen Lewis who rages against the city’s top-down power structure on the nightly news. The woman who, as president of the Chicago Teachers Union, had the cajones to take on Mayor Rahm Emanuel — almost universally regarded as the biggest SOB in American politics — and won. The woman who seems game to try to topple Emanuel again from his post as mayor. It’d be a Herculean task, even though Emanuel is clearly wounded. But Chicagoans are bracing for the kind of political brawl the likes of which even this city, known for its bare-knuckled politics, hasn’t seen in decades. 

I think she’s meaner than Rahm.

– a longtime Republican Illinois political consultant

As Lewis has begun making the rounds of town halls and listening sessions to test the political waters, she’s appeared reflective, personable, soft-spoken, even. Political insiders who’ve heard this second-hand relate it to me with some incredulity, given how scary the 61-year-old longtime schoolteacher can seem on TV. Large and imposing — Lewis has struggled with her weight but a recent weight-loss surgery helped her lose 50 pounds — she wears her hair pulled tightly back in a bun and has mastered the art of the don’t-mess-with-me scowl.

“I think she’s meaner than Rahm,” says a longtime Republican Illinois political consultant.

Colleagues and friends of Lewis’ insist she can be warm and fuzzy. “I’ve seen her in the school in which she taught; she wasn’t teaching anymore, but I went back with her one day … and I watched the kids really connect with her, the teachers really connect with her,” says Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, of which CTU is an affiliate. “And you can’t make that up.”

“Emilyyy, it’s Kareeen,” Lewis almost sings across the line when I answer. For a woman I’ve never met before, it’s an unexpectedly friendly greeting.

You’re going to balance the budget on the back of poor children?

-– Karen Lewis

Lewis proves frank and funny. Why’d she spend only two years at the University of Illinois at Chicago med school? Lewis doesn’t miss a beat: “I flunked out.” She’s no dummy, though. She was the only African-American woman in her Dartmouth graduating class, shortly after it went co-ed.

The daughter of two public school teachers from Hyde Park, Lewis next worked as a substitute chemistry teacher — her favorite subject — while plotting her next steps. But teaching stuck, and talking about it, Lewis emanates warmth. It’s challenging, she says, but “emotionally satisfying.” Like “performance art” with immediate feedback. 

But the minute you venture into enemy territory, Lewis snaps into tough-talking, no-nonsense mode, upbraiding you as she must have done any number of teenagers caught skipping class or smoking in the bathroom over 22 years in Chicago schools.

It happens to me when asking about Emanuel’s school closures; in the summer of 2013 alone, Chicago Public Schools closed nearly 50 of them. The mayor and his supporters say shutting down these underperformers where attendance was dwindling, most in poor and minority neighborhoods, would close a yawning budget gap.

“Let’s go back to the truth,” she interrupts pointedly. “That’s what they said, but that’s not what happened.”

Indeed, the impact has been hotly contested, but several investigations suggest there really haven’t been much savings. Supporters say it’s too early to fairly judge. But even if the closures did shore up Chicago’s schools budget, “you’re going to balance the budget on the backs of poor children?” Lewis asks with scorn. “Yeah, no.”

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel

As she sees it, it’s part of a vendetta by Emanuel and his allies. Emanuel, like his former boss, President Barack Obama, is “very enamored of corporate school reform.” Read: charter schools. Lewis also opposes his efforts to weaken teacher tenure and make testing a bigger part of teacher evaluations.

To Lewis, a “move against public education is a move against democracy.”

You can expect plenty more of that heat if Lewis challenges Emanuel, as she seems poised to do. She’s formed an exploratory committee, hired a spokesperson and chipped $40,000 of her own money into the effort. An August poll showed Lewis leading Emanuel 43 to 39 percent. But she has not declared yet. A Lewis victory, should it happen, could signal a sea change in Chicago politics and the city’s image. The idea of a black, Jewish (she converted a few years back) female union leader would have been hard to imagine in the Daleys’ Chicago. But maybe not in Oprah’s, or Obama’s. 

Hopes were high when Emanuel was elected in 2011, fresh off a high-profile stint as Obama’s chief of staff. But the brash former congressman has struggled with the city’s long-standing problems — budget deficits, pension liabilities, inner city stagnation — and his profane, my-way-or-the-highway approach has alienated many. Still, he has two important resources: a huge war chest, and time. The first round of the nonpartisan race is Feb. 24. (Democratic Alderman Bob Fioretti and others will compete.) 

So far, she’s focused on equity and justice, but has offered little to appeal to people worried more about the city’s fiscal state.

Lewis and Emanuel have clashed before — and it was ugly. In 2012, Emanuel pushed through a law raising the voting threshold for unions to authorize strikes, from 50 to 75 percent. Ensuing contract negotiations broke down. Less than two months out of a hotly contested presidential election in which Democrats were relying on union support, the standoff quickly attracted national attention. And to the awe of many, Lewis rallied the vote to strike — the first teachers strike Chicago had seen in 25 years. 

“Rahm was in some ways the best organizer that the CTU had,” says Weingarten. “He created the conditions by which the union had no other choice.”

Both sides had to compromise, but the union, which fended off Emanuel’s most significant restructuring proposals, was widely seen as the victor. And the episode exposed a big chink in Emanuel’s armor. Lewis has risen as Emanuel has fallen, and it’s not a coincidence. A representative from Emanuel’s political operation did not respond to a request to comment.

Across the country, teachers and other union members “feel like they are under assault,” says Tom Bowen, a Democratic consultant in Chicago. Lewis’ anger, and her success in taking on The Man, perfectly capture that zeitgeist. A Lewis-Emanuel race could become a proxy fight for national battles over unionization. A Lewis victory would land her in the fairly rare position, in 21st-century American politics, anyway, of union leader-turned-elected official. The AFT, for one, has pledged to chip in $1 million to Lewis’ campaign if she runs — though she’ll have a tough time matching Emanuel’s war chest, already at $8 million. 

Her other major challenge will be broadening her message to more affluent voters. So far, she’s focused on equity and justice, but has offered little to appeal to people worried more about the city’s fiscal state. “That’s a big question,” says Eric Adelstein, a veteran Chicago Democratic consultant who’s staying neutral in the mayor’s race. “When you’re running for mayor, you’re the personification of the city.” And Chicago is one of the most sprawling, diverse cities in the country.

But residents are clearly tiring of the tough guy act, so the real test for these political street fighters may be whether they can keep the gloves on. Lewis’ soft side could turn out to be her biggest asset of all.

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