Clock ticking, but Lewis won't be rushed into challenging Emanuel

Written By Fran Spielman Posted: 08/07/2014, 05:24pm

The clock is ticking for a high-profile candidate to mount a credible challenge to Mayor Rahm Emanuel, but Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis either doesn’t hear it or has chosen to ignore it.

Emanuel continues his frenzied fundraising, including big money contributions from labor leaders who once opposed him. He’s also reaching out to Lewis’ progressive base with affordable housing initiatives, a proposal to raise Chicago’s minimum wage and plans to broaden the authority of Inspector General Joe Ferguson after getting out from under the Shakman decree.

If Lewis is serious about challenging the mayor with whom she went toe-to-toe during the 2012 teachers strike, she needs to get moving.

But when she made the media rounds Thursday for the first time since returning from a Hawaiian vacation, it was only to say that she has not made a definitive decision and won’t until she has the organization, money and voter registrations in place to mount a viable challenge.



Lewis said she has formed an informal exploratory committee–although there’s nothing on file with the State Board of Elections–that will start raising money and circulating nominating petitions. But that doesn’t mean she’s ready to take the plunge–even though her supporters have been circulating campaign buttons in preparation for her “listening tour” of Chicago neighborhoods later this month.

“It’s 50-50. There’s a possibility that you do and a possibility that you don’t…This is not about hesitation. It’s about process,” Lewis said.

“The decision that gets made will be based on what’s best for the city and what’s best for me and my family….My deadline will be my deadline—whenever it is. I’m not ready to even discuss what the deadline looks like. I know that’s frustrating. But, I have to do things the way that’s comfortable for me….I’m a school teacher.”

Although she has not made up her mind, Lewis broadened her attack on the mayor.

She talked about an exhausted and “demoralized” Chicago Police force that needs permanent reinforcements–not more overtime or a 30-day assist from the Illinois State Police.

She blasted the mayor for using an “accounting gimmick” in the school budget to put off the financial day of reckoning until after the election and doing the same at City Hall by assuming that the Illinois General Assembly will solve Chicago’s police and fire pension crisis.

The cornerstone of Lewis’ plan is a financial transaction tax. Emanuel has ruled it out on grounds that it’s prohibited by state and federal law and could prompt the LaSalle Street exchanges to leave Chicago.

“Every place that they have put a financial transaction tax, when they were told people would leave, they did not. There’s one in New York. There’s one in London. There’s one in Switzerland,” she said.

Emanuel has alienated African-American voters who helped put him in office by instigating Chicago’s first teachers strike in 25 years, closing 50 public schools, opening new charter schools and unveiling plans to build new schools and school additions, with the educational largesse heavily concentrated on the North Side.

That includes a $17 million addition to Walter Payton College Prep and a new, $60 million selective enrollment high school nearby named after President Barack Obama, whose 2011 endorsement of his former White House chief-of-staff sealed the deal with black voters.

On Thursday, Lewis accused the mayor of employing a “bait-and-switch” on the issue of school closings.

“You take traditional public schools away from people that want them, give them something they don’t necessarily want and tell them, ‘This is what’s best for you.’ That’s problematic,” she said.

“There are schools on the Northwest Side and Southwest Side that are over-crowded and have been begging for relief for a long time.  It’s very short-sighted to focus on an Obama Prep or Payton when we haven’t taken care of those schools. We don’t need it at this moment in time when there are other communities that have been crying out for relief from over-crowding.”

A self-declared Star Wars fanatic, Lewis nevertheless ripped Emanuel’s decision to offer movie mogul George Lucas 17 acres of free lakefront land to build a new inter-active museum.

“I love Star Wars so much I cannot tell you. And George Lucas is C3PO’s dad [ie. Star Wars creator]. I would be the first in line to go to that museum. But, there should have been a better process about how that got decided,” she said.

“What’s missing is a participatory democracy—the fact that people actually get to have some say in how things get done.”

County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, the mayoral challenger Emanuel feared most and Lewis preferred, dropped out of the race last month before even jumping in.

That left Lewis and Ald. Bob Fioretti (2nd) as the highest-profile challengers even thinking about challenging Emanuel.

Fioretti has said he needs at least $3 million and as much as $5 million to compete with the $8.3 million-and-rising that Emanuel has in the bank.

On Thursday, Lewis refused to discuss a fundraising goal, but said she’s not intimidated by Emanuel’s millions.

“That’s what somebody with his kind of [low poll] numbers needs to do,” she said.

If she does decide to enter the mayor’s race, Lewis said she would likely take a leave-of-absence, but sees no need to resign as union president.

In fact, she might just continue to negotiate a teachers contract and pension deal with the mayor she’s challenging.

“That would be kind of fun,” she said.

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