Karen Lewis says Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle’s decision to rule out a run for mayor “changes the playing field.”

But the outspoken teachers union president was not yet ready to suit up and join the game herself. 

“It certainly is a huge change,” Lewis said on Tuesday in a phone interview. She acknowledged it’s one that would benefit her own candidacy should she run. 

However, Lewis said Preckwinkle’s decision would not influence her own game plan. “I’m not going to allow somebody to back me into a decision. I’m going to make this decision when I’m ready to make it.”

That means as of yet, Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who has $7 million in the bank and a SuperPAC that’s quickly mushrooming, is left without a formidable challenger about one month before candidates are allowed to begin circulating petitions for the Feb. 24, 2015 mayoral election.

The Cook County Board president was long seen as the most threatening challenger to Emanuel. An automated poll released Sunday that was commissioned by Early & Often, the Chicago Sun-Times politics website, showed Preckwinkle 24 percentage points ahead in a one-on-one matchup against Emanuel. 

The story quickly exploded locally and nationally creating a “volume, intensity” and “frequency” of questions that Preckwinkle said finally propelled her to end months of speculation.

“I’m not heartbroken,” Preckwinkle told reporters Tuesday. “It was a decision that was clear to me for some time that I needed to make and, as I said, the Sun-Times basically forced my hand. 

“If they hadn’t published those poll results, I don’t think the questions would have been of the same volume, intensity, frequency, whatever. But given the poll results, I think it was going to be hard to get people to focus on anything else we were doing, because the questions would all be about the mayor’s race.”

Preckwinkle’s exodus certainly clears a path for Lewis, who told the Sun-Times on Monday that she was in the midst of launching an exploratory committee. 

Lewis had also beaten Emanuel in the automated Early & Often Poll. And in the days after that survey was released, more players have come out of the woodwork in a sign of broadening political support for a Lewis-Emanuel match-up.

“I don’t think there’s any doubt in anybody’s mind, that she’s viable,” said U.S. Rep. Danny Davis, D-Ill. “She doesn’t have to create name recognition, she has it. She has a loyal cadre of followers. … She has created a level of excitement among lots of people in Chicago, in different communities. I think lots of people are waiting to see what she’s going to do before they decide where to hang their hat.”

Davis said Emanuel’s decision to close 50 schools in poor neighborhoods wrankled voters, not to mention Davis.

“[Lewis)]certainly has an interest in educating the children,” he said. “From what I have seen of Karen Lewis, many of the positions and expressions that she has made I am in agreement with.”

Ald. Roderick Sawyer (6th), the son of a onetime Chicago Mayor Eugene Sawyer on  Tuesday dropped his past contention that Lewis was a one-issue candidate after talking with Lewis advisers in recent days.

“I believe Karen Lewis, if she decides to run, would bring a light on a lot of issues that I think to a certain degree have been pushed aside by the current administration,” Sawyer said. 

Meanwhile, a Lewis spokeswoman said the union president’s efforts exploring a  mayoral bid continued.

 “Although we are saddened by President Preckwinkle’s announcement, we respect her decision to continue to lead the county,” said Lewis spokeswoman Stephanie Gadlin. “But the citizens of Chicago cannot withstand another four years of error, disrespect and disregard. The Karen Lewis Exploratory Committee is in development, and she will hit the ground running when she returns from a much needed vacation.”

RELATED: Preckwinkle’s decision good for Emanuel and Lewis

Do Preckwinkle and Rahm get along? Silence is deafening

Ald. Sawyer calls Karen Lewis a viable opponent to Rahm

Karen Lewis inches closer to run — crafting exploratory committee

Preckwinkle said she wouldn’t make a run for mayor now because she still had work to do in the county, including its criminal justice system, health care and viability of pension system. 

Asked about the development moments after Early & Often first broke the news of Preckwinkle dropping out, Emanuel did not seem surprised.

“Since Day One, Toni and I have worked on issues facing all of Chicago residents. As you know, we worked together on finding savings, about $65 million. We worked on the issues and will continue to work on the issues of criminal justice and health care reform and health care cost control to make sure we’re serving everybody, all the residents of Chicago,” Emanuel said in a news availability on Tuesday. When pressed on whether Preckwinkle’s departure would make his re-election easier, Emanuel wouldn’t answer: “I agree we have a lot more work to do, respectfully, in our role. I’ve addressed your core question.”

Preckwinkle’s decision leaves Lewis the frontrunner among the potential challengers. 

In a head-to-head match-up in the Early & Often Poll, the Chicago Teachers Union president was beating Emanuel 45 percent to 36 percent.

Lewis has not yet officially entered the race, but on Monday she told Early & Often she was working on putting together an exploratory committee and lining up representatives in each of the city’s 77 community areas. 

At an unrelated news conference at Kelly High School prior to Preckwinkle’s announcement, Emanuel repeatedly refused to respond directly to the poll that showed him trailing Lewis. 

Emanuel didn’t bite either when asked why Lewis has been his No. 1 adversary ever since he took office. 

“This is not about personalities. It’s about priorities and progress on behalf of every child and every family in every neighborhood of Chicago,” the mayor said. 

“It’s about making sure that we have a set of policies across a waterfront of issues that face the city …. to address them and … have an agenda that continues, in my view, making progress. While we’re not done, are we doing the right things for the future or do we have a set of policies that return us to a time when the city was challenged on a broad array of issues?”

The mayor did not respond when asked what it was about Lewis and her policies that would return Chicago to the old way of doing business.

“I’m gonna lay out what I think is important. My focus right now is all about the issues,” he said.

 

In many ways, a head-to-head race between Emanuel and Lewis will be Act 3 or 4 of a much longer political play.

To say that Emanuel and Lewis have had a difficult relationship would be an understatement. Their relationship is non-existent.

The mayor started things off on the wrong foot by allegedly using the F-word during one of his earliest private meetings with Lewis.

He then attempted to run roughshod over her by raising the threshold for a teachers strike and muscling through his signature plan for a longer day. The mayor’s missteps inadvertently helped Lewis garner a 90 percent strike vote that would have been unthinkable otherwise. During a massive pre-strike rally, Lewis denounced the mayor as a “liar and a bully.”

On Sept. 10, 2012, Chicago teachers went on strike for the first time in 25 years, fueled by their anger against a mayor who stripped them of a previously negotiated 4 percent pay raise and offered schools and teachers extra money to waive the teachers contract and immediately implement his longer school day.

The strike damaged Chicago’s reputation and turned Lewis into a folk hero with the guts to fight City Hall.

Since the strike, Emanuel and Lewis have gone toe-to-toe on the mayor’s plan to close nearly 50 schools, a battle the mayor won.

Lewis announced an aggressive campaign to register 100,000 new voters by 2015, recruit and train candidates for mayor and alderman and help bankroll their campaigns.

She also used a City Club speech to denounce the mayor’s “rich white friends” whom, she claims, want to privatize public education.

On Tuesday, Lewis said she was not concerned about a race in fund-raising. 

“I’m not interested in the same people he’s interested in,” Lewis said.  Of his $7 million, she said: “Good for him, I don’t know those people. [Lewis contributions] would come from people who I would know and meet and shake hands with and be part of the process.”

Lewis said she has a “great working relationship” with the Chicago Public Schools, but the mayor gets in the way of “very important progress” being made.

That is why Lewis said she is pushing to create an elected school board.

Emanuel has acknowledged that he has alienated some Chicago voters with his polarizing personal style and would benefit politically from being “smoother around the edges.”

Ald. Bob Fioretti (2nd) said Tuesday he will decide whether to enter the race by the end of August “if not earlier” after completing, what he called a “listening tour” of Chicago’s 50 wards.

Fioretti said his decision would be unaffected by Preckwinkle’s surprise announcement or by Lewis’ political flirtation.

It would be based on “making sure we have an organization in every ward, people committed to a progressive agenda” that includes an elected school board, more police hiring and educational opportunities throughout the city, the alderman said.

“Rahm Emanuel is not that vulnerable. He’s still the incumbent. He’s only vulnerable if we can create a movement, get people registered to vote and get them to come to the polls, both in November and February building an organization at the grass roots,” Fioretti said.

Fioretti estimated that it would take between $3 million and $5 million to wage a credible race against Emanuel. 

“I’m setting an agenda on education, safety, community investment and how we bring Chicago together and make it a great city and not a tale of two cities,” the alderman said.

 “If the right kind of race is run, yes he can be beaten based on a peoples’ platform. Sometimes you see people become tone deaf. They don’t listen to the people of this city. The greatness of the city can happen again, but it will have to occur under new leadership.”

Others who have declared their candidacy include former Ald. Robert Shaw, William J. Kelly, Amara Eniya, and Frederick Collins.

Earlier this year, Emanuel told the Sun-Times that Preckwinkle had assured him she had no intention of running for mayor and that he took her at her word.

He turned out to be right. But, that does not mean Preckwinkle plans to endorse the mayor for re-election. She said on Tuesday she didn’t weigh in 2011 and she had no plans to do so again. 

“I’m not going to be talking about the prospects for other candidates,” Preckwinkle said Tuesday. “Their path is their own.”