Chicago Teachers Union president Karen Lewis, whose brain cancer derailed a likely bid for mayor, said Friday she has retired to “focus on my health, get well.”
The feisty union president who commanded the country’s third largest teachers union was diagnosed in 2014 with an aggressive form of brain cancer that halted any plans to unseat Mayor Rahm Emanuel. She underwent the same brain surgery earlier this month to remove the same kind of tumor from the same place, she said by telephone Friday afternoon.
“It’s not bad news — it’s the same news,” she said of her cancer. “It’s going to keep coming back, it’s never going to not come back. I don’t need the stress of working. … These bad boys come back. It is what it is. I’m not giving up this fight.”
The type of cancer that Lewis has — glioblastoma — is among the deadliest, typically proving fatal within less than a year and a half. Yet she returned to work after her initial surgery, then had a stroke last year in an area of the brain where the tumor was removed — which she called “a minor setback in my recovery from brain cancer”.
The 64-year-old submitted her retirement papers to Chicago Public Schools and the Chicago Teachers Pension Fund, effective Friday. Retiring bars her from holding elected office with the CTU, she said. She had already publicly announced that she did not intend to run for a fourth three-year term in the CTU’s next election in May.
In retirement, Lewis said she’ll continue “some political stuff I’m interested in.”
“Not door knocking or anything like that,” she continued, but helping more CTU members win elected office.
“I would like to see somebody else as mayor. I can’t decide who interests me the most yet,” she said. “We do need a new governor, that’s for sure.”
Her plans also include finishing a book she’s writing about women in leadership.
“That’s my first big goal, ’cause a lot of people have written books but they’ve gotten a lot of stuff wrong,” she said.
Vice president Jesse Sharkey, who has assumed day-to-day responsibilities whenever Lewis was in treatment, is expected to take over. Union officials would not comment Friday as they scrambled to notify their 25,000 members.
Born in Chicago, Lewis attended CPS’ Kozminski Elementary School and Kenwood High School, leaving before graduation to take early admission at Mount Holyoke College. She later transferred to Dartmouth College, where she was the only African-American woman in her graduating class.
The daughter of CPS teachers, Lewis spent the bulk of her 22-year teaching career in a chemistry classroom, most recently at King College Prep High School in Bronzeville. Her husband, also retired, was a PE teacher and coach.
In 2010, she and members of a progressive caucus calling itself the Caucus of Rank-and-file Educators or CORE emerged from a crowded field of challengers to take charge of the union in a runoff election. They quickly butted heads with the newly elected Emanuel, who had accepted campaign contributions from charter school champions and other education reform leaders, and immediately pushed through a longer school day and year for CPS.
Lewis led nearly 30,000 red-shirted union members out on strike in 2012 over those and other Emanuel proposals, shutting schools down for seven days for the first time in 25 years. She and the mayor had a fraught relationship, sparked by his allegedly telling her “F— you, Lewis” during a heated, closed-door discussion in 2012. The tensions lessened after her cancer diagnosis, when they reached a detente.
Emanuel said in response to news of her retirement that “Karen may be stepping down from her position at CTU, but I know she’ll never stop fighting for Chicago’s children.”
As she put it Friday, “We’re not fighting publicly anymore, but we’re not friends either.”
Her supporters were collecting signatures in 2014 to put her on the mayoral ballot when she was diagnosed. She ended up backing Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, who lost after forcing Emanuel into a runoff.
During Lewis’ tenure, the CTU flexed its financial muscle from a property sale to back advocacy groups whose work reached far beyond school conditions and teacher pay to causes such as immigration and police brutality. The union’s wider role continues to raise eyebrows among some members who question such spending at CTU meetings.
Lewis’ retirement also coincides with an imminent Supreme Court ruling expected to weaken public sector unions.
She defended her union’s expanded role saying it makes the CTU stronger.
“When America was its greatest, we had much higher union density in this country. When we had all this union density we did not work hard enough to include all working people,” Lewis said. “It’s important for us to look at the other working people and bring them along with us instead of acting like our pay and benefits were for us only. That’s one of the things I think the labor movement did wrong.”