Chicago Teachers Union delegates have officially promoted Jesse Sharkey as their president, formalizing his role after months of filling in for the ailing Karen Lewis.

Taking his spot as vice president isn’t one of the other elected officials but Stacy Davis Gates, a former high school teacher who’s served as the CTU’s political director since 2010 when the progressive caucus led by the charismatic Lewis won control of the powerful teachers union.

Sidelined from public life by an aggressive brain tumor and then a stroke, Lewis formally resigned her post late last month, according to the CTU.

Per the union’s constitution, both Sharkey, 49, and Davis Gates, 42, were appointed to fill the vacancies by the CTU’s executive board and approved Wednesday night by the House of Delegates.

Former Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis. Sun-Times photo

Former Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis. Sun-Times photo

The promotion of Sharkey, considered more radical than the pragmatic Lewis, is no surprise as he’d been running day-to-day union business while she recuperated. He said Davis Gates was an obvious choice for second-in-command.
“The heart of the issue there is that the CTU is looking to carry on a political legacy which Karen helped establish but wells up from our rank and file, and the things we believe in as a union,” Sharkey said. “We’re looking for leadership that would offer some continuity, but based on a willingness to fight for what’s right in the schools.”

Davis Gates, whose children attend CPS, taught social studies at Clemente and the former Englewood Tech and Mason Community Links high schools from 2004 until she joined the CTU staff. She helped to coordinate a voter referendum in 37 of 50 wards for an elected school board and to organize a challenge to Emanuel in 2015, when Lewis considered running against him until her cancer diagnosis.

The ratification votes by the hundreds of HOD members come at a turbulent time for the CTU, just as the union’s nemesis, Rahm Emanuel, announced he wouldn’t seek a third term as mayor. Emanuel’s tenure ends in May, the same month the CTU will hold its next elections for its entire membership to choose leaders. The current leaders likely will face opposition. Members interested in taking over have publicly questioned union finances. 

And it’s still too soon to know how many dues-paying members the CTU could lose as a result of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Janus decision, though labor experts have predicted at least five percent. 

The union’s contract also expires at the end of June and its leaders are already hoping to capitalize on CPS’ improved finances after years of budget cuts.

Emanuel’s departure could throw a wrench into plans to begin negotiating the new deal since Chicago’s mayor appoints the schools CEO as well as the Board of Education’s seven members.

Sharkey stopped short of endorsing Janice Jackson, Emanuel’s well-liked fifth schools chief who spent years as a teacher and principal, but he called her “the most qualified CEO we’ve had in the last 20 years.”

“We’ve always had disagreements with the leadership of CPS, we’re not like bosom buddies, but on the other hand, I will say I have respect for Janice Jackson as an educator and I think it would do CPS well to have some stability,” he said.
CPS did not return messages seeking comment.