‘I’m not done,’ Karen Lewis says a year after cancer diagnosis
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One of the mayor’s leading adversaries isn’t going anywhere.
A year after a sudden cancer diagnosis, Karen Lewis told the Chicago Sun-Times on Tuesday that she plans to seek a third term in May as the boisterous leader of the city’s teachers union.
“I’m not done,” she said at the Chicago Teachers Union’s headquarters. “I think we need to make CPS a much better place for kids and for the adults that work with them. And we can do that if we work collectively and work together.”
She hopes that before that union election, members will have a contract to replace the one that expired June 30.
Lewis, who now sports baby-fine cropped hair under her hat and is almost unrecognizably slender compared to a year ago, said her doctor gave her a clean bill of health on Monday — the anniversary of her diagnosis — and she will be finished with chemotherapy by December. An MRI last week also came back clean, she said, with no signs of a tumor. Her appetite just came back, too, she said.
“I feel good,” the 62-year-old said. “What that means a year in is that I’m not exhausted. By now a year ago, I would have been looking for some place to crawl up into and fall asleep. But not now. I feel great. I’m back to doing what I like doing best which is my job.”
Last October, Lewis was sidelined from plans to run for mayor by a shocking diagnosis of a brain tumor. She quickly underwent surgery to remove it as her supporters were collecting signatures on her behalf and raising money. Lewis encouraged her supporters to back Cook County Commissioner Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, who managed to force Rahm Emanuel into a runoff but ultimately did not unseat the man Lewis called a “one-term mayor.”
She and the mayor have made up. He infamously hurled the F-word at her shortly after his 2011 election, but he reached out to her after she got sick and the two still occasionally text.
Lewis described her job now as “a big fight for the soul and the heart of publicly funded public education, which these people are trying to destroy, starting with the governor on down.”
She spoke clearly without any of last winter’s hesitation, saying, “It is clear that mayoral control has been a disaster and it’s gotten us to where we are now.”
Asked for comment, mayoral spokeswoman Kelley Quinn would say only that “we’re glad to see Ms. Lewis hasn’t lost her fighting spirit, and we hope she’s ready to take that fight to Springfield so we can secure pension parity for our teachers, and equal funding for our students.”
CPS has laid off hundreds of staffers since the summer and made more than $200 million in cuts to programs. The district is banking on a $480 million gift from Springfield to balance its current operating budget.
But Lewis does not believe that money is coming from the state — not while Gov. Bruce Rauner remains in charge.
“And revenue cannot just be increasing property taxes,” she said. “That just cannot be the only way to look at it.”
She repeated the CTU’s mantra that CPS should sue banks with which it made risky “swap” borrowing deals and enact a millionaire’s tax.
The CTU also is lobbying state legislators to pass a bill enacting an elected school board in Chicago and wants the same collective bargaining rights as every other Illinois district — such as negotiating class size limits.
Meanwhile, the CTU continues to negotiate with the Board of Education.
Talks are ongoing under a mediator, but they’re moving slowly. When Forrest Claypool accepted the mayor’s appointment last summer as CPS CEO, negotiations more or less restarted. He rescinded the possibility of a single-year contract, according to the union. The district has remained mum, saying it doesn’t negotiate in public.
Strike polls have been taken at some schools to test the waters, though state law wouldn’t let the CTU walk out — as it did in 2012 — until at least February. So any possible action could come right before CTU elections in May, when Lewis faces re-election.
Asked how Claypool is faring as CEO, Lewis said, “I think he’s a technocrat. And I think he’s making huge errors. I think he’s alienating a lot of people.”
She also thinks Frank Clark, whose name is on a charter school, was a “poor choice” to install as board president because of his strong charter ties.
Lewis said she has talked to Claypool and his chief education officer, Janice Jackson, but “much less” than she did with the former CEO, Barbara Byrd-Bennett, who was about Lewis’ age and had spent years in the classroom.
“I don’t have that much to talk to him about cause he doesn’t know anything about education,” she said.
CPS did not respond to messages seeking comment.