Rahm talks to archrival Karen Lewis for first time since 2011 F-bomb episode
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For the first time since his notorious, profane tirade against her, Mayor Rahm Emanuel picked up the phone this week and actually talked to his chief adversary, Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis.
The post-election call was not a negotiating session or even a prelude to hammering out a new teachers contract, erasing a $1.14 billion budget shortfall or solving the $9.5 billion teacher pension crisis.
It was an attempt to break the ice between archrivals the day after a runoff election that saw the Lewis-led CTU pour hundreds of thousands of dollars and thousands of foot soldiers into the campaign of Emanuel’s vanquished challenger, Jesus “Chuy” Garcia.
“I’m all for trying to reset the button because I don’t think Rahm Emanuel and me not talking is productive,” Lewis said by telephone Thursday.
The feisty union leader who emerged from the strike as a folk hero, said she used to think they didn’t need to talk, especially since she and CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett enjoy a good working relationship.
“But maybe I do,” she said. “Maybe this counters the narrative that he gets from the people he wants to hear all the time.”
Wednesday’s phone call to Lewis could be a first step to the kinder, gentler Emanuel showcased in the “I hear ya’” campaign commercials.
City Hall was equally optimistic about the call.
“The mayor thought they had a very good conversation and both were honest in their desire to start fresh after the last four years,” said a top mayoral aide, who asked to remain annonymous.
“The challenges they face in getting Springfield to act require that they work together. The election was a good opportunity to hit the reset button.”
Sources said the mayor is determined to be more collaborative and less confrontational in a second term.
Rather than taking a victory lap — as he did in a TV commercial funded by anti-union allies after the 2012 strike — Emanuel made peace that may avoid another embarrassing teachers strike and solve a teacher pension crisis that could threaten CPS with bankruptcy.
“It’s over. He won. He could turn his back on them. But what he recognizes is that, as harmful as she tried to be, she could be that helpful” in solving the financial crisis, said Ald. Pat O’Connor (40th), the mayor’s City Council floor leader and former Education Committee chairman, calling Emanuel a “very pragmatic person.”
And despite their contentious history, Emanuel could turn out to be Lewis’ most important ally against Gov. Bruce Rauner’s attempt to break public employee unions, including the CTU even if it means using bankruptcy to free local governments from collective-bargaining restraints.
“Now there might be a reason for the teachers union to look for an alliance with the [Emanuel] administration to avoid some dire state consequence,” O’Connor said. “There could be some wisdom in trying to find commonality to avoid having their fates dictated to them by Springfield.
He added, “If they can speak in the same voice, it helps us.”
Emanuel and Lewis’ relationship essentially hasn’t existed for four years, save some text messages when she got sick and when his son was mugged.
The mayor started off on the wrong foot by allegedly using the F-word during one of his earliest meetings with Lewis.
Lewis has said Emanuel “ exploded ” at her during the 2011 conversation about his signature longer-school-day effort, pointing his finger at her, yelling and telling her , “ F— you, Lewis .”
He then ran roughshod over her by raising the strike threshold and muscling through the longer school day plan. Calling him a “liar and a bully” in 2012, she led teachers out on strike for the first time in 25 years.
Then Emanuel and Lewis went toe-to-toe on the mayor’s plan to close nearly 50 schools.
Lewis announced an aggressive campaign to register 100,000 new voters by 2015, and was planning to run against him herself until she was diagnosed with brain cancer.
Emanuel’s call was “short” but a long time coming, Lewis said.
“A lot of people have told him that’s what he needs to do,” she said. “And he did it. Rahm’s not stupid.”
Whether he’s changed for good, she said, “I don’t think it’s possible to judge that right now, but we’ll see how it works.”