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Karen Lewis may play with fire, but she didn’t start it

Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis speaks to the City Club of Chicago on April 20, 2016. (Rich Hein/Chicago Sun-Times)

She must be feeling better. Much better.

I watched Karen Lewis take The City Club of Chicago stage last week, energized, vibrant, and uber feisty.

The two-year brain cancer survivor was back on her old game with new zeal, and punchy, from the top of her jaunty cream fedora to the tip of the toes of her lime-green running shoes.

She planted her Nikes at the podium and … went off. The popular and powerful Chicago Teachers Union president launched a scathing attack on Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner, declaring him a “new ISIS recruit.”

OPINION

“Has Homeland Security checked this man out yet?” she inquired. “Because the things he’s doing look like acts of terror on poor and working class people.”

Rauner is also a “liar” “bad guy” and “bully,” she added.

As I sipped my coffee, I knew a crucial message in her speech would be blotted out by the fray to come.

It seemed as though every newspaper, TV outlet, web site, and Twitter feed blared her incendiary words. A Chicago Tribune columnist dubbed her comments “garbage,” and “Trumpian,” in sneering reference to the Republican presidential front-runner.

“This kind of rhetoric has no place in American public discourse and sets a terrible example for our kids,” responded Rauner spokeswoman Catherine Kelly.

Lewis’s words were “beyond despicable” and “obscene,” wrote  Illinois Republican Party Chairman Tim Schneider in a fundraising pitch.

Indeed, as a prominent Chicago policymaker remarked afterwards, “She minced no words.”

And yes, some of those words were over the top.  But her goal is noble: Make headlines, command attention, and stand ground for “the poor and working class people,” the invisible casualties of the political wars in Chicago, Springfield and beyond.

Lewis detailed how the state’s budget stalemate was a “war on Chicago’s youth.”

More than 1.3 million children in the Chicago metro area are in poverty; in the city, “89 percent of whom we teach in our schools.”

Black youths are 37 percent of the population, but 79 percent of the arrests. Latino youth are 40 percent of the population, 18 percent of arrests.

More than 22,144 CPS students are homeless.

In Illinois, the percentage of children who spend more than two years in state custody “is nearly twice as high as in other states,” yet the state fiscal year 2016 budget allotment for their care amounts to $10,511 dollars, she notes. “Ten thousand dollars!”

Shortages in school nurses, teachers and other school workers  pile on more misery, she said.

That’s obscene.

“We give tax breaks to the wealthy and we give banks a pass, yet we cut budgets that help poor, troubled children to the bare bones?” she asked.

With no relief, Lewis warned, the CTU will be forced to strike.

The City Club needs to know those children and youth. The multi-racial audience of civic, political, government and corporate leaders have muscular connections.  Illinois’ power players need to know these are all our children, and understand the depth and breadth of their suffering.

As he opened the program, Roosevelt University Professor Paul Green asked the crowd of 340, “How many of you have children in Chicago Public Schools?” About 20 hands went up.

“I think (Lewis is) right on a lot of issues,” one parent told me. Kristie Hansen, an Edison Park resident, has two daughters in the Chicago Public Schools.

Hansen will stand with a strike, she said, if that’s what it will take to get CPS and other powers to find new revenue for the schools.

“Yeah, I am prepared as a parent because my kids and I do understand,” she said.

Her older daughter attends North Side Prep, and “is very upset because a lot of her favorite teachers will get fired because, if they can’t, if they don’t have any money.”

Yes, Lewis’ words are incendiary.  But she didn’t start the fire.

Follow Laura Washington Twitter: Follow @mediadervish

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