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Carol Felsenthal
On politics

Karen Lewis: Rahm Would Have Won Even if McDonald Video Had Been Released

The head of the Chicago Teachers Union previews the possible teachers strike and lays into Rauner, Rahm, and others.

Karen Lewis in October  Photo: Terrence Antonio James/Chicago Tribune

It has been a bit more than a year since Karen Lewis, 62, was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor and abandoned her plan to run for mayor against Rahm Emanuel.          

“I feel great. I feel stronger,” she told me during a Sunday afternoon phone call, adding that she had just taken her last chemo pill and that results of her blood work and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) were good.

She has been back behind the bullhorn exhorting her members to prepare for another strike against Chicago Public Schools. The last one was in September 2012. This time the strike could happen as soon as next March. (The two sides are in mediation. State law requires the appointment of a fact-finding panel that includes representatives from both CTU and CPS, and once it gets going its investigation will take two-and-a-half months. The CTU has requested that fact-finding begin, but CPS has not yet agreed and Lewis says if there’s not agreement soon the next step is filing an “unfair labor practice.”)

Later this week, CTU members will vote yes or no on authorizing a strike. State law requires a 75 percent “yes” vote. In 2012 almost 90 percent of CTU teachers supported a strike, and Lewis says she is confident the CTU will hit a similar number this time. 

We talked about issues and personalities and her future plans, which she said do include running for another term as CTU president this May but do not include a run for mayor.

Below is an edited transcript of our conversation.

There have been calls among prominent people, editorialists, and pundits for Rahm to resign as mayor. Often attached to these calls is the opinion that if he had released, before the mayoral runoff, the video of the fatal shooting of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald, he would have lost to Chuy Garcia. Do you agree?

I don’t think he would have lost. I think that had he shown the video it would have helped him, shown that he was serious about transparency. But the real issue is how in the world was Chuy going to win? Rahm had all that money he could throw at the election. We are in a place now where elections are bought, not won.

Do you still want to run for mayor?

No. That was a moment in time. I will be 65 at the end of my next term if I get elected [as CTU president]. I don’t know that I have that kind of energy.

Having cancer puts things in perspective. I will never be cured. My doctor told me, “We don’t use the R word [remission].” I feel great, but it’s a lifelong challenge.

How much weight have you lost since getting sick?

200 pounds.

In public you are usually seen wearing a fedora or a beret. Has your hair grown back?

Not fully. There is still a large bald spot where the incision was made. I don’t mind showing people what my head looks like, not at all. The hats are more for the weather—it’s cold—than for vanity.

The city is still hoping to receive $480 million from Springfield. Any sense of whether this is in the pipeline?

I have no idea.

Do you ever talk to Gov. Rauner?

I do not have his private number. Mine is available. I have one cell phone; people can reach me. You had my number and were able to call me.

What about Rahm? Do you talk to him? It seems to me that you get along better with him in 2015 than you did in 2011.

Yes, he is better. We do talk to each other. I could pick up the phone and call Rahm and he’ll listen. You have to talk to people. We can’t sit in our respective quarters and cross our arms. Things don’t get done that way.

Is the CTU still looking for a one-year contract as opposed to CPS’s preference for a multi-year contract?

It’s irrelevant now. We’re almost halfway done with the school year. And how do you sign a deal with a broke company, broke on purpose.

What do you mean, “broke on purpose”?

CPS has chosen to spend money in ways that are not the best. Take the longer school day and school year. Rahm couldn’t afford it but did it because he was determined. Or the $200 million spent on an Aramark [cleaning] contract when they didn’t even calculate square footage, and the buildings are nastier than before. CPS has not sought revenue options that are readily available. [She mentions reconfiguring TIFs, suing banks over toxic swaps, imposing a commuter tax, and closing corporate loopholes as revenue options.]

There was much fanfare over the announcement of a new selective enrollment high school that Rahm wanted to name for Barack Obama. There’s now talk that plans to build another state-of-the-art selective school on the North Side should be scrapped. Do you agree?

I think so. There are better ways of spending the money CPS says it doesn’t have.

CPS CEO Forrest Claypool first announced that 500 teacher layoffs and cuts to programs would be made by Thanksgiving. Now the date has been pushed back to early February. What changed?

He realized you can’t do schools with 500 layoffs. Who’s going to put the grades in? It’s just posturing. This is part of Claypool’s knowing nothing about education.

Do you talk much to Claypool?

I don’t. I’ve just had a couple of conversations with him, fewer than with Barbara Byrd-Bennett, or even [previous CPS CEOs Jean-Claude] Brizard or [Ron] Huberman. Huberman was a technocrat but I had more contact with him.

I think Claypool was an unfortunate choice. He doesn’t really understand things that need to be done. It’s all about my boys and cronyism getting a residence waiver for his top guy. These guys say they have to work with their people. It’s completely opposite of what we do. We don’t control which kids are in the classroom. We have to figure out how to work with them.

The last strike was seven days long, and you and the CTU seemed to have a great deal of public support. Do you feel you risk wearing out your welcome this time?

Our parents are still with us. They come out and support us. They spoke at the Grant Park [Winter Labor Solidarity] rally we staged [on November 23].

I received notice that you would attend the Black Friday rally sparked by the release of the McDonald video. You did not. Why?

I didn’t feel well. I don’t push myself for outdoor activities. My health is my number one priority. That had been a very long week. I was exhausted and I just hunkered down on Friday.

What did you think of the Black Friday protestors’ tactic of taking their protest to Michigan Avenue?

I didn’t have anything to do with the planning; I didn’t know anything about it until the last minute. But economic issues are things we have been talking about for a long time, so no surprise.

Somebody on Twitter wrote [to protest leaders], “This is your march. Don’t let CTU steal your thunder.” We’re not trying to do that. How do you build alliances? We think about that, about not just being a fair-weather friend. These are our students and we need to support them.

Rahm has largely revamped the CPS board. What do you make of its new members, in particular Frank Clark [retired chairman of Commonwealth Edison] as president of the board?

Frank Clark sat on the committee that closed 50 schools. That’s what I think. It’s just musical chairs at negotiating meetings, constantly changing players, very dysfunctional.

The elected school board has gained resonance over the last few years. Are you any closer to realizing that?

There’s a bill in Springfield that has 55 cosponsors on it. Of course City Hall wants to put a brick on that. That legislation will come out of committee and make it to the floor of the House for sure, possibly the Senate. Eighty-nine percent of constituents want it, so that’s real movement. Yes, Rauner will probably veto it. He truly believes in the nondemocratic, “You do as I say” way. I think that’s why he’s having a tough time.

On the national level, any thoughts about resignation of Arne Duncan as education secretary and about his interim replacement, John King?

I’ve said a lot about Arne previously. John King is awful. Like Arne, he’s one of these let’s-test-until-they-drop people. 

Last question: Which Democrat are you supporting for president in 2016—Hillary, Bernie, or Martin O’Malley?

I’m not interested in the presidential race at this point. I’m interested in the next Illinois primary, but that’s for another conversation.

Carol Felsenthal is a lifelong Chicagoan and self-proclaimed political junkie. She writes occasionally for Politico Magazine and The Hill. Her books include biographies of Bill Clinton, Katharine Graham, and Alice Roosevelt Longworth. Among her many stories for Chicago are memorable profiles of Michelle Obama and Bruce Rauner. Follow her on Twitter at @csfelsenthal.

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