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Carol Felsenthal
On politics

CTU’s Jesse Sharkey Thinks Rahm Is Finished in Chicago

The interim head of the Chicago Teachers Union is one happy guy this morning.

Jesse Sharkey at Senn High School in November  Photo: Chris Strong

It’s the day after Election Day, and most of the analysis undoubtedly will center on what exactly happened that forced Rahm Emanuel into a runoff election against Jesus “Chuy” Garcia on April 7. And while that may be the biggest headline, one other shade to this year’s municipal elections is just how much the Chicago Teachers Union flexed its muscle. 

This morning I called Jesse Sharkey, the 45-year-old former high school teacher who took over as head of the CTU when Karen Lewis was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor last fall. (She has since returned to work.) For more on who Sharkey is and what drives him, read my interview with him from last November (part 1 here, part 2 here).

Sharkey was on his way to work and tired—out late at Garcia’s victory party—but exulting in Garcia’s victory, not to mention the slew of victories (or at least forced runoffs) of CTU-backed aldermanic candidates. Garcia will be the next mayor, Sharkey says, adding that politics in Chicago has changed forever.

How important is it that Chuy has forced Rahm into a runoff?

Extremely important. Remember, Chuy got in late [he entered the race in late October]. He announced his candidacy with only three weeks to go before nominating petitions were due. We brought a lot of very committed people to this contest, especially in parts of the south and west sides. We had 100-percent-committed volunteers working outdoors in brutally cold weather. We had phone banks going around the clock. The CTU played an important role in getting Chuy to run. Chuy had been advising Karen Lewis on her run. We thought he was viable as soon as it was clear Karen couldn’t run.

Were the conditions of CPS schools, and the decision to close so many in Chicago, what brought people out?

Schools were the marquee issue of this campaign and Rahm suffered losses because of his high-handedness in relation to school issues.

The CTU was in this not only for Chuy, but also for a bunch of alderman. How’d they do?

We endorsed 22 aldermanic candidates, including five CTU members, and did extremely well. Three of our CTU members—Susan Sadlowski Garza in the 10th, Tim Meegan in the 33rd, and Tara Stamps in 37th—are in runoffs, and two are in runoffs against multi-term incumbents. In the 33rd ward, our candidate is in a runoff against Deb Mell, Dick Mell’s daughter. Imagine that.

We had outright wins with Carlos Ramirez-Rosa in the 35th ward and David Moore in the 17th. We endorsed five of the seven City Council Progressive Caucus members. All of them won. And CTU played a heavy role in the 37th ward, where Tara Stamps forced the incumbent, Emma Mitts, into a runoff. The heart of the Stamps organization was west side teachers and paraprofessionals. If you went out to the west side you’d have seen a lot of us.

Carlos Ramirez-Rosa, who beat Ald. Rey Colon in the 35th, seemed to come out of nowhere.

There’s a beneath-the-surface story there. The 35th ward overlaps with the important 39th House District which state representative Will Guzzardi just won. Carlos played an important role in the Guzzardi campaign organization.

So the CTU was out working for these people?

There’s a saying that all politics is local. To a degree, that was true in this cycle. There was lots of talk that turnout was so low—and part of it was miserable, cold weather—but on the Sunday before Election Day, we had well over 300 people outside for hours. People said it was the coldest they had ever been.

How important was the elected school board as an issue for you?

It was especially important because of the fact that you elect a mayor and the mayor himself is unpopular. The school board has taxing power, and it resonates with people that you have taxation without representation; it goes against the grain of what people think about democracy. I think the issue will continue to advance. We’ll have an elected school board sooner or later. In political-cost terms, it could be the issue that will cost Rahm Emanuel his job.

There’s a theme out there that this election is about teaching Rahm a lesson, making him more humble, but that after Rahm is, so to speak, given a time out, we forgive and have a nice dinner together and then we vote for him. In that case, Rahm likely wins on April 7. 

The takeaway is the mayor is going to lose. The point is that Chuy has momentum. Rahm can’t run away from the fact that he closed 50 schools, that he opposes an elected school board, that his donors list is full of rich people, many who live out of state or in the suburbs. Rahm gets six-figure checks and gives out political favors more than half the time. Those are issues that stick to the mayor. So it’s a rebuke for his political program but I think it’s also a wake-up call for elected officials who can now see that even on a brutally cold day people will turn out to push this city in a different direction.

I’m also hearing people say that this is a rebuke to the establishment of the Democratic Party—the analogy is that Rahm is Hillary and Chuy is Elizabeth Warren.

Look at a number of major cities—New York with de Blasio and Newark with Mayor Ras Baraka. As the Democratic Party has governed to the right and taken on tax cuts for the wealthy and public coffers shrink, there’s a big space that has opened up to the left and candidates are saying, “My opponents are corporate Democrats.”

What were you doing on Election Day?

My day started at 5:30 a.m. I was outside walking precincts, leafleting public transportation. I was outside for 11 hours, and then went over to Alhambra Palace for Chuy’s victory party. I hugged him.

He seemed much more aggressive last night in his victory speech. What did you think?

I thought it was great; pointing out the difference between himself and his populist mode and Rahm, the mayor for the one percent.

Does anything else stand out about the Chuy event?

When Luis Gutierrez [who endorsed Rahm] addressed the crowd at Rahm’s event, you should have heard our people watching on the TV monitors. Gutierrez got the strongest reaction of all. Booed, roundly booed.

What did you think when President Obama came in earlier this month and, essentially, made a campaign commercial for Rahm?

I thought, “Oh, come on, really?” It’s such a desperate, last-minute campaign maneuver. The mayor has a zillion dollars, and a sitting president gives you a hug. Then you get Magic Johnson. It smacked of cheap celebrity endorsement. And it was ineffective.

What are the next six weeks going to look like?

Hard fought. Lots of politics is about momentum. The reason that imperial leaders like Rahm, or George W., or the Daleys could get away with so much is not because people liked what they were doing. It’s because they don’t think they can do anything about it. Once the little idea sinks in, that’s when you have 26,000 on the streets around the CTU strike; that’s when Harold Washington gets elected. That’s the chink in [Rahm’s] armor. The people who went to the polls last night voted against this style of governing, despite Rahm’s stack of money, the cold weather, the air of inevitability. I think we’re going to bring political change. I think Rahm’s finished in Chicago. I’m not going to lie. I thought Rahm would be hard to beat. You always hope for the best and prepare for the worst.

Do you think you’ll get some national endorsements, like [New York Mayor] Bill de Blasio?

De Blasio would be important. I’d like to see national labor come in a little more. One thing which I found sort of disgraceful is all the trade union people up on stage with Rahm. The fact is that the union rank and file didn’t vote for Rahm.

When Rahm worked in the Clinton and Obama White Houses, he reportedly called immigration “the third rail of American politics.” Was that a factor in Chuy’s numbers last night?

Yes. Rahm doesn’t have a great history in the immigrant-rights community. He very cynically used the issues. Now he understands there are votes attached to that in a city of immigrants.

Did Rahm’s toxic relationship with Karen Lewis play a role? It seems if there was no Karen Lewis, there’d be no Chuy Garcia on what will become a national stage now. And when Rahm said, “Fuck you, Lewis,” that had an impact.

Those were fateful words. That’s the chickens coming home to roost. There’s a story; not sure if it’s apocryphal. Early in his term, Rahm is meeting with Rich Daley and Daley is advising him, “Don’t mess with the teachers.” Rahm couldn’t hear that. Arrogance and pushiness are at the heart of Rahm. Regular people discern that about him so clearly.

There’s a teachers’ contract looming. Are you in negotiations with Rahm’s people right now?

We’ve started already. Substantive negotiations are under way. I think Rahm wants to make a deal. I think he wanted a deal before last night and he’ll want a deal even more whether he wins or loses in April. There will be hard political choices for Rahm or for Chuy. We are going to ask for things to make the schools decent. We are not going to say, “Okay, we’ll take the two percent raise and call ourselves good.” We want counselors in the schools, we want nurses. It won’t be easy for either of them.

How’s Karen doing? Were you in touch with her on Election Day? I assume she must not be feeling well or we would have seen a commercial for Chuy at the end.

I was in touch with her yesterday. She did make appearances. She had photos taken with endorsed [aldermanic] candidates. She recorded a radio spot in early February. She’s doing okay. It’s two steps forward, one back, some days better than others. She has an irrepressible desire to work. Since her diagnosis she has, some days, worked too hard, knocked herself back on her ass, and then she needs to recuperate.

Is she in the hospital or at home?

She’s at home, coming into the office, but not every day. On the day she spoke to the City Club, she worked an eight- or ten-hour day.

Do you think that she’ll campaign in some way for Chuy?

I expect so. I just think you have to remember that she is very ill and we’re not trying to sacrifice our president behind a runoff.

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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