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Carol Felsenthal
On politics

Meet the Woman Working to Defeat Rahm Emanuel

Kristen Crowell, the former head of “We Are Wisconsin,” which sought to defeat Scott Walker, now has her sights set on Rahm.

Kristen Crowell, at podium, is the executive director of United Working Families.  Photo: Courtesy of United Working Families

Here’s the basics on Kristen Crowell, executive director of the new Chicago group United Working Families: She’s 39, a mother of four (ranging in age from 5 to 19), and was raised in rural Marshfield, Wisconsin in a big German family. A veteran of 16 years in the trenches of progressive politics, she’s best known for heading “We Are Wisconsin,” a group which attempted to oust, via recall, Wisconsin’s union-busting governor Scott Walker. Walker not only defeated the recall attempt, but he was just reelected governor and, after a rip-roaring, red-meat speech in Iowa, he tops some polls for the Republican nomination for president.

When I interviewed Crowell on Thursday, she told me she fled Wisconsin in disgust. Two years ago, she moved to Noble Square on Chicago’s West Side. Last summer she took the job as paid executive director of United Working Families, a new political group which draws its support from the Chicago Teachers Union, SEIU Healthcare Illinois, and assorted community groups. She heads a staff of 11 with offices on South Halsted Street in space rented from the SEIU.

This daughter of a public school teacher, Crowell calls her new position “more than a job, rather a lifelong commitment to advancing a progressive agenda,” in a state which, she says, has “values rooted in working peoples’ lives.”

The victory of Republican Bruce Rauner in the governor’s race last November was disappointing , she admits, but just a temporary setback. (Last week Salon dubbed Bruce Rauner “the Next Scott Walker.”)

Her immediate focus is on the mayor’s race—her organization has endorsed Jesus “Chuy” Garcia and 16 like-minded candidates for the City Council, seven of them incumbents and all of those current members of the City Council’s Progressive Reform Caucus: John Arena, Toni Foulkes, Leslie Hairston, Ricardo Munoz, Roderick Sawyer, Nick Sposato, and Scott Waguespack. United Working Families is also backing—by providing funding, training, and strategic advice on such areas as fundraising and communications—the following “grass-roots” challengers: Tara Baldridge (8th ward), Sue Garza (10th ward), Rafael Yañez (15th ward), David Moore (17th ward), Juanita Irizarry (26th ward), Zerlina Smith (29th ward), Tim Meegan (33rd ward), Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th ward), and Tara Stamps (37th ward).

Here’s an edited version of our conversation:

Why is Scott Walker so successful in the progressive state of Wisconsin, the state that gave us Robert La Follette?

Scott Walker is the most disciplined candidate on earth. He doesn’t make mistakes.

Okay, but he has a kind of stiff, unlikeable affect, don’t you think?

He’s very personable. People like him. He does really well with old people. He has been in the public eye for a long time. These people watched him grow up.

Why did United Working Families endorse Chuy Garcia? Most people in Illinois, including me, barely recognized the name when he jumped into the race.

Chuy been an ally for decades. He has a clear public service record.

Had you initially been behind CTU president Karen Lewis?

Yes, Working Families got involved formally and informally with Karen Lewis about running for mayor. Our members were really excited that she was going to run; that she was willing to say things that make the establishment uncomfortable, willing to take on the establishment. When she announced her illness, it was absolutely a very sad time for us.

On the mayor’s race, first; how can you compete with Rahm, with all those millions; with a guy, we just learned, who raised $800,000 in one week? 

Chuy will be up on TV really shortly. He started his campaign late; it was an unplanned campaign. Our allies are not the corporate elite. Not Exelon, not Comcast. Our base is poor. We always expected to be outspent by millions. We make up for it. On any given weekend we have some 700 volunteers out knocking on doors, working public forums. In the last month we have [attracted] 600 new members.

The City Council was often described as a “rubber stamp” when Rich Daley was Mayor. Same is true under Mayor Emanuel. Of the current Council members, which has most disappointed you?

Michelle Harris, alderman of the 8th ward, is someone who holds up a roadblock to any [progressive] policy. She absolutely is someone we’d like to see defeated.

One of the hottest issues in city politics at the moment is the fight between those who support the current system of an appointed school board and those who support an elected school board. I’d bet my firstborn that you’re for the latter, but why?

Absolutely, absolutely. Very simply, Rahm’s appointed school board is anti-democratic. And it breeds such horrors as the unilateral closing of 50 schools. Voters can have their say on the issue which is on the ballot [as a nonbinding referendum] in 37 wards. 

If Rahm is reelected, do you expect he’ll serve out his term or head to bigger precincts in DC?

My guess is that Rahm has his eye on the next presidential administration; maybe he’ll have some role in a Hillary Clinton White House. Assuming a lot of things—most important, that Hillary is the nominee. But if Hillary wins, I think he would go to the White House.

Will United Working Families be around to get involved in the 2016 presidential race?

I think the vision will remain, that we will continue to fight for the issues we care about, to grow locally [Crowell hopes for 100,000-plus members], to really build a home for people disenfranchised by a Democratic Party that has, in some respects, abandoned working people.

You mentioned that you would “love” to see Elizabeth Warren run for president. But your focus is more local than national, isn’t it?

We want to focus on Chicago neighborhoods; on the fact that there are two different Chicagos. And in 2016 we’re going to focus on state legislative races. You can bet that we’ll be looking at the Illinois General Assembly.

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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