Karen Lewis v. Rahm Emanuel may be good for Chicago

Should Chicago Teachers' Union president Karen Lewis decide to run for mayor -- and win -- her style of governing would differ markedly from Rahm Emanuel's. [File photo by Sophia Nahli Allison]

Should Chicago Teachers' Union president Karen Lewis decide to run for mayor -- and win -- her style of governing would differ markedly from Rahm Emanuel's. [File photo by Sophia Nahli Allison]

Though Toni Preckwinkle is out, Karen Lewis is considering getting in.

Not only that, but a Sun-Times poll shows Lewis running ahead of Rahm Emanuel by 45 to 36 percent in a hypothetical showdown in next year’s mayoral election. She trounces him among black voters and runs strong among whites and Latinos.

“It’s a barometric reading, regardless of whether the numbers are exactly right,” commented veteran political analyst Don Rose. “There’s no question Emanuel’s numbers are low and he’s beatable.”

Lewis, however, is “highly vulnerable to a substantial negative campaign,” he said. That wasn’t true of Preckwinkle. In addition to polling and focus groups, Lewis “needs to be doing opposition research on herself.”

At this point Rose thinks a three-way race, with Ald. Bob Fioretti appealing to white ethnic voters who might be hard for Lewis to reach, could force Emanuel into a runoff.

One thing Lewis would offer Chicago voters is a significantly different way of doing business. Unlike the mayor, she’s pro-democracy.

Emanuel’s autocratic instincts are clear from his opposition to an elected school board and his implementation of school policies against clear community opposition; his cancelling of community hearings on the city budget; his shutdown of progressive ordinances even when they’re backed by a majority of aldermen; and his strategy of raising millions of dollars beyond what’s needed for a mayoral campaign in order to intimidate possible opponents.

Lewis’ commitment to democracy is demonstrated in the way she and the Caucus of Rank and File Educators have transformed the 30,000-member teachers union. “Sea of Red,” a report by three academics published by CTU, describes it as a shift from “service unionism,” the dominant model in which leadership handles contracts on behalf of a passive membership, to “social-organizing unionism.” There “the goal is to make the collective activity of the rank-and-file members the core of the union.”

At CTU, this required a concerted grassroots approach. It included a strong emphasis on communication, educating members on issues and regularly soliciting member input. It involved setting up action teams in school, trainings for members on organizing and leadership skills, and outreach to parents and community groups. “CTU members report increased transparency, improved communication (top-down and bottom-up), and a strong sense of rank-and-file unity,” according to the report.

Lewis’ commitment to democracy was clear during contract talks in 2012, when she expanded the union’s negotiating team to include a couple dozen rank-and-file members.

Then, after negotiators reached a tentative agreement, the union postponed approval for two days so members could read and discuss the new contract. The establishment was outraged, and the mayor ludicrously threatened to seek an injunction to force teachers back to work.

For teachers, it was simply about having a democratic process — and the reaction revealed how little that kind of thing is actually valued by the city’s ruling class. Inevitably they compared their situation to that of the City Council, which approved Mayor Daley’s disastrous parking meter deal in 2010 without reading the fine print. Teachers met in small groups across the city to go over the proposed contract in detail.

One teacher called the union’s approach “the antithesis” of “these backroom deals.” And at this point, many Chicagoans may feel we’ve had enough of backroom deals.

Lewis has also consistently raised a central issue facing American democracy: the outsized role played by the very wealthy in public decision-making. Emanuel could be the poster boy for this problem.

Lewis ruffles some feathers (in some plush nests) when she talks about “robber barons” and “rich white people [who] think they know what is in the best interest of the children of African Americans and Latinos.” She has demanded revenue solutions that would require “hedge fund managers and venture capitalists” to “pay their fair share,” calling out Emanuel supporters like Ken Griffin and Bruce Rauner.

The Sun-Times chided her for “ad hominem” attacks. But there are a lot more people who cheer such statements than cringe at them.

The uber-wealthy individuals Lewis has targeted are the same individuals who are loading up Emanuel’s campaign fund, and who raised $1 million in one week for an “uncoordinated” Super PAC run by one of Emanuel’s closest lieutenants. Their apparent goal is to head off a serious debate over the future of the city, particularly its school system.

This is a telling example of the dynamic that has disillusioned voters across the country, of all political stripes. A recent study by political scientists at Northwestern and Princeton looked at 1,779 policy cases and found “majorities of the American public actually have little influence over the policies our government adopts,” while “economic elites” have a “quite substantial, highly significant, independent impact on policy.”

They warn: “If policy is dominated by a small number of affluent Americans, then America’s claims to being a democratic society are seriously threatened.”

With Lewis v. Emanuel, we’d get a direct contest pitting a pro-democracy movement against a neoliberal agenda which sacrifices neighborhoods and schools to an elite vision of a “global city.” That could be just what Chicago needs.

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