Charles Rex Arbogast / AP

Karen Lewis won’t be Chicago’s mayor – and that’s America’s loss

Why the president of the Chicago Teachers Union had the Democratic Party establishment shaking

October 21, 2014 2:00AM ET

Pro-corporate education reform is not merely a Republican cause. Increasingly, high-ranking members of the Democratic Party establishment have signed onto an agenda promoting charter schools, standardized testing and scapegoating of unionized teachers instead of fighting for the budgets needed to save public education. This is especially true at the city level: Democratic mayors have gotten behind the so-called reform agenda, trying to make their mark with quick fixes.

By running for mayor in Chicago, Karen Lewis, the city’s teachers’ union president, was poised to show voters an alternative to this two-faced Democratic strategy. She took the mantle of past labor leaders who infused the Democratic Party with an egalitarian ethos, figures such as Walter Reuther, Sidney Hillman and John L. Lewis.

Unfortunately, serious health problems have stopped Karen Lewis from entering the race against incumbent Rahm Emanuel. Her exit is a loss for everyone. 

Out with Rahm

Before she dropped out, Lewis was well on her way to unsettling, if not dethroning, incumbent Rahm Emanuel, a five-term congressman and member of Bill Clinton’s and Barack Obama’s administrations. In August, The Chicago Tribune conducted a poll for the upcoming mayoral race that found Lewis — a former high school chemistry teacher elected president of the city’s teachers’ union in 2010 — beating him 43 to 39 percent. This followed a July Chicago Sun-Times poll, which found Lewis ahead of the incumbent mayor 45 to 36 percent. In recent weeks, talk about a Lewis run only intensified.

A Lewis ticket would still have been a long shot. The mayor’s war chest reportedly contains $10 million to $22 million, with huge contributions coming from just a handful of donors. Moreover, Democratic Party insiders such as Bill Clinton have been known to show up to help him fundraise.

Yet despite all his cash, Emanuel is struggling to garner the mass approval needed to win reelection. In May the Sun-Times found that over half of those polled thought Emanuel was doing a worse job than his immediate predecessor, Richard M. Daley. The Tribune reported his approval rate in August at 35 percent. With a minuscule budget, the ragtag Lewis team looked like it may have been able to give one of the most powerful men in America a serious challenge at the ballot box.

Karen Lewis insisted that the labor movement cannot be a force that is concerned just with protecting a small number of workers.

Although it is now clear that she won’t be running — and no other candidate has stepped forward to take her place — the prospect of a Lewis ticket was noteworthy for several reasons. First, it pointed to a new willingness among voters to listen to the voices of teachers when it comes to education policy. Support for her candidacy showed how the mandate for corporate-backed education reform has collapsed in many of the districts most affected by its policies. Since Emanuel’s election in 2011, the district has closed 50 schools and curtailed funding for those remaining, at the same time funding a growing presence of charter schools.

In 2012, Emanuel’s austerity policies in the schools provoked the first teachers’ strike in Chicago in 25 years. Led by Lewis, public school teachers overwhelmingly voted to stop work, demanding both basic amenities, such as air-conditioning and textbooks, as well as more comprehensive reforms such as smaller class sizes and preservation of many of the extracurricular activities the mayor’s budget would have cut. The strike was supported by a majority of parents in Chicago, and it revealed the growing divide between the city’s nationally prominent mayor, fresh from the Obama administration, and the embattled voters of Chicago’s low-income and minority communities. A Lewis mayoral campaign would have given voice to the large number of Chicagoans who have not been served by the mayor’s pro-charter, neighborhood-school-closing agenda.

And although Lewis’ political fund was tiny in comparison with Emanuel’s, the very prospect of a grass-roots challenge caused alarm among the mayor’s supporters. In September, for example, the pro-charter, anti-union group Democrats for Education Reform began attacking her candidacy, making advocacy calls disguised as polling inquiries to persuade voters against a potential Lewis bid. The calls featured an “unapologetic slant” and represented “an attempt to shove her out of the mayor’s race before she even enters it,” wrote the Tribune’s Eric Zorn. “Emanuel’s supporters are nervous enough about the prospect of a challenge from Lewis that they’re already dialing up the histrionics.”

Public leadership

Lewis’ candidacy was also notable because it had begun to restore an image of labor leadership that has been absent from the Democratic Party for many years. In the middle of the 20th century, leaders such as Hillman (a president of the garment workers’ union who helped Franklin Roosevelt’s Labor Secretary Frances Perkins draft the Fair Labor Standards Act) and Walter Reuther (a United Auto Workers president, a lifelong advocate of full employment and a champion of the Great Society) had important roles in shaping social policy. Hillman and Reuther were likable, statesmanlike figures who worked closely with politicians and federal agencies to craft policies that worked. Though today’s teachers’ union leaders (such as Lewis and American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten) can appear more polarizing, their battle-ready postures may be what’s needed to overcome the more substantial political hurdles they face.

In 1945, Life magazine described Reuther — twice on the cover of Time — as someone “who can rise above the bear-pit level of wage-and-hour battling to attack the great problems of the national economy.” But things have changed dramatically since then. Since the 1970s and particularly since the Ronald Reagan era, unions have been on the decline. As a result, it has become increasingly rare that representatives of working people’s collective organizations are able to break into the mainstream media. Instead, their voices have been drowned out by the Beltway pundits and talking heads from think tanks funded by corporate America.

Against this trend, Lewis insisted that the labor movement cannot be a force that is concerned just with protecting a small number of workers and that it instead must bring grass-roots voices — like those of parents and front-line teachers — to debates about crucial issues such as public education.

By contrast, Emanuel has antagonized Chicago’s public employee unions since almost the day he took office, proposing deep budget cuts and privatization deals to public transit, city trucking and hauling budgets and public education. He even tried to foist a pension privatization deal on to the police union by waving the threat of increased property taxes. Lewis’ union is one of those that Emanuel has chosen to scapegoat and ridicule rather than taking union members’ concerns seriously — a calculated move that polling numbers now show might have backfired.

It has been too long since Hillman, Reuther and other union leaders commanded the type of platform where they could articulate why promoting the interests of working people makes for a stronger America. The fact that labor leaders were well-known figures in the public arena helped create an era of common prosperity in the United States, a time when the benefits of rising productivity were widely shared by working people. Today much of the progress they made toward shared prosperity has eroded; in their absence, inequality has soared to levels not seen since before the Great Depression.

Advocates of education reform were so unnerved by the prospect of a labor leader reclaiming this mantle of public leadership that they tried to claim that if Lewis were mayor, there would be a conflict of interest — that her commitment to teachers would somehow interfere with her governance of the city’s schools. Yet the same commentators never questioned how Emanuel’s background as a managing director at an investment firm might create conflicts, even though The New York Times asserted in 2008 that Emanuel has “strong ties to an industry now at the heart of the economic crisis.”

It is a loss to all Americans that Lewis won’t have the chance to challenge Emanuel; her moves to revive labor’s lineage of public leadership have been a welcome and refreshing sign, and we need more leaders like her.

Amy B. Dean is a fellow of the Century Foundation and a principal of ABD Ventures, a consulting firm that works to develop innovative strategies for organizations devoted to social change. She is a co-author, with David Reynolds, of “A New New Deal: How Regional Activism Will Reshape the American Labor Movement.”

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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