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Rahm Emanuel's Top Nemesis Just Might Take Him On

Karen Lewis would make for a bloody mayoral battle

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If you like your political campaigns bloody, then you have to be cheered by the new poll that found Chicago Teachers Union president Karen Lewis beating Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel in a hypothetical matchup 45 to 36. Lewis, who’s been Emanuel’s primary political antagonist for the last three years and led the 2012 teacher’s strike that represented the first chink in Emanuel’s mayoral armor, had long said she had no interest in running against him next February. But in recent weeks, as Chicago (and Emanuel) have reeled from yet another outbreak of gun violence, she began to soften that stance. And when Chicago Sun-Times reporter Natasha Korecki informed Lewis over the weekend of the poll results that found her beating Emanuel by 9, Lewis’s response sounded like that of someone who’d just been pushed off the fence. “Wow,” she said. “Well, first of all, I’m sitting here stunned.”

Lewis is rarely at a loss for words—especially when it comes to Emanuel. The two have clashed from the beginning of their relationship. Shortly after his election in 2011, Emanuel invited Lewis to dinner at a fancy French restaurant across from Millennium Park. There, according to Lewis, he told her in between bites of lamb that, owing to budget constraints, he did not want to waste precious resources on the bottom 25 percent of Chicago public school students. At a meeting in his City Hall office a few months later, Lewis says, she was arguing with Emanuel over his proposed longer school day when he erupted, “Fuck you, Lewis!” (Emanuel has heatedly denied the former charge by Lewis about writing off the bottom quarter of public students and essentially pled nolo contendere to the latter about his bad language.) In the run-up to the strike, Lewis called Emanuel “a liar and a bully.” On another occasion she branded him “the murder mayor,” elaborating: “Look at the murder rate in this city. He’s murdering schools. He’s murdering jobs. He’s murdering housing.”

“I just think there’s something clearly wrong with him,” Lewis told me last year when I sat down with her at CTU’s offices in the Merchandise Mart. A heavyset African-American woman in her early 60s, Lewis was a Chicago public school chemistry teacher for 25 years before she was elected CTU president in 2010. Although they might seem polar opposites, she and Emanuel have a lot in common. Both are former dancers and ballet aficionados, as well as products of elite colleges: Lewis was the first African-American woman to graduate from Dartmouth; Emanuel attended Sarah Lawrence. And Lewis, like Emanuel, is Jewish, having converted from Lutheranism 20 years ago. (She did not invite Emanuel to her Bat Mitzvah last summer.)

Their greatest similarity is their temperaments. When Emanuel cursed her at City Hall, Lewis told me, her immediate thought was: “Who the fuck do you think you’re talking to? I’m from the South Side, bitch.” But she swallowed her tongue and later played the episode for public sympathy. “He managed to make Karen Lewis, who’s anyone’s idea of a media rock star, into a positive figure,” one Emanuel ally lamented to me. And Lewis has continued to outmaneuver the mayor. When Emanuel’s school board moved to shutter 50 schools, it was Lewis who, seizing on the fact that most of the condemned schools were in African-American neighborhoods, led the demonstrations outside City Hall at which protestors chanted, “Hey Rahm, let's face it, these closings are racist!”

Indeed, the biggest reason Emanuel is in such political trouble right now is because of his unpopularity with Chicago’s black voters. When Emanuel ran for mayor in 2011, fresh off his stint as White House chief of staff, he wore what Lewis calls “the Obama halo” and won 59 percent of the city’s black vote. But his battles with the teacher’s union and Chicago’s horrible gun violence (which has disproportionately impacted the city’s black neighborhoods) have taken a huge toll on his African-American support. A Chicago Tribune poll from last year found that 48 percent of African-American voters disapproved of his performance as mayor. And in the new Chicago Sun-Times poll that found Lewis beating Emanuel by 9 points overall, she bested him by 18 points among black voters.

And yet, what’s most remarkable about that Sun-Times poll is that it included Lewis—a political novice who’s never held, much less previously run for, public office—at all. Despite Emanuel’s remarkable unpopularity with black voters in the city that sparked Harold Washington’s Fire on the Prairie, there is no black Chicago politician of Washington’s potential stature waiting in the wings to capitalize on that discontent. Those African-American Chicago pols who once looked like they might follow in Washington’s footsteps have either flamed out, or moved on to bigger things. Meanwhile, Jesse Jackson Jr., the black Chicago politician who once considered giving up his congressional seat to challenge Mayor Richard M. Daley, had a Shakespearean fall and is now doing a tour of the federal penal system.

Yes, the same Sun-Times poll that has Lewis beating Emanuel has Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, the city’s most prominent black politician, beating Emanuel by an even greater margin, 55 to 31. But last year, Preckwinkle reportedly gave Emanuel her private assurances that she wouldn’t challenge him; and, even if she’s changed her mind, she hasn’t raised anywhere near the money necessary to do so. Emanuel, by contrast, not only has Scrooge McDuck–like money in his campaign treasury—a cool $5 million as of late last year—he’s also backed by a brand new Super PAC that recently raised $1 million in just 10 days. As Slate’s Dave Weigel writes, “On an even playing field, the mayor could be defeated easily. But he is building a megastadium, and his opponents maybe have enough money to throw together a batting cage.”

Which is why, given how sclerotic Chicago’s black political establishment has become, it may end up falling to an unconventional candidate like Lewis to challenge Emanuel. It’s doubtful she’d win, but at least she’d be able to match Emanuel f-bomb for f-bomb, and their campaign could be epic in terms of the bad blood it generates between the two candidates. And if anyone’s earned the opportunity to feast on a suddenly vulnerable Rahm, it’s Lewis. After all, when Emanuel was riding high in the polls, Lewis was one of the few Chicagoans—black or white—who was willing to take him on. "Most people are afraid of him,” Lewis told me last year. “I’m not coming to the table to be part of the menu.”