Karen Lewis wearing a red cap and red shirt standing in the middle of several parade participants on the Chicago Teachers Union float in 2014's Mexican Independence Day Parade in Chicago
Karen Lewis wearing a red cap and red shirt standing in the middle of several parade participants on the Chicago Teachers Union float in 2014's Mexican Independence Day Parade in Chicago Credit: Bob Simpson via Flickr licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

At the risk of making you think I’m weirder than you may already think I am . . .

Sometimes when walking alone late at night, I talk to friends and family who have died. Been doing it for a couple of years now. Going back to the pandemic when the streets were so deserted they were ghostly. So far none of them have responded—if that happens, I’ll let you know.

Over the last few days, I’ve been talking a lot to my old friend Karen Lewis—former president of the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU)—with whom I once enjoyed countless phone conversations where we’d laugh our asses off at the insanity of what passes for normal in Chicago politics. Karen died of cancer in 2021.

Obviously, I let her in on the latest news.

“Can you believe it, Karen? Brandon got elected mayor!”

She, of course, knows who Brandon Johnson is, as she was the one who hired him as an organizer for CTU several years ago. Just as she hired Stacy Davis Gates, the current CTU president and brains behind Johnson’s successful campaign. 

“And his opponent was Vallas—who’s been hanging out with MAGA loonies and is even worse than he used to be!”

Karen knows all about Paul Vallas because she was a high school science teacher back in the 90s when he was the Barn Boss at CPS.

“You’d be so proud of Stacy and all those young lefties we used to get such a kick out of. They were so focused, so disciplined, so strategic. Vallas had all the money, and he still couldn’t win. Though he scared thousands of lakefront liberals into voting for him.”

Then I cussed out lakefront liberals. Sorry, liberals. But while I’m at it . . .

Hey, liberals, what were you thinking? My guess is in a few weeks some of you will be embarrassed by that vote. It will be like something stupid you did in the back of a cab after you got shitfaced in a bar that you don’t want to talk about. In time, you may even convince yourselves that you didn’t really do it. Probably tell your kids you voted for Johnson.

Where was I? Oh, yes, Karen Lewis.

Back in 2015, she was set to run against Mayor Rahm Emanuel. But she got sick and had to drop out of the race. I have no doubt she’d have mopped the floor with Rahm. Probably be finishing her second term right now. 

YouTube video
Karen Lewis appears with Ben, Chicago Principals and Administrators Association president Troy LaRaviere, and former Reader senior writer Mick Dumke at a First Tuesdays event in 2015

Mayor Karen Lewis. That would have been something.

Nonetheless, Johnson’s win is Karen’s triumph. Wouldn’t have happened without her. A diverse coalition to elect a progressive mayor? That was Karen’s vision. Her dream. Her mission.

Before Karen Lewis took charge of CTU, unions in Chicago were timid and cautious and more insular than they are now.

Their strategy was all about swapping blind support for the mayor in exchange for a raise for the rank and file.

Before Karen, union chieftains generally kept silent in the face of inequities. Looked the other way at nefarious privatization schemes. Let the mayor spend TIF funds on upscale development deals in gentrifying neighborhoods, even though they knew the rising property taxes were driving the working class out of town.

In other words, they stayed in their lanes. Made no waves. Got along to get along. Business as usual.

Karen had a different approach, building coalitions with community groups on housing, economic development, and other issues outside of wages and benefits for teachers.

Mayor Rahm wanted none of that. Soon after he was elected in 2011, he sat Karen down and told her how it was gonna be. He was gonna cut teachers’ pay and lengthen their workday. Said he’d eliminate union jobs by closing union schools and opening nonunion charters. Her task, he commanded, was to make her members fall in line. Or else . . .

Obviously, she didn’t bow to his commands. One showdown led to another, and eventually the epic teacher strike of 2012, in which the vast majority of ordinary Chicagoans—as opposed to the corporate, civic, and editorial elite—stood with the teachers. And Mayor Rahm had to back down. 

Just like Mayor Lightfoot had to back down when the teachers—then led by Jesse Sharkey and Davis Gates—went on strike, demanding that the mayor hire more social workers, nurses, counselors, and librarians.

So those community alliances Karen forged came in handy.

Not that mainstream Chicago changed its tune. In 2019, they were outraged that teachers went on strike even after Mayor Lightfoot offered them raises. Essentially, they told the teachers to take the money, get back in the classroom, and shut up.

So let’s get this straight. Teachers have to go on strike to force the mayor to spend more money on nurses and social workers—which she should have done on her own—and they’re the bad guys?

It’s an old story in Chicago. If you stand up for poor people—especially poor Black people—the mayor and their enablers will vilify you. 

Back in 1966, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. himself led an effort here to end poverty and segregation. Mayor Richard J. Daley fought him every step of the way. Eventually, King moved out of Chicago. So you might say poverty and segregation won.

Dr. King’s time in Chicago is part of our inglorious history that our leaders would rather not talk about. To his credit, Johnson brought it up in his election-night victory speech.

Naturally, the counterpunch was fast and furious.

Editorials in the Chicago Tribune and Chicago Sun-Times chided Johnson. He was moving too fast. He should be less confrontational. Why couldn’t he be more like President Obama? They called on him to assure Vallas voters he had no intention of keeping his campaign promises. 

In short, Mayor-elect Johnson hasn’t even been sworn in and they already want him to sell out.

I wish Karen was around to read those editorials. She’d be laughing her ass off—cussing them out like they were lakefront liberals.

Yes, Chicago is a tough town—especially for people who want to do things like end poverty and segregation. As Dr. King and Karen Lewis discovered and Mayor-elect Johnson is about to find out.

Anyway, thank you, Karen. I’ll keep you posted on what comes next.

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