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CTU President Karen Lewis addresses a cheering crowd during the landmark Chicago 2012 teachers' strike, which she led, defying Mayor Rahm Emmanuel. (Scott Olson / Getty)

Chicago’s Next Mayor?

Karen Lewis may be the anti-Rahm that Chicago’s looking for.

BY Joel Bleifuss

'If all of these hedge fund managers and venture capitalists were really concerned about "shared sacrifices," they’d create some jobs and institute a living wage for Illinois families instead of destroying our city like a swarm of Gucci-winged locusts.'

It’s the worst kept secret in this city: Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis intends to challenge Mayor Rahm Emanuel in the Feb. 24, 2015, city elections.

On May 5, during a speech to the City Club of Chicago, the 61-year-old former chemistry teacher laid out an economic populist platform.

Judging from that address, Lewis’ campaign will feature two key issues: investing in the city’s public education system and ensuring that the city meets its pension obligations to public employees.

She took aim at the officials who run Chicago Public Schools: Emanuel, the school board he appoints and the CEO he hires. Lewis has nothing but scorn for the operating ideology of this clique of technocrats: “They justify their behavior by determining among themselves who is ‘worthy’ and who isn’t,” she told the City Club. “They develop social identifiers to determine who amongst us are ‘strivers’ and who amongst us are in the 25 percent who will ‘never amount to anything, or be anything’ and therefore aren’t worthy of investment.”

Lewis is also adamant that public employees, including her fellow teachers, not be asked to sacrifice their pensions merely because elected officials failed to pay into pension plans, as they were required by law to do. “We don’t have a pension crisis,” she said. “We have a pension shortfall and a crisis in leadership. We have [a mayor] who lacks the political will to do what is just, what is honorable, what is legal.”

Speaking to the well-heeled crowd at the City Club, Lewis took a jab at Emanuel’s campaign funders and their austerity agenda: “If all of these hedge fund managers and venture capitalists were really concerned about ‘shared sacrifices,’ they’d create some jobs and institute a living wage for Illinois families instead of destroying our city like a swarm of Gucci-winged locusts.”

“Gucci-winged locusts”? We like this lady.

In an effort to help this investor class cough up more for the public coffer— and make up the gap in pension funding— Lewis proposes a financial tax of $1 or $2 on trades executed through the Chicago Mercantile Exchange and the Chicago Board Options Exchange, two of the largest financial exchanges in the world. Citing statistics from the Chicago Political Economy Group, Lewis argues that such a tax would generate between $10 billion and $12 billion each year for the state of Illinois. She also advocates increasing the state income tax on the very wealthy.

What are her odds?

In February, she will be going up against a mayor whose campaign committee has accumulated a war chest of $22 million. On top of that, in late June and early July, Chicago Forward, a new pro-Emanuel PAC, raised $1.325 million—from 14 donors. Lewis, a bête noire of the school privatizers and snake-oil education “reformers,” can expect Emanuel to continue raising heaps of money once the billionaires behind the education reform movement catch wind of her candidacy.

But what Lewis lacks in money she makes up in passion, intellect and wit—not to mention popularity. A Chicago Sun-Times poll in July has her beating Emanuel by 9 percentage points.

Speaking to the City Club worthies, she said: “It’s as if the 1% isn’t satisfied with having most of it. It seems they want it all.”

It is in that spirit of Occupy that Lewis plans to lead Chicago.

Joel Bleifuss, a former director of the Peace Studies Program at the University of Missouri-Columbia, is the editor & publisher of In These Times, where he has worked since October 1986.

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