Karen Lewis is getting serious about running for mayor.
Besides buzz that her supporters are setting up a Super PAC in her name, the fiery Chicago Teachers Union boss has popped up at two public panels in the last few days. On Tuesday she headlined "A Conversation With Karen Lewis" in Beverly, announcing that she'd laid groundwork for a potential run by submitting documents to the Board of Elections that give her clearance to collect political donations.
At an event in Little Village last night, Lewis did not mention Rahm Emanuel by name. Not once.
It's another sign that she may be ready to make things official a week after the Tribune published a poll revealing that if the mayoral election were held this month, most Chicagoans would back Lewis over Emanuel, whose approval ratings have slid since he took office there years ago.
Though Emanuel's an underdog for 2015 in terms of popularity, no viable candidate has stepped up to challenge a celebrity mayor whose name recognition, A-list political connections and wealthy allies would intimidate anyone from entering the race.
Not Lewis. The will-she-or-won't-she chatter has reached fever pitch, the polls are in her favor, and now it's a question of not if but when she'll make an announcement. After Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle decided against running in July, Lewis was pushed to the forefront of possible Emanuel contenders amid concerns over whether she could survive the inevitably brutal smear campaign by City Hall.
In the event of a Lewis-Emanuel showdown, Ward Room's Mark Anderson predicted she'd be painted as "a political neophyte who’s not ready to run a big city. Or worse, a dangerous radical out of touch with the needs of everyday Chicagoans. ... Next come the political operators and ideologues who find the idea of a powerful black woman completely unacceptable, ready to call Lewis a communist, race-baiter, un-American."
Lewis, who led the headline-making teachers strike in 2012, and on whom Emanuel famously dropped an F-bomb, has been candid about her disdain for the mayor and his education policies. A progressive folk heroine here in Chicago, she's created a veritable stand-up comedy routine out of mocking Emanuel in earshot of the media. Back in May, she joked that Bozo the Clown could defeat Emanuel at the ballot box this February. (She has previously dubbed him the "Murder Mayor.")
Fast-forward to August, and her rhetoric has changed. She's toned down the anti-Rahm insults (those were getting tired anyway) and redirected the conversation to her pro-community agenda, without directly mentioning He Who Shall Not Be Named.
"The current administration gives those who need the least, the most, and keeps disadvantaged and marginalized students and other people at arm's length. We don't have a voice," she said Thursday, according to the Trib.
"Closing mental health clinics. Closing libraries. Closing schools. If you take the institutions out of the neighborhood what are you left with? This has got to stop, and it will not stop if we continue to have the same top-down, autocratic leadership that does not listen to the people," she told the crowd at El Pollo Real Restaurant, on the city's South Side.
Lewis, low on concrete policy solutions but high on neighborhood goodwill, declared: "The first thing is we have to raise enough money to run a credible campaign. That's No. 1. That's going to be one of the big asks in the next few weeks."
It's clear she was (smartly) advised to focus on defining herself to voters and reduce the noisy Emanuel smack-talk. Conversely, the mayor refuses to acknowledge Lewis in public, opting to promote himself as leader who will move Chicago forward rather than sling mud at his his soundbite-spewing archnemesis.
If these two ever get in the ring for a debate, however, all bets will be off -- and all eyes will be on Lewis as she struggles to unseat an incumbent whose deep-pocketed power network, personal fortune and national celeb-status exceeds her own.