From the start, let me just say this: I want Karen Lewis to run for mayor.
Heck, I want anyone of substance to oppose Rahm Emanuel in 2015. I think nothing could be worse politically for the City of Chicago than for the current mayor to waltz back into office with out any serious electoral opposition.
And there’s more than one candidate who could give Emanuel a run for his money. I’m looking at you, Alderman Fioretti.
For her part, though, I think Chicago Teachers Union President Lewis would make a great candidate. She’s an outstanding labor leader and an an effective voice for Chicagoans on issues around race, poverty and politics. She also understands education and pension issues like few others, and commands an energized 30,000 member union ready and willing to wade into electoral politics in Chicago.
So, yeah: Run, Karen, run.
But the thought of Karen Lewis running for mayor also fills me with a certain kind of dread. Not for anything Lewis may or may not do. But because of the kinds of things that will be done to her and her potential campaign. And who, exactly, will be doing it.
A Lewis campaign will stand at the center of a number of political issues and dynamics currently running loose in this country. Such as education reform and the battle over charter schools. Such as issues around poverty and immigration. And the ongoing, well-financed attack on unions and labor.
And, since this is Chicago, questions around race and who really has the right to occupy fifth floor of City Hall.
As a good political progressive who wants what’s best for the city I love, I welcome those debates. But I’d feel a whole lot happier if I thought for a moment that they would be conducted fairly and on an even playing field, and wouldn't devolve into personal attacks and smears.
But I’m not sure that will be the case. This is Chicago, after all, where’s its been famously said that “politics ain’t beanbag.”
Which means, in short, that the political spoils in Chicago are too important to be left to chance.
I can't say exactly how a Lewis-Emanuel matchup would play out on the campaign trail. But if I know anything about Chicago politics, I can take a couple of educated guesses.
First off, there’s going to be $8 million or $10 million or $12 million in the Rahm Emanuel campaign fund, ready to paint Lewis 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.
Expect a whole lot of campaign commercials with Emanuel surrounded by smiling kids, wearing a hard hat at construction projects or smiling with appreciative senior citizens, followed by a blurry, black-and white image of Lewis riling up a crowd with a deep male voice suggesting she’s wrong for Chicago.
Then there’s the outside money, ready to pour whatever it takes into a Chicago mayor’s race on the chance that a staunch opponent to so-called education reform and charter schools might be publicly humiliated and taken down on Election Day.
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 or worse.
In fact, in that regard, it’s already started.
Finally, there’s the Chicagoans who like the city exactly the way it is, thank you very much. From downtown financiers to bungalow belt voters to anyone afraid of change in a town notorious for it’s slavish devotion to political incumbency, Lewis could be a hard sell to those who prefer to shut their eyes to the real problems their city faces.
So, watch out, Karen. While I hope you run and think you’d be a great candidate, I know the knives will be out from the day you announce.
The good news is: I know you know it, too. And you’ll be ready for it when it comes.