Here are two thoughts to keep in mind in the next few days as the city reacts to news Chicago Teachers Union president Karen Lewis will not be running for mayor.
First, the pundits, political observers and progressive supporters of Lewis are all correct: her decision not to run for mayor is a grievous blow to the twin notions of democracy and dissent in Chicago politics.
Second, Rahm Emanuel remains a deeply unpopular mayor, and can be beaten.
Let’s start with the loss. Few political figures in recent memory have inspired such fervent support and hope for political change as Lewis. There’s little doubt that even though she had yet to announce her candidacy, a whole heck of a lot of people in Chicago had come to believe she was the city’s best hope to unseat Mayor Emanuel and bring about a more inclusive, grassroots-based city government.
Equally important, Lewis proved time and time again that no matter what you thought about her politics or personality, she wasn’t afraid to speak truth to power as she saw it.
At the same time, she endeared herself personally to a whole chunk of Chicago’s population who had come to view her not just a friend, but as practically a member of the family.
After all, how many times do you see a rally take place for people simply wishing for a public figure to “get well soon” in her battle against an unspecified illness, such as the one that took place last week during the “Rally of Love for Karen Lewis” on the city’s South Side?
Undoubtedly, her completely understandable decision not to run in light of her recent health concerns is a setback to those who want to see change in City Hall.
But look past the news of Lewis’ decision and a deeper truth remains: her potential mayoral run was fueled, in large part, by the simple fact that Rahm Emanuel is vulnerable. And, as disappointing as Lewis’s decision may be to some, that reality is as true today as it was yesterday, last week or last month.
This is a mayor, don't forget, that is less popular than morning traffic on the Eisenhower Expressway and nearly as unpopular as the Green Bay Packers.
More damaging, a Sun-Times poll earlier this year found that “only one in five Chicago voters credit Mayor Rahm Emanuel with doing a better job of running the city than Richard M. Daley did, and only 29 percent would support him if the mayoral election were held today.” A recent Chicago Tribune poll put his job approval rating at 35 percent, and found only one in four black voters thought he was doing a good job.
There’s good reason for this lack of support. From closing 50 public schools, concerns over crime, shuttering mental health clinics, a ongoing red light camera scandal, higher taxes and fees to close budget gaps, an administration that operates with little dissent or debate and a perception that the mayor is out of touch with ordinary Chicagoans, there’s no shortage of reasons for voters to be suspicious of Emanuel and looking for an alternative.
Karen Lewis, as compelling as she is to many voters, was only one expression of this discontent. A powerful expression, to be sure. But only one.
And since she’s no longer available as a choice, it’s time for Chicagoans to ask themselves a fundamental question.
Is political change in Chicago possible only if certain personalities are in the race?
For those who believe the answer is “no”, there are choices. Alderman Bob Fioretti for one. Political newcomer Amara Enyia for another. A handful of others running smaller, less well-known campaigns.
With or without Karen Lewis, a lot of Chicagoans are still looking for change. And the options are already there.
“The dynamics are shifting but the fundamentals of this race remain the same,” Michael Kolenc, senior strategist with the Fioretti campaign, tells Ward Room. “This campaign is still going to be about the issues facing Chicagoans. Voters are going to have a clear choice in February: more of the same, or a new direction.”
Today, the hearts of voters across Chicago are broken with news Karen Lewis won't be running. And every person of good conscience is keeping her in their thoughts and prayers for a speedy recovery.
But, in important ways, the political reality in Chicago hasn't changed.
It’s up to Chicago voters of all stripes to remember that in the days and weeks to come.