By Rick Pearson, Juan Perez, Jr. and Michelle Manchir
Karen Lewis, the controversial, combative and charismatic leader of the Chicago Teachers Union, will not run for mayor, significantly boosting Mayor Rahm Emanuel's chances to win re-election next year.
The decision by Lewis, who underwent surgery last week and took a leave from her union duties, underscored the serious nature of her still-unspecified illness. It also removes from the political equation Emanuel's most prominent potential opponent amid widespread dissatisfaction with his leadership.
The development leaves Ald. Robert Fioretti, 2nd, as the most high-profile challenger to the first-term mayor, with several lesser-known potential candidates talking about getting into the contest ahead of the Feb. 24 city election.
Emanuel, elected without facing a runoff nearly four years ago after getting more than 55 percent of the vote, issued a brief statement Monday through his mayoral office rather than his campaign.
"I have always respected and admired Karen's willingness to step up and be part of the conversation about our city's future, but nothing is more important than a person's health," Emanuel said. "Along with all Chicagoans, I will keep Karen and her family in our thoughts and prayers, and we look forward to seeing her on her feet very soon."
It was Lewis, a fierce Emanuel critic, who had gotten the better of the mayor in leading a seven-day strike of the nation's third largest public school system in 2012. Then last year, Emanuel's school board closed 49 schools and a high school program, and critics said it disproportionately affected African-American neighborhoods.
Tribune polls regularly showed more city voters siding with the union than Emanuel when it came to handling the schools -- a factor that helped drive down the mayor's job approval rating to 35 percent in a survey taken in early August.
That same Tribune survey found in a hypothetical one-on-one matchup that Lewis had the backing of 43 percent of city voters compared to 39 percent for Emanuel. Lewis' advantage was just outside the 3.5-percentage-point error margin.
Fioretti moved quickly to try to capture some of Lewis' supporters.
"People are embracing the candidacy. Because it's not about me, it's about a movement in terms of what we need to do. When I'm elected, it's not me being elected it's the people of this city who will occupy the fifth floor of City Hall," Fioretti said at a hastily called news conference at his Loop law office.
The Tribune's August poll found that while only about 20 percent of city voters had heard of Fioretti, he had about a quarter of the vote in a head-to-head matchup against Emanuel, with the mayor getting 43 percent.
Fioretti will have to greatly increase his fundraising to mount an effective challenge. The alderman reported $326,000 to start July and $70,000 in large contributions since then. By contrast, Emanuel had $8.4 million plus another $1.15 million since then.
Jay Travis, who coordinated Lewis' mayoral exploratory committee, contended the progressive movement behind her candidacy would continue even without her name on the February ballot.
"Our work is not about one leader, one race, or one election," Travis said in a statement announcing the end of Lewis' nascent campaign.
"Our work is about building progressive power to restore participatory democracy to Chicago. The groundswell of grassroots support is a testament to the strength of our movement and to the depth of dissatisfaction that hardworking Chicagoans have with the top-down, out-of-touch leadership in City Hall," Travis said.
Travis statement said the exploratory committee had gathered "tens of thousands of signatures" to put Lewis' name on the ballot. But her political campaign joined the teachers union in declining to describe Lewis' illness, and a decision to end the race had been considered inevitable.
Jesse Sharkey, the acting CTU president, acknowledged a potential Lewis candidacy "made everyone in the city think about school issues."
"I don't yet know the way in which what we're left with is going to shape up. We're going to have to see," Sharkey said. The union will continue to be an active presence in the city election cycle, he said, noting several members of the CTU's executive board are running for aldermanic seats as the union continues its push for an elected school board.
Lewis, union president since 2010, initially had sought to leverage the union's political activism to encourage a progressive movement candidacy to challenge Emanuel.
But when Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle ended months of speculation in July by declaring she would not challenge Emanuel despite obvious differences with him, Lewis began the first steps toward taking on the mayor herself. Preckwinkle is not interested in renewing consideration of a mayoral bid, said a close political source who discussed the issue with her Monday.
Lewis had generated only $87,000 in campaign donations. Yet Emanuel, like Richard M. Daley had before him, feared the potential of a charismatic African-American opponent who could formulate a movement challenge for the mayor's office.
"Competitive elections are good for the electorate," said Ken Snyder, a Democratic strategist who has worked for Preckwinkle, noting Emanuel's efforts to boost the city's minimum wage and gain approval for some union contracts.
"These are all positive things that are beneficial to the people, all because of the prospect of facing a competitive election. It makes them more responsive and it's better for voters. It makes Rahm a better mayor," Snyder said.
But it's questionable how competitive next year's mayoral election will be without someone to fill the void that Lewis leaves behind and the expectations she had created.
At her very first campaign "listening" event in August in Beverly, she was asked if she thought Emanuel was afraid of her. As the crowd of mostly teachers and city workers shouted, "Yes," Lewis gave her take.
"I think Rahm just wants his life to be easy," she said, flashing a wide grin. "I'm not trying to make it easy for him, no. I'd never say that."
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