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CTU's Karen Lewis Promises 2015 City Election Will be 'Contentious'

By Ted Cox | May 5, 2014 3:40pm
 CTU President Karen Lewis had harsh words for Mayor Rahm Emanuel and gubernatorial candidate Bruce Rauner Monday at a City Club luncheon.
CTU President Karen Lewis had harsh words for Mayor Rahm Emanuel and gubernatorial candidate Bruce Rauner Monday at a City Club luncheon.
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DNAinfo/Ted Cox

RIVER NORTH — Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis threatened Monday to throw another round of labor unrest into the midst of next year's municipal elections, specifically targeting Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

"Maybe it's time we send him into early retirement," Lewis said in a luncheon speech to the City Club of Chicago after pointing out the Emanuel administration had overseen the loss of 3,000 educator positions over the last three years.

"I'm not looking to make anybody's election year easy at all, especially someone who doesn't want to make our lives easy," she added in a news conference after the speech. "I think all elections need to be contentious."

Lewis said the current teachers union deal with Chicago Public Schools expires in June 2015, and there's little chance the union will exercise its option to extend it.

"I don't think we would be interested in that," she added, but would not predict whether it would lead to a strike.

CPS Chief Executive Officer Barbara Byrd-Bennett responded, "My team and I are focused on finishing this school year strong for our students, parents, teachers and administrators, and we are not yet focused on contract negotiations for next year."  CPS has until next April to offer to extend the deal.

That issue, and a possible teacher strike, would certainly have an impact on the city primary and general election next spring.

Lewis spoke highly of Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle as a possible candidate, but otherwise did not throw her support behind any challenger, saying, "I'm sure whoever could win an election against the mayor will emerge shortly."

The Mayor's Office and Emanuel's political spokesman did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Much of Lewis' speech addressed the city's pension crisis, with payments due after the city went for years without making required contributions.

"We don't have a pension crisis. We have a pension shortfall and a crisis in leadership," she said, adding that Emanuel "lacks the political will to do what is just, what is honorable, what is legal."

Lewis said that if the mayor can wring his hands and say he has to observe the legality of the notorious parking-meter deal, he should respect the legality of the standing pension agreement.

Lewis had equally caustic things to say about Republican gubernatorial nominee Bruce Rauner, drawing attention to his $18 watch and "nine houses to choose from." Asked about how former CPS chief Paul Vallas, a backer of charter schools, would be a heartbeat from state leadership if Gov. Pat Quinn were re-elected with Vallas as his lieutenant governor, Lewis said she would be asking Quinn's doctor to make sure to take care of him.

Yet, citing Rauner as a less-appealing option, Lewis did not suggest abandoning the Democratic Quinn as a candidate this fall.

Lewis also cited a 1997 letter written by Vallas, when he was head of CPS, promising teacher pensions were "inviolable by state law."

Lewis attacked city attempts to cut benefits as a way out of its fiscal jam as a "broad-daylight pension heist."

Instead, Lewis suggested the city raise revenue through a tax on suburban commuters working in the city, estimated to bring in $300 million a year, and what she called a "LaSalle Street Tax" on city transactions involving futures markets or stock derivatives, estimated to raise more than $10 billion. She called that "good tax policy for Illinois."

Lewis demanded the rich "pay their fair share," with more jabs at Rauner.

"We want corporate loopholes closed," she added, saying the state gave away $2.5 billion a year in corporate tax breaks.

Lewis called CPS claims of a $1 billion deficit a "manufactured crisis" and a deliberate strategy of "chaos and carnage." She cited the $60 million to be spent on a new selective-enrollment high school named after President Barack Obama, pointedly adding how it was to be located "on the North Side in honor of a South Side trailblazer."

CPS pointed out that the school construction would be paid through city Tax Increment Finance District funds, but Lewis also called for TIF reform and returning that tax money to CPS in her remarks.