Tuesday, February 9, 2021
Karen Lewis, 1953-2021: "Sometimes profane, but always profound"
Karen Lewis was a fighter.
As the president of the Chicago Teachers Union, she battled for the best contracts her members could get, even as she struggled against aggressive brain cancer.
“Tell our delegates let’s get ready to fight!” Lewis said as she went into another surgery.
The death of the 67-year-old Lewis was confirmed Monday by her spokeswoman.
Lewis clashed fearlessly with Rahm Emanuel, calling him a liar and a bully and worse, to his face. She dealt Chicago’s combative mayor the first public defeat of his mayoral career when she outmaneuvered him in the 2012 Chicago teachers strike, winning raises for her membership in a stumbling economy and inspiring teachers nationwide.
“It had a riveting effect across the country,” said Randi Weingarten, president of the 1.7 million member American Federation of Teachers. “You heard that a lot in 2013, 2014: ‘Just like it happened in Chicago, it can happen here.’”
Lewis was angling to give Emanuel an even bigger blow in what was expected to be her own campaign for mayor in 2015.
Lewis formed an exploratory committee and was “seriously considering” a run, she said, and polls showed her beating Emanuel. But a brain cancer diagnosis late in 2014 forced her to abandon her plans. As it was, her handpicked surrogate, Chuy Garcia, made Emanuel sweat, forcing a run-off election Lewis occasionally participated in, despite faltering health.
“A force of nature, smart as a summer day is long,” said Weingarten. “With a heart as big as the city of Chicago.”
The always outspoken Lewis was twice elected CTU president. In April 2016, just days after Lewis led a one-day teachers walkout to draw attention to deadlocked contract talks, she was appointed to her third three-year term; the CTU governing body canceled the election because she had no opponent.
Lewis condemned Chicago Public Schools’ addiction to borrowing. “We cannot continue down this road to perdition,” she told the Board of Education. She spoke out, demanding “Dreamers,” undocumented immigrants brought to this country as children, be legally protected.
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