Teachers are now on strike in Chicago— loudly and enthusiastically — and Emanuel (D) finds himself in a far more pointed and public battle than he had bargained for. Under a national spotlight, his famous dealmaking skills are being severely tested by an increasingly familiar set of schoolhouse issues seen in communities across the country as contentious and often personal.
If the strike persists, its tone and outcome could ripple well beyond Chicago, given Emanuel’s close association with President Obama. Union support is important to the Obama campaign, which has been careful not to weigh in, even as Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney swiftly spoke out against the Chicago teachers.
As thousands of teachers took to the streets again Wednesday, there was general agreement that the sudden strike had roots in the combative positions Emanuel took when he left the White House last year to run for mayor. His support of the Illinois law requiring a 75 percent union vote for a strike — up from 50 percent — was Exhibit A.
“It stuck in my craw,” said Xian Barrett, former political director of the striking Chicago Teachers Union and now a history teacher at a South Side high school. “It made me feel as though he had no respect for us as people.”
Karen Lewis, the blunt-spoken CTU president, put it another way last week, shortly before the union called a strike for the first time in 25 years: “The only way to beat a bully,” Lewis said, “is to stand up to a bully.”
When Emanuel won the job without a runoff after leaving his post as Obama’s chief of staff, it was clear that he was never going to be a warm and fuzzy mayor, not in the country’s third-largest city, the windy one with the outsize reputation for rough politics. Vowing to make Chicago work, he cruises for bruises, with a smile.
Some hits, some misses
Reviews have been largely positive, at least until the strike dominated the news and left parents of school-age children scrambling.
“When people say, ‘How long has the city council been so corrupt?’ I say, ‘Since 1837, the year the city was started,’ ” said Martin Oberman, a council member most recently in the 1980s. “Rahm came and cut through all that. He gets criticized for being tough and autocratic, and he’s probably more autocratic than he needs to be. But this is a very tough place. You can’t be a milquetoast.”
Longtime Democratic political consultant Don Rose thinks that Emanuel blundered with the teachers and has fallen short in addressing the city’s startling spike in violence. But he calls him “a breath of fresh air” on structural reforms, from combining government operations amid a $665 million budget deficit to redesigning garbage collection, an almost comical bastion of patronage.