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Election 2015 Thu Jul 31 2014

How Karen Lewis Might Also Help Change Chicago City Council

Karen LewisFirst, the news you already know: Karen Lewis is likely running for mayor. Toni Preckwinkle isn't.

Since the news broke on July 15 that Preckwinkle is out of the race, some dominant themes seem to have emerged. The first, probably best epitomized in Ben Joravsky's "five stages of grief" article, has been lament over the person who was seen as most capable of beating Rahm Emanuel stepping out of the race.

Following closely behind is a reassessment of Lewis. It was easier to imagine what a theoretical Preckwinkle campaign might look like. It's harder to imagine that with Lewis. Preckwinkle was a multi-term alderman and is now Cook County Board President, who has expressed many views on many issues over time. Lewis, as President of the Chicago Teachers Union and having never held public office, has had little occasion to talk about things like potholes, tourism, and appropriate police deployment. There's also the question over what form Lewis's campaign might take, given that it would likely take form outside of existing entrenched political structures.

In short, can Lewis actually mount a major challenge? The Sun-Times said yes with a July 14 poll showing Lewis with a lead over Emanuel even before Preckwinkle's announcement. A more recent poll suggests otherwise, but the real lesson is, if the "bad" numbers show Lewis within 10 points of Emanuel at this stage, that's still good news for her.

There's a broader story, though, because it's not just the mayor's chair up for grabs. All 50 City Council seats are also up, and a higher number of candidates from outside traditional Democratic power structures are poised to challenge incumbents whose identification with the mayor might be more harmful than helpful this time around.

There's little question that Preckwinkle had broader support. But what Lewis might lack in broad support, she makes up with deep support. Maybe more people like Preckwinkle than like Lewis. But more people love Lewis than love Preckwinkle. And Lewis, much more so than Preckwinkle, has the ability to run a campaign in parallel with a lot of new aldermanic candidates.

One such candidate is Tim Meegan. Meegan is a social studies teacher at Roosevelt High School and a Chicago Teachers Union delegate. He's running for 33rd Ward alderman against Alderman Deb Mell, the former state legislator who was appointed to the seat when her father, long-time Alderman Dick Mell, retired last year.

As part of a CTU internship, Meegan organized three community meetings. That experience, and internal discussions with out CTU delegates, helped lead him to consider running. What finally helped him decide was Deb Mell's appointment, in what seemed another blatant case of nepotism in Chicago politics.

"I think that the Democratic Machine doesn't represent working class families anymore," says Meegan, who is taking the unusual step of outspokenly running as a capital-I Independent, not just an "independent Democrat." (Although the municipal elections are technically non-partisan, currently all 50 Chicago aldermen are acknowledged Democrats.)

Meegan describes his decision to run as an "organic extension of the social justice movement that CTU stands for." He notes that while other CTU members are also preparing to run -- including Tammie Vinson in the 28th Ward and Dianne Daleiden in the 40th Ward - these decisions have been made independently, and not through CTU organizationally asking them to run.

Assuming Lewis runs and multiple CTU members and other progressive supporters for alderman, the potential for synergy skyrockets. Even though there is deep adoration for Lewis on the part of many, a potential Lewis campaign does not have a ready-to-go citywide structure in place. The presence of numerous simpatico aldermanic candidates could provide a significant chunk of that structure.

The flipside is that candidates like Meegan, running on platforms calling for a $15 minimum wage and an elected school board, aren't likely to have many deep-pocketed donors come calling. What they might lack in fundraising reach, though, could easily be offset by injections from the Lewis campaign. Co-branded literature and even co-branded yard signs could be possibilities. While Lewis would herself be at a huge fundraising disadvantage relative to Emanuel, her stature extends beyond Chicago, and would only be enhanced by the prospect of leading a de facto slate of perhaps dozens of candidates.

For Meegan, part of the calculus is simple. Referring to Emanuel, Meegan says, "I can't find anybody in Albany Park or Irving Park that likes him." Although Deb Mell was a fairly popular legislator before her aldermanic appointment, and her father remains a very powerful politician, the rising antipathy for nepotism in Chicago politics combined with having been appointed by Emanuel will work against her.

Still, it won't be easy for challengers like Meegan. Among the challenges is a much more difficult petitioning requirement than in years past. Last year, in a typically under-the-radar move, the General Assembly passed House Bill 2418, an omnibus election bill which among other things increased the signature requirement from 2 percent to 4 percent of the number of people who voted in the preceding mayoral election. In this first post-redistricting election, that means all aldermanic candidates need 473 valid signatures instead of 237. HB2418 was sponsored by local Machine Democrats, like Rep. Barbara Flynn Currie and Sen. Don Harmon.

The increased signature requirement means that candidates like Meegan will have to work extra hard to get onto the ballot. This is yet another area, though, where a Lewis campaign can make a big difference. If Lewis mobilizes a citywide petition drive (mayoral candidates need 12,500 valid signatures), she'll necessarily have to build an organization up quickly which could help support "double-petitioning" (the practice of carrying one petition for mayor and one for alderman at the same time.)

These synergies would simply not have happened with Preckwinkle having been the presumed leading challenger to Emanuel. As Joravsky concedes, she "really isn't all that much of a progressive." Meegan would have found little opportunity to run in conjunction with Preckwinkle, and given her outspoken support for the likes of Joe Berrios, it's reasonable to guess that she might have outright supported Deb Mell anyway.

Rahm Emanuel has a war chest of over $7,000,000 built up, so no matter how the race plays out, he has to be considered the odds-on favorite. If Lewis is his chief competitor, though, she adds the dimension of being able to go after him on a ward by ward basis as well. It is not unrealistic to think that the mayor could survive his own election but lose a dozen City Council allies in the process. And if Lewis's campaign pulls things together quickly and is very successful at integrating with aldermanic campaigns across the city, she could very well be elected and have sufficient support on City Council to avoid anything like the Council Wars that Harold Washington experienced in the 1980s.

Maybe Toni Preckwinkle would have had a better chance of defeating Rahm Emanuel. Karen Lewis, though, has a better chance of creating a ripple effect through Chicago politics at the ward level. Candidates like Tim Meegan, who might not have had much of a shot in past elections, could directly benefit from the rare political dynamic that 2015 presents, and fundamentally change the City That Works in the process.

 

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