Turns Out Karen Lewis and Bruce Rauner Have a Lot in Common

Yesterday at a City Club of Chicago luncheon, Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis equated Governor Bruce Rauner with Islamic State terrorists. She suggested that his behavior is equivalent to “acts of terror on poor and working-class people.”

That’s a very harsh comment. Even if it is being directed at a governor who seems content to watch the lives of students, workers, the elderly and others of the most vulnerable people in the state fall into disrepair as he holds out for unreasonable reforms to be enacted in precisely the way he prescribes. As far as the “ISIS” comment, I would not have gone there. But, I have to admit that I can see where Ms. Lewis was coming from.

But, I do find it a little ironic that the CTU president is going after the governor in such a strong manner as it relates to his “behavior.” It would seem to me that if the aim is to get powerful leaders to move off of the dime and make compromises so that the most vulnerable people in our communities don’t suffer, Ms. Lewis could take a little advice from the Michael Jackson: Start with the woman in the mirror.

Just think about how much the CTU president and the Illinois governor have in common.

Both Governor Rauner and Karen Lewis ran on platforms that promised not to be so quick to give in and compromise on their issues and demands. As the Republican nominee for the governorship, Rauner lambasted the Chicago political machine and promised not be “weak” like his predecessors when it comes to dealing with those leaders. As the leader of the slate for the Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators (CORE), Karen Lewis came to power making very similar claims. The previous administration had been too willing to compromise. She would not be so flexible. She would fight.

Another example: Bruce Rauner’s “Turnaround Agenda” is not realistic in the current environment. It includes things like severely limiting workers compensation and collective bargaining. Similarly, last week a neutral third party suggested to the Chicago Teachers Union something that I suggested to them weeks ago; that they should take the generous deal that Chicago Public Schools put on the table. The arbiter essentially said that the demand for 4% raises instead of 2% (even though Chicago teachers are among the best compensated in the country), the demand that CPS continue to pay 7% of the employee pension contribution and other similar demands are unreasonable in the current environment.

You could call Karen Lewis’ response somewhat Rauneresque: She insisted that the third-party findings were “dead on arrival.”

Bruce Rauner has built a massive fortune over the course of his career. His wealth has allowed him to isolate himself politically and ignore the voice of reason. A huge part of what has enabled the governor’s behavior is that no one can stop him but himself.

Karen Lewis has taken a different route to power. She organized a vocal and active base inside of the union in order to gain power and then continued to build the CTU into a powerful turnout and PR juggernaut that allows her to push her agenda even if it does not accord with reason.

Both the Governor and Karen Lewis are locked in tough battles with similarly strong opponents, and it’s led to deadlock and a lot of collateral damage.

Which leads me to perhaps the most significant similarity between Rauner and Lewis: While they hold out for their agendas, more and more people stand to get hurt.

All around the state social service providers are closing their doors, schools are shutting down, people are losing their jobs. Rauner soldiers on, pushing his turnaround agenda.

In Chicago, students have already lost a day of school due to a mini-strike. The tension between CTU and CPS has thrown tremendous uncertainty into the lives of parents, teachers and students. And an indefinite strike looms like a dark cloud over everyone’s head. But, like Rauner, Lewis sees only the justice of her cause and fights on with dogged determination.

In the fight over the state budget as in the fight over the CTU labor contract, neither side is going to get everything they want. But, if ever an overture for a real compromise were going to be made it would be the offer that CPS put on the table in March.

My 6th grade teacher always used to say “Don’t point people out. Whenever you do, there are always three fingers pointing back at you.”

Ms. Lewis should take that advice and not be so quick to call “terrorism” at behavior like refusing to negotiate or leaning in too hard and for too long on unreasonable demands—all at great cost to the most vulnerable people in our communities. She just might be saying something about herself.

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Chris Butler is first a husband and a dad. He has been involved across the spectrum of public engagement activities and has worked with a number of diverse constituencies in urban and suburban communities. He has also been involved in several political campaigns including his service as a youth and young adult coordinator for Barack Obama’s primary bid for U.S. Senate. Chris worked as deputy campaign manager and field director for A+ Illinois where he developed a strong, statewide field operation including over 500 organizations and 50,000 individuals around the state working to bring adequacy and equity to Illinois’ school funding system and as the director of advocacy and outreach at New Schools for Chicago, a leader in school reform in Chicago. Chris is a 2006 graduate of the Ministry Training Institute and holds a degree in civic and political engagement from Northeastern Illinois University.

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