Rahm Emanuel Up Against a Teacher’s Strike

As teachers stage a walkout, Emanuel is facing the first major trauma of his mayorship.

Jean Lachat, Reuters / Landov

Rahm Emanuel, who was just enlisted to resuscitate President Obama’s super-PAC effort, is momentarily sidetracked by a super mess back home. For the first time, he is the face of a crisis.

The maniacally intense and disciplined Chicago mayor faced the biggest trauma of his 16-month tenure Monday when 25,000 public-school teachers went on strike against the nation’s third-biggest school system with nearly 400,000 students.

For two decades, as a political celebrity known to many just by his first name, Rahm has been no stranger to high-profile dilemmas. He endured and helped finesse critical, high-stakes dilemmas as a top fundraiser and aide to Bill Clinton and President Obama, including Clinton’s Gennifer Flowers and Monica Lewinsky scandals and the budget reconciliation deal that brought Obama’s health-care legislation.

He was an important staffer, but not the chief executive taking the heat. And now there is also the possibility that Mitt Romney supporters will exploit any prolonged teacher walkout by linking the president to the union troubles and their caricature of a slimy “Chicago way of politics” that they strain to claim he embodies.

The Missile, as the mayor is known to many in Chicago, had assiduously planned much-needed change in Chicago’s underperforming schools. That meant a key role when the state legislature passed an education law last year that seemingly weakened the Chicago Teachers Union, giving more power to his handpicked schools board and allowing him to unilaterally extend the shortest school day of any major system in the nation.

The union would be seemingly up against a wall, especially since the majority of members it would need to support a strike was statutorily hiked to a stiff 75 percent by the legislature. As Emanuel and self-styled reform advocates gamed it, that threshold—and the entire bargaining and fact-finding process inspired by the state law—made a walkout highly unlikely.

But Emanuel, a brilliant tactician when it comes to the workings of government, erred. The union got its strike authorization and did so much earlier than most imagined was likely. Aggravating matters was Karen Lewis, a firebrand and at times bumbling union president who takes a more rigid stance on many matters than her parent union, the American Federation of Teachers. She’s become a hero to some rank and filers in the union nationwide, but a much-ridiculed pain in the butt for Emanuel.

The strike comes despite Emanuel, the quintessential dealmaker, making a salary and benefits proposal the deficit-plagued school system seemingly can’t afford as well as relenting on the notion of merit pay. And when it comes to forcing much-needed accountability in any new system of teacher assessments, Lewis spurned even his very modest proposal.

The Chicago union has placed barricades up against any seemingly meaningful process of judging classroom performance. Currently, it is arguably easier for most principals to run an Ironman Triathlon than get rid of a lousy teacher, given complexities of the union contract.

During a late-night press conference Sunday, about as much time was spent bemoaning lack of air conditioning in school buildings as discussing teacher performance by Lewis, a Dartmouth graduate who turned to the classroom after a short-lived stand-up comedy fling. And it was unclear why frustrated city negotiators had been unable to contact her for hours during the day as parents awaited a resolution with bated breath.

The union comes close to desiring a lifetime job guarantee as it presses for full recall rights for any member who suffers a layoff. They scoffed Sunday at a city proposal under which those whose schools are shut would merely be assured of an interview with a principal elsewhere but not necessarily a post elsewhere if a vacancy existed.

Is Emanuel up to the job of convincing a teacher-loving public why the city really can’t afford even what he seems to have generously proposed (by some measures, about a 16 percent raise over four years)? Can he succinctly message how the union really doesn’t want to be held accountable for students’ performance? (Lewis cites poverty, violence, and other social issues beyond teachers’ control that lower test scores.) From some perspectives, the walkout borders on the irrational.

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Former mayor Richard M. Daley, who governed Chicago for 22 years prior to Emanuel, gave the union unduly rich deals, with various schools superintendents just along for the bargaining ride, most notably Arne Duncan, now the U.S. Secretary of Education.

Daley can easily be chided for giving away the store in some ways, though he had the nerve to take over the entire system during the mid-1990s in a deal with the legislature and inspired real achievements. Those include creating knockout “selective enrollment” high schools, which perform better in state tests than the fanciest suburban schools, which traditionally led the pack.

But Daley also knew the political perils of a strike, especially if you were a white mayor overseeing a school system that is majority black and Latino. The optics can be all wrong.

Conventional wisdom suggests a brief walkout, with the real substantive questions being how much deeper into a financial hole a new contract puts the schools system and what, if anything, it does for improving teacher performance.

Regardless, the Missile faces the biggest political crisis of his life as he presumably carves out time to speed-dial prospective donors for the prime pro-Obama super PAC.

Obama and many Democrats have been wary of involvement with groups allowed to accept unlimited, even anonymous, contributions as permitted by the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision. But Romney’s super-PAC fundraising advantage has loomed so large that the argument to kick-start the effort was won by those saying fight fire with fire.

Last week Emanuel was beckoned to head an existing but lagging effort. There are few, if any, in the Democratic Party with his Rolodex and experience tapping the wealthy, given two decades of raising money for presidents, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (as a Chicago congressman), and his own mayoral campaign.

But at least for a likely day or two, the Missile must deal both with Lewis, the failed comic who has already won key concessions for her members, and parents scurrying to deal with homebound children.

During his own press conference late Sunday, he suggested the differences between the parties were modest and that he didn’t quite understand why the teachers couldn’t return to class Monday as negotiations continued.

In a blazer and dress shirt open at the collar, he was cool and measured, surely belying a famous inner rage.