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Karen Lewis gets in fighting shape

CTU president Karen Lewis speaks City Club. | Michael Schmidt/Sun-Times

CTU president Karen Lewis speaks at City Club. | Michael Schmidt/Sun-Times

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Updated: June 23, 2014 12:05PM

They want him gone. If his re-election bid were held today, just 29 percent of registered voters would support Mayor Rahm Emanuel, according to a new poll commissioned by the Chicago Sun-Times.

Karen Lewis is on it. The Chicago Teachers Union president is Emanuel’s most vocal and prominent critic. In the 2012 school strike, she beat him at his own game. Now she wants to take him out of the 2015 game.

Lewis is fiery, aggressive, outspoken and articulate. She has been excoriated in the media, corporate boardrooms and the TwitterVerse.

Some people don’t like women like that. Too bad.

Last week we met in a quiet conference room at CTU headquarters in the Merchandise Mart, where she calmly, methodically and resolutely explained why Emanuel must go.

“When I met him,” she recalls, “I thought, well, he’ll be kind of interesting and fun to work with,” Lewis recalled.

She knew “Rahm had issues” but saw him as “dynamic and smart and kind of like a little bulldog.”

With very sharp teeth.

Since then they have battled bitterly over the CTU contract, pension reform and school closings. Emanuel is an elitist who governs by fiat and press release, she argues. He ignores best practices, disrespects both allies and foes. He has “contempt for certain parts of town,” she says, specifically the South and West sides, where he closed 50 Chicago public schools last year.

The CTU, in alliance with other unions and community groups, will spend the summer working to register 75,000 to 100,000 new voters, raise $2 million, and find a candidate who will “understand the platform of what working people in this city really need.”

And, she said, “I will support anyone who will be on those platforms and who can beat him” in the February 2015 mayoral race.

But it won’t be her, she says.

Still, Lewis is getting in fighting shape. In March, she flew to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, to undergo bariatric surgery. Her health insurance would not cover it, so going abroad was the only affordable cost option — $8,500.

She has tried. She knows all about food choice, portion control, exercise. “I have never been a thin person, Laura. I have always struggled with my weight.”

She is 60, and in a highly stressful job. “I was getting to the point where physically I couldn’t do the things I want to do.” The arthritis in her knees was “curtailing my playing tennis, which is my favorite thing to do.”

She raves about the surgery and care she received. A team of doctors monitors her progress. She has lost 50 pounds.

“Weight loss surgery is not a cure for obesity. It is a tool. It is simply a tool. And I needed that help.”

Lewis routinely receives mail loaded with brutal, racist insults about her looks, her weight, even her sexual orientation. I have seen the stuff; it’s too despicable to detail here.

She won’t look at it, but laughs it off. “I tell you, I always had good lookin’ boyfriends, and men with money. My weight never got in my way.”

Until now.

As for the surgery, “I have no shame around it. And I don’t think anybody should have shame about it.”

Her bottom line: “I feel so much better. It has been a highly positive experience for me I would highly recommend it.”

That earns Karen Lewis my First Annual Fat Nag Award.


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