Tuesday, April 7, 2015

On Chicago's West Side, Running Against the Mayor's School Policy | The New Republic

On Chicago's West Side, Running Against the Mayor's School Policy | The New Republic:

Great Chicago Ire

Why a Chicago alderman race may hinge on Mayor Rahm Emanuel's hard line on schools

“Is this for Rahm or Chuy?” a woman garrisoned in front of her West Side of Chicago home says, more as a warning than a question, her hands extended into stop signs. She’s got no love for Mayor Rahm Emanuel, but she also doesn’t want to hear about his challenger in the city’s first-ever mayoral run-off, a Cook County commissioner named Jesus “Chuy” Garcia.
“It’s for me,” Tara Stamps sings playfully, proffering a palm card with her smiling face on it. She quickly explains that she’s a veteran Chicago public schools teacher and she’s running for alderman. “I’m asking for your support if you’re open to electing a new representative.”
The afternoon is spirit-pummeling cold for late March, and Stamps, 46, is bundled in a red beret and red plaid peacoat with a Chicago Teachers Union button pinned to her lapel. A first-time candidate, she’s a natural at retail politics. She possesses a commanding voice that shifts seamlessly between colloquial rapport and tirade, and the generous gap between her two front teeth seems, if anything, inviting. At another house on the same block of cramped brick bungalows in the largely African American ward, she repeats the name of the young mother who answers the door, drawing it out like they're longtime friends—“Okay, Sha-von-dah!” Then she launches into her plans to hold civics classes in the ward, so people there understand the benefits of an elected school board (in Chicago, it’s appointed by the mayor), and the ways that Mayor Emanuel is starving neighborhood schools. “It’s a mess. We the only people that can stand in the gap between them and us.” The thirty-seventh ward, on Chicago’s western edge, is a distant ten miles from City Hall, but Stamps is talking about a “gap” that isn’t only one of space but also of race, resources, and safety. “We need to advocate for our neighborhoods and our schools. That’s what’s at stake in this election.”
Stamps is running against an incumbent named Emma Mitts, but in many respects her opponent is the mayor himself. “It’s a referendum on Rahm. He’s not invested in black communities,” she told me as I tagged along over several hours of afternoon campaigning. “Mitts is in lockstep with Rahm. She’s voted 97 percent of the time with him on policies that devastate her own community.” For the vote in February, Emanuel raised tens of tens of millions of dollars, of which $7 million alone went to TV ads; he faced off against relative unknowns; and he enlisted the support of Barack Obama, who stumped for his former chief of staff in spots on black radio (“Let’s be honest, at times the guy can be a little hardheaded”) and joined the mayor in Chicago in the days before the vote. And still Emanuel was unable to secure the 50.1 percent of the vote needed to win outright.
Stamps’s rise from self-proclaimed “activist teacher” to one of an actual political candidate is also the story of Emanuel’s plummeting popularity and of the emergence of a formidable anti-Rahm opposition from the left. She is representative of the city’s broadly drawn battle lines in this election. Downtown versus the neighborhoods. Teachers and unions versus private interests. Blacks, Latinos, and the progressive left versus the man they’ve dubbed “Mayor 1%.”
Back in 2011, Emanuel’s first run for mayor was a ho-hum affair, in which he easily won 55 percent of the vote against five candidates. The only real drama came when he had to prove in court that he was a resident of Chicago, since he’d rented out his North Side home during his Washington sojourn. The bellicose Emanuel wasn’t beloved by Chicagoans, but that was part of his appeal. After Richard M. Daley’s 22 years in office (and a Daley as mayor for 43 of the previous 56 years), he represented both a break from and a continuation of the past. He was chummy with the city’s business elite: Between his time in the Clinton White House and his run for U.S. Congress, he worked for the Chicago branch of a major investment-banking firm, raking in $18 million for himself in a little more than two years. But as well, his ties to Obama helped him with black voters.
I remember sitting down in 2011 with the tenant representative of what remained of the legendary Cabrini-Green public housing complex, on the city’s Near North Side. She is as hard-bitten a cynic when it comes to politicians as anyone I’ve met and with good reason—she’d seen every public housing high-rise in the city demolished over the previous decade and a half, with most residents left to rent in the private sector with government-issued vouchers. But she went all soft thinking about the possibilities of the new mayor. “I don’t know if you know about Saul going to Paul in the Bible,” she said, referring to Saul’s conversion from a persecutor of Christians to one of Jesus’s apostles. “I think Rahm might be Saul going to Paul. I hope that’s the case.”

The first real jolt of disaffection occurred just before the start of the school year in 2012, when Chicago's teachers went on strike. Teacher strikes seemed almost a seasonal rite when I was a Chicago public schools student, but there hadn’t been one for 25 years. Emanuel was demanding a longer school day and greater reliance on student testing to evaluate teachers. Teachers wanted more pay, especially if they were expected to work longer hours. Underlying the standoff, though, were issues that were fueling education fights all over the country. Karen Lewis, the president of the Chicago Teachers Union, assailed the “teach and punish” strategies being pushed by both Emanuel and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, whom she heaped scorn upon when he ran Chicago’s school system. (At a rally she once mocked Duncan for having a lisp.) She regularly denounced charters for benefiting private management companies and draining resources from neighborhood schools. During one of their contract negotiations, Emanuel shouted, “Fuck you, Lewis.” The rough-and-tumble politicking that served Emanuel in Washington suddenly looked different when he was cursing out a 59-year-old black woman in Chicago. The strike dragged into the school year, lasting ten days.
Tara Stamps, a rank-and-file member of the teachers union at the time, proved to be a fiery orator on the picket line and at huge demonstrations downtown. Her mother, the late Marion Stamps, was a bullhorn of a On Chicago's West Side, Running Against the Mayor's School Policy | The New Republic: