By TAMMY WEBBER, Associated Press
CHICAGO (AP) — She's brash and blunt, a union leader known for her tart tongue and flip one-liners often aimed at Mayor Rahm Emanuel in a bitter contract dispute regarded as a referendum on the future of Chicago schools.
But Karen Lewis — who recently referred to the high-stakes talks as "the silly part" of her day — also is a whip-smart Ivy League graduate with a long, distinguished record in the classroom and the overwhelming support of her union's 30,000 members.
Two years after she took the helm of the Chicago Teachers Union, the former chemistry teacher finds herself at the center of a nationally watched confrontation with Emanuel, the equally tough and sharp-tongued former White House chief of staff.
Teachers in the nation's third-largest school district walked off the job Monday for the first time in 25 years after negotiators failed to reach an agreement on issues that include performance evaluations based partly on student's standardized test scores and whether laid-off teachers would have first dibs on job openings districtwide.
The 59-year-old Lewis recently called the mayor a bully and a liar, and their already strained relationship hasn't improved since the strike began.
She seems to be winning the public-relations battle in much of Chicago — for now. Many moms and dads have walked the picket lines with their children, and she's inspired loyalty among teachers in a union long known for infighting. Almost 90 percent of union members voted to authorize a strike.
It all comes down to her credentials and take-no-prisoners personality, supporters say.
During a Labor Day rally a week before teachers went on strike, Lewis called the negotiations "a fight for the very soul of public education."
"The commitment to the children of the city of Chicago is in our hearts, in our minds," she said to a cheering crowd. "It's in the work we do."
Lewis attended public school in Chicago, in the same area where President Barack Obama has a house. The daughter of two Chicago public school teachers, she graduated from Dartmouth as the only black woman in her class. Lewis then taught in Chicago schools for 22 years and became a National Board certified teacher, one of the profession's highest qualifications.
In the classroom, she didn't stand for excuses or bad behavior but was happy to help students who were struggling, said Shannon Carroll, whose daughter had Lewis' chemistry class as a sophomore at King College Prep High School.
Carroll's daughter was having difficulty with the course, so Lewis tested her to see how she learned best. In the evening, she sometimes went over homework with her on the phone.
"She was very patient," Carroll said. "She was the most accessible teacher ever at that school."
Lewis was active in the union for more than 20 years before running for president in 2010. By then, she was a proven leader and well-respected by colleagues, said Ronni Rieck, a teacher who met Lewis while serving on a union executive board together.
"I thought, 'Who is this woman?'" Rieck said.
Lewis came up with creative solutions, Rieck said, and though she was not part of the top leadership team at the time, "they listened to her."
Rieck, who retired in June, said Lewis was more aggressive than some in her determination to push back against the school board when the district began closing dozens of schools and laying off hundreds of teachers while expanding charter schools.
That move, Lewis has said, often forced children to travel long distances or through gang territory, and the union filed a lawsuit to halt the dismissal of teachers.
"She tended to be more aggressive but also tempered that. She wasn't a crazy," Rieck said. "She's a very mature woman and confident in her own skin."
Lewis has sometimes come off as careless and inappropriate, including during a speech to educators and union members last fall in Seattle, where she mocked the way former schools CEO Arne Duncan talked and joked about smoking marijuana at Dartmouth. Lewis apologized to Duncan, who is now President Obama's education secretary. Supporters say she learned from that experience.