By DAVID FEITH –
Rahm Emanuel is his generation’s most noted political pugilist, the guy who once mailed a dead fish to a fellow Democratic operative whose work had disappointed him. In 1992 he celebrated Bill Clinton’s presidential victory with a steak knife and an enemies list, stabbing a table and screaming “dead” as he recited each name. Over time Mr. Emanuel’s drive has made him a leader in Congress, chief of staff to President Obama and now the mayor of Chicago.
So you’d think that “Rahmbo” would be the perfect leader—a popular, bona fide progressive reformer unafraid to speak his mind—to stand up for students and parents by facing down the Chicago Teachers Union’s first strike in 25 years. But when the teachers walked off the job on Monday and the strike wore on, the political force of nature seemed hesitant to brawl.
Sitting for an interview on Tuesday in a reception room overlooking Chicago’s Millennium Park, with union members marching in the street, Mr. Emanuel presents himself as a man looking to make a deal. According to news reports at press time, he’s likely to sign one this weekend.
An education showdown that had the makings of a national breakthrough—the highest-profile sign yet that, regardless of party, politicians are dedicated to bringing accountability to public schools—might be ending with a whimper. Members of the Chicago Teachers Union will reportedly receive 16% raises, over three years, in exchange for accepting a new teacher-evaluation system that relies partly, but not heavily, on student test scores.
How did it come to this? Consider the calendar. We’re seven weeks from a presidential election in which Barack Obama needs all the cash and foot soldiers that organized labor can provide. His Super PAC’s chief fundraiser is none other than Rahm Emanuel. Meanwhile, the Democratic Party’s chief funders remain teachers unions, groups that also accounted for an estimated 20% of delegates at the recent Democratic National Convention. So you can imagine why Chicago’s unionized teachers struck now, gambling that Mr. Emanuel’s killer instinct may be stayed at least for the season.
“I understand the strong feelings on the other side,” Mr. Emanuel says of the union. In describing the negotiations’ sticking points, such as how teachers will be evaluated and whether principals will be free to hire whom they want, his themes are conciliation and cooperation.
“They’re worried that 6,000 of the teachers won’t pass” the evaluation, he says. “I am more confident they will. That said, the system was actually over a year developed in collaboration with 2,000 teachers, so they have their thumbprints all over the design of this. . . . I can’t think of anything more respectful to the profession.”