Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis, seen as Mayor Rahm Emanuel's most high-profile re-election challenger, won't run in 2015, a spokeswoman announced Monday.
Lewis, who often tussled with the mayor during the 2012 Chicago Public Schools teachers' strike, didn't specify her reasons and a statement released on behalf of her exploratory committee made no mention of a recent illness she disclosed publicly.
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"Karen Lewis has decided to not pursue a mayoral bid," said a statement from committee spokeswoman Jhatayn Travis. "Yet she charges us to continue fighting for strong neighborhood schools, safe communities and good jobs for everyone."
Lewis had been seen as the best shot so far to unseat Emanuel, who won his first term in 2011. For months, she had been circulating petitions and raising her profile at parades and political events, often harshly criticizing Emanuel and his policies. She even dubbed him the "murder mayor" because of the city's violence problem.
Union Vice President Jesse Sharkey last week said that Lewis has a "serious illness" and underwent successful surgery. Sharkey also said he had taken over Lewis' tasks as president, but did not provide additional details on her illness.
Emanuel issued a statement after Lewis' announcement Monday wishing her a quick recovery.
"I have always respected and admired Karen's willingness to step up and be part of the conversation about our city's future," said Emanuel, a former congressman and White House chief of staff.
Chicago Alderman Bob Fioretti, who announced his bid to run last month, said he was praying for Lewis' health.
"For Chicago's sake, I hope this is not the last we see of Karen Lewis," he said in a statement. "I can understand the battle with illness, and how it can change the best thought out plans. But I also know that Karen is resilient and strong and will be back advocating for educators, students and Chicagoans in no time."
Political experts said only a handful of credible candidates would be able to mount a serious challenge at this point ahead of the Feb. 24 contest. Names floated in Chicago political circles included Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, who has already said she planned to keep her current job and faces re-election, and Cook County Clerk David Orr.
Any candidate would have to be able to raise big funds and already have name recognition. Emanuel has banked more than $8 million, while campaign finance filings show Fioretti had about $325,000 as of June. Also, Emanuel's implied support from President Barack Obama as a former aide would be hard to counter in Obama's hometown.
However, political watchers said Emanuel's approval ratings have been low.
"It's a mixed bag," said Chicago political consultant Don Rose. "Many people feel he's ripe for the picking."
The February election is nonpartisan. If no candidate receives more than half of the ballots cast, a runoff between the top two candidates will be held in April.
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