A labor fight in Chicago could emerge as a top presidential campaign issue as Mitt Romney tries to tie President Obama to a teacher’s strike that began Monday.
Obama has not taken sides in the standoff between Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, the president’s former chief of staff, and the city’s teachers union.
But Romney, who routinely slams teachers unions as an obstacle to education reform, is trying to break that silence by accusing Obama of cozying up too close to labor in general.
“President Obama has chosen his side in this fight, sending his vice president last year to assure the nation’s largest teachers union that ‘you should have no doubt about my affection for you and the president’s commitment to you,’” Romney said in a statement. “I choose to side with the parents and students depending on public schools to give them the skills to succeed, and my plan for education reform will do exactly that.”
The Republican nominee said he was “disappointed by the decision of the Chicago Teachers Union to turn its back on not only a city negotiating in good faith but also the hundreds of thousands of children relying on the city’s public schools to provide them a safe place to receive a strong education.”
In a related presidential attack, the Illinois Republican Party has called for Emanuel to step down from his recently announced position raising money for Priorities USA, a super PAC supporting Obama’s re-election. [Update: Emanuel’s office says that fundraising is “on hold” but that he hasn’t stepped down.]
The Obama campaign accused Romney of being disingenuous in claiming to side with students while proposing major budget cuts that would likely come out of national education funding.
“President Obama’s leadership has led to groundbreaking reforms in our schools, earning wide bipartisan cooperation and praise,” Obama campaign press secretary Ben LaBolt said in a e-mail to TPM. “In contrast, Gov. Romney has said class size isn’t a problem and he would cut taxes for millionaires by gutting education funding, leading to fewer teachers. Playing political games with local disputes won’t help educate our kids, nor will fewer teachers. But President Obama’s plans will lift our schools and our students.”
LaBolt’s statement did not address the strike itself, which sets up a political fight that Obama would likely rather avoid. Siding with the city could inflame tensions right as the campaign needs unions’ support the most. On the other hand, the White House has supported a number of education reforms that haven’t always gone over well with labor, such as increased teacher accountability. And undermining one of the Obama’s most loyal supporters and surrogates in the president’s own hometown is hardly an inviting prospect.
Benjy Sarlin is a reporter for Talking Points Memo and co-writes the campaign blog, TPM2012. He previously reported for The Daily Beast/Newsweek as their Washington Correspondent and covered local politics for the New York Sun.