Karen Lewis, the Chicago Teachers Union president now considering whether to run for mayor, has frequently railed against the influence of the wealthy.
“Why do people of wealth and privilege try to convince the world they have neither?” she said on Twitter last year. “Be honest that you don’t have a clue about poverty.”
She has ripped Mayor Rahm Emanuel as a tool of corporate Chicago, labeled him “Mayor 1%” and described herself as “not egotistical or rich.”
Lewis isn’t as wealthy as Emanuel, a multimillionaire who made his fortune during a short stint as an investment banker. But she makes more than $200,000 a year and has an ownership interest in three homes, records show.
That includes vacation homes in Hawaii and in the upscale “Harbor Country” area of southwestern Michigan, where Emanuel has a second home, property records show.
Lewis, 61, has said she has launched an informal exploratory committee in anticipation of a possible mayoral run in February’s election, when Emanuel will be seeking a second term. Last week, Lewis put the odds at “50-50” she will run.
A recent poll done for Early & Often, the Chicago Sun-Times politics portal, gave Lewis a 9-percentage-point lead over Emanuel in a hypothetical mayoral matchup.
In the wake of the 2012 teachers’ strike and a record number of school closings last year, a Lewis campaign for mayor appears poised to key on growing income disparity in Chicago. The teachers union leader already has called for raising taxes on the richest to fund education.
The mayor makes $216,200 a year.
That’s about $15,000 more than Lewis made from her two union salaries, according to the most recent union tax filings.
The CTU reported to the Internal Revenue Service that it paid Lewis $136,890, plus $18,687 in “nontaxable benefits,” for the year ending June 30, 2013.
In addition to her Chicago union post, Lewis also serves as executive vice president of the Illinois Federation of Teachers, based in Westmont.
The IFT’s most recently available tax filings show it paid Lewis a base salary in 2013 of $64,157, plus $16,039 in “other compensation.” That was for benefits, an IFT spokeswoman said.
When she first ran for CTU president four years ago, Lewis promised not to make more than the highest-paid teacher.
“How can you criticize [the CPS CEO] for making $230,000 a year during these hard times if you’re making so much more than your members?” she told the Chicago Reader then.
Chicago Public Schools’ payroll records show no teacher makes as much as Lewis’ $136,890 CTU base salary.
In an interview Tuesday, Lewis said she didn’t break her promise not to make more as union president than Chicago’s highest-paid teacher makes, saying her CTU salary is for working the full year, rather than a 39-week school year.
With an income that’s in the top 5 percent of all Americans, Lewis, a former science teacher, takes yearly vacations to Hawaii. She said she usually does that during the winter. But, anticipating she could be busy with a mayoral race this winter, she instead spent part of this summer in Hawaii.
Lewis has a three-bedroom, three-bathroom condominium on the Big Island of Hawaii. Lewis and her husband — a retired Chicago physical education teacher — bought the 1,300-square-foot unit in the Waikoloa Villas in 2011 for $240,000, property records show. It’s a short drive from an oceanfront lined with Fairmont, Hilton and Marriott luxury resorts.
In Chicago, Lewis and her husband live in a condo in Kenwood they bought seven years ago for $405,000.
She and her sister also own a vacation home in Union Pier, Michigan, that’s been in her family since 1961. Berrien County, Michigan, officials value the property at $305,000.
Union Pier is also where Emanuel has a two-story home — about half a mile from the home of Lewis and her sister — that he bought for $675,000 in 2003. Emanuel, who made $18 million in 2 1/2 years as an investment banker, lives in Ravenswood in a home he bought in 1998 for $695,000.
Lewis was first elected CTU president in 2010 and won another term as head of the 30,000-member union last year, carrying 80 percent of the vote.
Lewis has blasted Emanuel’s education policies and other actions she says favor the wealthy at the expense of the poor. And she has called for a “LaSalle Street tax,” saying the poor and working class pay an effective tax rate higher than what the top 5 percent wage-earners in Chicago pay.
In the interview, Lewis said, “I don’t live extravagantly. But if you look just at the numbers, then, absolutely, I am in the 5 percent.
“We are comfortable,” she said. “We are not poor. We have never been poor. Does that mean I don’t have the pulse of [the poor]? I don’t live in luxury. I don’t hang out with wealthy people. I have always been solidly middle class.
“You cannot put me in the same class with Rahm Emanuel or [Republican gubernatorial candidate] Bruce Rauner.”
About the condo in Hawaii, she said, “We bought when the market was low, and we got an exceptional deal.”
She said she and her husband also have stakes in two time-share homes in Hawaii, as well as time-shares in New York, Mexico and Colorado.
Regarding her pay, Lewis said, “I’m not going to apologize for it. I don’t think that’s wrong. I did what we are told to do. You are supposed to go to school, become educated. I have an Ivy League diploma. I have two master’s degrees. I’m a board-certified teacher.”
Lewis’ pay as teachers union president is based on a 50-hour work week, according to the union’s tax return.
“I wish I were working 50 hours,” Lewis said. “My day usually starts around 7 in the morning, and, if I’m lucky, I’m home by 10 at night. I work really long hours.”
She also is paid for 10 hours a week by the IFT, the statewide labor group of which the local is a part.
Lewis isn’t the highest-paid CTU official. Union administrator Lynn Cherkasky-Davis made $212,888 in base pay during the 2012-13 fiscal year. And four of the union local’s field representatives also were paid more than Lewis.