Ald. Edward Burke (14th) likes to joke that there are only three ways to leave the Chicago City Council: “the ballot box, the jury box or the pine box.”
Burke is not imminently facing either of those fates, despite a prostate cancer diagnosis that has him facing surgery on Thursday, medical experts say.
Dr. Marcus Quek, an associate professor of urology at Loyola Medical Center, said the very fact that Burke’s doctors chose to perform a radical prostatectomy — removal of the prostate and some of the lymph nodes in the area — is proof that Burke’s cancer was caught early.
“Surgery is typically reserved for men who have, what we think is localized prostate cancer who potentially could be cured of the disease with surgery. It has not yet spread elsewhere,” Quek said.
Quek dismissed speculation that Burke has Stage 4 cancer, noting, “Stage 4 implies that disease is spread to other areas of his body and is no longer curable. In that case, you would not do a prostatectomy because removal of the prostate would not impact his survival because disease has already spread elsewhere.”
Quek said Burke is likely to be hospitalized for a day or two, have a catheter for a week or two, and be advised to avoid strenuous activity for about a month.
But he said, “Following surgery, he should be able to resume his normal activities. There may be a period of time of recovery, of course. It may take a while for him to get his stamina back. But ultimately, I wouldn’t anticipate anything that would not allow him to get back to work” and seek re-election.
Burke, the City Council’s 70-year-old dean and Finance Committee chairman, is counting on it.
“Several weeks ago during a routine physical, it was discovered that my [Prostate-Specific Antigen] level was elevated. Further tests revealed that, like hundreds of thousands of other men, I was diagnosed with prostate cancer,” Burke said Tuesday, reading from a prepared statement at an unrelated news conference.
“I’ve opted for surgical treatment, which will be performed on Thursday. With faith in God and trust in my doctors, I’m confident of full recovery. After a period of recuperation, I expect to be able to return to a normal schedule. My family and I are grateful for the many messages of support and prayer from friends and well-wishers. My experience is an example of why men should receive PSA testing.”
Burke was asked twice whether he forsees any circumstances under which he would not stand for re-election on Feb. 24. Both times, he refused to answer the question. He simply urged reporters to “respect my privacy as I deal with this health issue.”
With that, Burke ended the news conference and entered the City Council chambers, where colleagues who like and respect him offered their prayers.
Burke is the son of a ward boss who succeeded his father in 1969 after Joseph Burke died of lung cancer. It’s a disease that prompted Edward Burke to become the City Council’s leading crusader against smoking, proposing a string of trailblazing ordinances that culminated in the 2005 decision to ban smoking in virtually all of indoor Chicago.
He has served under eight Chicago mayors—including the briefest of stints by David Orr—and survived numerous federal investigations, including a ghost payrolling probe known as “Operation Haunted Hall” that resulted in nearly three dozen guilty pleas, including employees carried on the Finance Committee payroll.
He’s also the consummate political survivor.
Former Mayor Jane Byrne once denounced Burke as part of a “cabal of evil men” who “greased” an increase in taxicab fares, only to welcome Burke into her inner circle. Burke and former Mayor Richard Daley were lifelong rivals who managed to tolerate each other without threatening each other’s power base.
Under former Mayor Harold Washington, Burke and then-Ald. Edward R. Vrdolyak (10th) led the “Council Wars” power struggle that thwarted Washington’s every move. Burke once demanded that Washington resign for failing to meet the deadline for filing his ethics statement. He subsequently expressed regret for some of the extreme positions he took during those days.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Burke are former political rivals who appear to have put aside their differences.
Sources said Emanuel blamed Burke for laying the groundwork for the residency challenge that nearly knocked the former White House chief-of-staff off the mayoral ballot.
During a campaign debate in 2011, Emanuel rocked the boat with a pre-election threat to re-organize the City Council — and strip Burke of his police bodyguards and, possibly his chairmanship.
But after a peacemaking session brokered and hosted by Ald. Pat O’Connor (40th), Emanuel’s City Council floor leader, Emanuel ultimately decided to retain Burke as Finance Committee Chairman and, at least initially, retained the bodyguard detail before cutting it in half.
Nearly 15 years ago, the Chicago Sun-Times ran a series of stories detailing the alleged conflicts between Burke’s position as Finance Committee chairman and his private role as a lawyer.
The newspaper disclosed how Burke used a rare parliamentary maneuver to change the record of four past Council votes involving his airlines clients dating back as far as seven years.
Ever since then, Burke has abstained on a host of matters before his committee — and his annual ethics statement explains why. It includes dozens of companies that do business with the city.
Burke’s power stems from his role as Finance Committee chairman and as chairman of judicial slatemaking for the Cook County Democratic Party. Dozens of judges owe their seats on the bench to Burke, whose wife, Anne, is a justice on the Illinois Supreme Court.
Although his ward is now overwhelmingly Hispanic, Burke has been easily re-elected by learning Spanish and paying meticulous attention to his ward. After his first election, he has faced a challenger only once — in 1971 — and won with 90 percent of the vote.
Burke controls three political funds that had more than $3.6 million on hand at the close of the first quarter.
Given all of that, it’s tough to imagine that he would walk away voluntarily or easily from the formidable clout he wields. If he does, political observers do not expect an all-in-the-family switch like the retirement of longtime Ald. Richard Mell (33rd), who engineered the appointment of his daughter as his replacement.
If, for any reason, the health crisis forces Burke to step down, the ward is almost certain to elect an Hispanic replacement, political observers say.