When Chicago’s most powerful alderman began pushing for legislation that could mean big money for a major industry, it seemed only a matter of time before Edward Burke got a generous campaign contribution from someone who stood to benefit.
The City Council proposal that would promote the ethanol business has not yet been approved.
But the check for Burke, the Council’s $10 million man, is not stuck in the mail.
The Archer Daniels Midland Co. — the local agribusiness giant that’s among the world’s biggest ethanol producers — recently gave $20,000 to a political committee led by Burke.
The contribution to the longtime 14th Ward alderman and Finance Committee chairman is the biggest check ADM has written to an Illinois politician in seven years, according to state campaign-finance reports.
The $20,000 gift came on April 14. It followed a meeting between Burke and the two top executives of ADM late last year, city records show.
Don’t be surprised if ADM’s largesse portends a renewed push to achieve Burke and the ethanol industry’s great frustrated ambition: A Chicago ordinance requiring the sale of gas with a higher percentage of ethanol blended with it.
The ordinance would make Chicago the first city in the country to make gas stations sell fuel that has 15 percent ethanol, which ADM makes from corn.
Burke pushed the measure through his Finance Committee by an 11-5 vote in December. Normally, legislation that gets preliminary backing from Burke’s committee is all but certain to win swift and final approval from the full Council.
This time, though, allies of Mayor Rahm Emanuel blocked a Council vote on the legislation. Saying the plan “needs more work,” Emanuel expressed concern that the requirement would place too much of a burden on individual gas station franchise owners.
After the rare setback for the dean of the Council, Burke became angry when Chicago Sun-Times City Hall Reporter Fran Spielman asked whether his proposal would stall.
“I don’t know how you’ve concluded it’s not going anywhere,” Burke told Spielman. “Why would you say that? It’s going someplace.”
ADM clearly still hopes it will.
“Ethanol continues to help diversify our fuel supply, reduce emissions, lower prices at the pump and create good American jobs,” ADM spokeswoman Jackie Anderson said Tuesday.
Whether ethanol provides a net benefit for the environment is the subject of broad dispute. But it’s certain the Chicago ordinance would be a boon to companies that make the biofuel.
“ADM delivers clean-burning ethanol to refiners through an expansive network of trucks, railcars, barges and terminals,” according to the company’s website.
ADM hired John Kelly Jr. as its City Hall lobbyist in November. In reports filed with the city, Kelly said he sought a meeting late last year with Burke “to introduce him to Patricia Woertz and Juan Luciano from ADM.”
Woertz is now chairman of the company board. Luciano has been CEO since Jan. 1.
The company confirmed the executives met with Burke, saying that was one in a long series of getting-to-know-you meetings with Chicago leaders after ADM moved its global headquarters here.
Asked about the campaign cash for Burke, Anderson, the ADM spokeswoman, said: “Our political contributions are made in accordance with applicable laws and regulations.”
Burke’s spokesman did not respond to messages seeking comment Tuesday.
The check from ADM padded the more than $10.4 million that three campaign committees tied to Burke reported having in their accounts at the end of March, shortly after the 46-year Council veteran won another term without opposition.
ADM’s contribution went to a political fund called the Burnham Committee, which helped a long list of Burke’s Council colleagues in the recent city election.
The Burnham Committee’s purpose, according to filings with the state, is “to support the women and men who share Burnham’s dream of a ‘people’s city.’ ”
It’s obviously a tribute to Daniel Burnham, the legendary architect and urban planner whose most famous statement was: “Make no small plans. They have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably will not themselves be realized.”
Maybe it would be more accurate, however, for Burke to change his committee’s motto to: Accept no small political donations from those whose financial fortunes you can alter greatly by exercising your clout.