BROWN: Pawar aims for Trump, but also hits Burke, Rahm, status quo

SHARE BROWN: Pawar aims for Trump, but also hits Burke, Rahm, status quo
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Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Alderman Ameya Pawar before a City Council meeting in 2016. File Photo. Brian Jackson/For the Sun-Times

One of the problems with being around Chicago politics too long is that a person can become numb to its ethical shortcomings.

You start thinking that just because something has been done a certain way for so long that it can’t be changed, even if you think it’s wrong.

Case in point: the longstanding practice of Chicago elected officials who are lawyers doing real estate tax appeal work, which inherently puts them in conflict with the interests of their constituents.

OPINION

Ald. Ameya Pawar (47th) rattled that status quo on Monday with a shot across the bow of Finance Committee Chairman Edward Burke for filing another tax appeal lawsuit on behalf of President Donald Trump and his namesake Chicago skyscraper.

In an interview with Sun-Times’ City Hall reporter Fran Spielman, Pawar said it was a “disgrace” that Burke filed his sixth lawsuit in eight years seeking a property tax refund for Trump’s riverfront hotel.

Pawar’s comments appeared aimed mainly at Trump, who he called “a racist and a bigot,” echoing an accusation Pawar made about Gov. Bruce Rauner during the alderman’s recently folded campaign for governor.

In the process, though, Pawar publicly called out Burke in a way that Mayor Rahm Emanuel never has, an interesting contrast for those wondering if Pawar might next run for mayor.

The two-term alderman has promised to term limit himself out of the City Council in 2019 but hasn’t ruled out seeking another office.

Pawar first took to Twitter over the weekend in response to a story by Sun-Times’ Watchdog Tim Novak reporting the latest Burke lawsuit on Trump’s behalf.

“Embarrassing. Infuriating,” Pawar wrote.

Then later, he tweeted: “@realDonaldTrump is a racist & bigot who consistently threatens to defund Chicago. But hey, let’s keep fighting for his tax breaks.”

Pawar told Spielman that it was “outrageous” for Trump to threaten to withhold federal funds from Chicago over its sanctuary city status, then for Burke to try to “defund us even more” by cutting his real estate taxes.

It really does beg the question what Burke is thinking, especially given that he now represents a majority Hispanic ward. He never has explained his work on Trump’s behalf.

Burke has been doing Trump’s real estate tax appeal work in Chicago since 2008.

At that time, I’m sure Burke’s main interest in taking Trump as a client was the opportunity to make a lot of money. Nobody took Trump’s political aspirations seriously back then.

At this point, representing Trump comes with more baggage, but also a greater upside for someone like Burke who is always looking for ways to gain more influence.

Trump is entitled to legal representation, and Burke is theoretically entitled to represent him, although that’s the assumption that needs to be challenged. Why should he continue to get away with it when any money he wins for Trump—or any of his other clients—comes out of the hides of other property taxpayers?

Earlier this year, another gubernatorial candidate, Chris Kennedy, was the first to make a campaign issue of what he called the “corrupt” system of politicians doubling as property tax lawyers. But he declined to call out by name two of its biggest practitioners, Burke and House Speaker Michael Madigan.

Pawar told me he agrees with Kennedy that “there is a serious problem there.”

“This case is emblematic of what’s happening,” Pawar said. “That is what the rich and powerful have been doing in this city for decades, undervaluing and undertaxing properties downtown.”

Pawar said Trump should have a process available to appeal his taxes just like any property owner, but that doesn’t mean state or local elected officials should be providing his legal representation.

At the same time, Pawar tried to avoid escalating the attack on Burke.

“Chairman Burke and I have always had an amicable relationship.” Pawar said. “I didn’t call Burke a racist or a bigot. I called the client one.”

Too late to make nice, alderman. Full speed ahead.

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