After surviving prostate cancer, countless federal investigations and his own starring role in Council Wars, Chicago’s most powerful and longest-serving alderman could be nearing his political end.
One way or another, Thursday’s unprecedented pre-election raid on the City Hall and ward offices of Ald. Edward Burke (14th) is likely to trigger Burke’s political demise.
If he avoids indictment, as he has so many times before, Burke is now more likely to lose the City Council seat that he has held since 1969 or drop out of the race.
But, mayoral candidate Lori Lightfoot, a Burke nemesis and former federal prosecutor, said the federal show of force is likely to culminate in charges against Burke.
“For the FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s office to be executing search warrants at his government offices, that had to be approved at a very high level of the Department of Justice in Washington. This is not something you do on a notion,” Lightfoot said.
“A magistrate judge had to sign off on the particulars of the search warrant to show there was a credible allegation that a federal crime was committed and that evidence of that federal crime would be found in these locations. That means this is a very, very serious matter.”
Lightfoot predicted that there would be “a very bare bones charging document, probably a criminal complaint” issued relatively soon. A search warrant laying out the probable cause and an inventory of items taken, is likely to come later after all of it is presented to a grand jury, she said.
“It doesn’t always happen that way. … Sometimes search warrants are issued and nobody gets charged. But it would surprise me if that happened here,” she said.
“This is a very high-profile elected official. A search of his government offices very close to an election, which they would be mindful of and the consequences of that. This is not a nothing. This is a very serious action.”
Even before the raid, Burke was in a fight for his political life in the 14th Ward fiefdom where he has reigned for the last 50 years.
Congressman-elect Jesus “Chuy” Garcia has targeted Burke for defeat because of the “insult” to Burke’s majority Hispanic ward caused by the alderman’s property tax appeals work for the riverfront tower that bears the name of President Donald Trump.
After learning of the raid, Garcia released a statement essentially dancing on Burke’s political grave.
“In the five decades that Ald. Burke has been in office, he has used his position to enrich himself and his political cronies while being an impediment to political progress and community empowerment. Make no mistake: Ald. Burke is the last bastion of Chicago machine politics,” Garcia was quoted as saying.
“Burke’s legacy over half a century will be obstructing Harold Washington, Chicago’s only reform Mayor, cutting Donald Trump’s property taxes on the backs of working families, feeding at the trough of greed and corruption, and finally being caught for his own misdeeds. All of Chicago is hoping justice finally prevails.”
Attorney Jaime Guzman, one of four Burke challengers, said Burke should “resign as alderman and withdraw” his nominating petitions.
“It’s not the first time Ed Burke has been investigated or implicated. This goes way back to the early 80’s,” Guzman said.
“He’s had an opportunity to represent … the Southwest Side. He’s had an opportunity to build his own personal wealth and contribute to the social and cultural fabric of the city. But, there’s no reason why we should continue to go through this. We’ve got another guy [Willie Cochran] passing up a plea deal to put taxpayers through a trial on his corruption charges. These guys don’t know when to hang it up.”
In 50 years as ward committeeman and 49 years as alderman of a now-majority Hispanic ward once represented by his father, Burke has survived numerous threats to depose him as chairman of the City Council’s Finance Committee by mayors with whom he subsequently reached political accommodation.
He has survived federal investigations that threatened to undercut his power base. He has changed City Council votes that presented a conflict for his law business and once even blamed a dead man for ghost-payrolling irregularities on his committee payroll.
He’s been in the public spotlight for having taxpayer-funded bodyguards drive him to and from City Hall — and for how quickly city snowplows clear the pavement on his Southwest Side block.
Burke also has managed to overcome his own political extremism during the Council Wars power struggle that thwarted then-Mayor Harold Washington’s every move. For the most part, an entire generation of Chicagoans doesn’t remember the role Burke played as an obstructionist.
Lightfoot has targeted Burke for removal as Finance chairman and released an ethics plan that would prohibit aldermen from holding paid side jobs that conflict with the city’s interests.
Like his Council Wars co-hort, former Ald. Ed Vrdolyak (10th), Burke has walked away unscathed from so many federal investigations, some politicians assumed he was working undercover for the feds.
But, Lightfoot found it ironic that both “Eddies” may end up as grandfathers fighting for their freedom. Burke will celebrate his 75th birthday on Dec. 29.
Vrdolyak, 80, is facing a trial next spring on tax charges related to payments he received from tobacco company settlements. He was sentenced to 10 months in prison in 2010 after pleading guilty to conspiracy charges for taking kickbacks on a corrupt real estate deal.
“These two guys were thick as thieves back in the day. Vrdolyak was convicted of doing improper things through his law practice. There’s been rumors and speculation for years about Ed Burke. They’ve walked in parallel paths for a long time,” she said.
If this is, indeed, the beginning of the end for Burke, it will impact the crowded race to replace Mayor Rahm Emanuel.
Burke has endorsed his longtime friend and former employee Gery Chico for mayor. State Comptroller Susana Mendoza considers Burke a political mentor. She wouldn’t have been elected to the General Assembly without him.
Both have much to lose by Burke’s political or legal demise.
So does a City Council in transition.
Burke knows more about Chicago history, city government and where the political bodies are buried at City Hall than all 49 of his colleagues combined.
As Finance Chairman, he controls legislation. His clout also stems from his massive campaign war chest of well over $12 million and from the power he wields as chairman of judicial slatemaking for the Democratic Party and husband of Illinois Supreme Court Justice Anne Burke.
That institutional memory is not likely to be replaced anytime soon.
“Chicago’s mess will only grow bigger because Ed was a source of solutions and he will be gone,” said one Democratic strategist, who asked to remain anonymous.
Another veteran political observer said Burke’s impending exit — one way or another — may well be a liberating thing for the City Council.
“It’s a little bit of both [loss and freedom]. You’re not replacing a guy like Ed Burke. It’s not gonna happen. There isn’t another Ed Burke out there. It’ll take 50 years to create another one,” the second strategist said.
“At the same time, he had people in Council he was at odds with. And I’m sure they will not be sad to see him go.”