Ald. Edward Burke (14th) on Wednesday celebrated 50 years in politics with a Chicago history lesson and a medley of his legislative greatest hits, but refused to answer questions about the controversies that have dogged his storied career.
It was the first time in recent memory that a featured speaker at the City Club of Chicago luncheon did not take questions from the audience. The standing-room-only crowd was told that Burke had an important meeting.
That didn’t stop the guest of honor from glad-handing scores of friends and admirers on his way out.
But Burke brushed past reporters who tried to ask him about an issue that has rubbed some of his Hispanic constituents the wrong way: his law firm’s decision to repeatedly seek to reduce the property taxes that Trump Tower and other commercial properties have to pay. Nor would he say whether Klafter & Burke still represents properties owned by President Donald Trump.
During his speech, Burke said it was a “humbling experience to reflect back on nearly a half-century at City Hall.” He said he was “privileged to have been a witness to and, at times, a participant in, so many defining moments in Chicago history.”
He never mentioned the co-starring role he played —along with former Ald. Edward R. Vrdolyak (10th) — in the Council Wars power struggle that thwarted former Mayor Harold Washington’s every move.
He simply referred obliquely to the “many political battles both won and lost that live on in memory.”
“Yes, history will concede there have been plenty of rascals who saw in Chicago an opportunity to make a quick score. But there were also many more statesmen who furthered the interests of this great city quietly and with great dignity,” Burke said.
Burke identified some of those statesmen as: former U.S. Senator Paul Douglas, who got his political start as a 5th Ward alderman; former Finance Committee Chairman “Honest John” Comiskey, whose son founded the Chicago White Sox and former Finance Chairman Amos Gager Throop, founder of the California Institution of Technology for whom Throop St. is named.
As for his legislative greatest hits, Burke talked about his campaign to mandate carbon monoxide detectors and defibrillators, join former Mayor Michael Bilandic in championing a ban on phosphates and about his personal crusade against smoking.
“My father, Ald. Joe Burke (14th), had died from the ravages of lung cancer. He was a victim of tobacco in this country and, at only 56 years of age, he passed away,” Edward Burke recalled.
“Dr. Louis Sullivan the secretary of Health and Human Services at that time, reported that one in six deaths in the United States were attributable to smoking and that 90 percent of smokers became addicted to nicotine as children. And [still], it took 18 years before I was able to persuade the City Council to pass the Clean Indoor Air ordinance banning smoking in public places.”
Mayor Rahm Emanuel warmly introduced Burke, whom he once threatened to depose as Finance Committee chairman or strip of his personal bodyguards before reaching a political accommodation that has benefited them both.
The mayor joked about attending “Ed Burke’s bar mitzvah” and credited the City Council dean for approaching the job he has held for 50 years with the “zeal of a 24-year-old filling his father’s shoes.”
Illinois Supreme Court Justice Anne Burke said her husband of nearly 50 years has survived that long in the cutthroat world of Chicago politics — representing a ward now majority Hispanic — because he “listens to everyone with an open mind and an open heart” and he “keeps up with the times.”
“He’s learned Spanish and there are a lot of Hispanic aldermen now who can’t even speak Spanish,” she said.
Anne Burke said she was understandably moved when her husband ended his speech by talking about the 50th anniversary that matters most.
“This coming May 25th, Anne and I will celebrate our 50th wedding anniversary,” Burke said as the audience applauded.
Choking back tears, the aldermen said, “For half a century, Anne has been my partner in this life through thick and thin. How blessed I have been. Anne, I love you. Thank you for being my partner in life.”