Days after the memorial service for former Chicago Ald. Wilson Frost (34th), tongues are still wagging about an ironic, takes-one-to-know-one joke from an old friend that fell flat.
The failed attempt at humor came from Ald. Edward Burke (14th), who served with Frost and helped negotiate the political deal that made Frost chairman of the City Council’s Finance Committee and Michael Bilandic acting mayor after the succession battle that followed the 1976 death of former Mayor Richard J. Daley.
As president pro tem, Frost believed he should have become Chicago’s first black mayor, seven years before the election of Harold Washington.
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When Frost staked his claim to the job, emboldened by the Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr. and others, Daley allies resisted and locked him out of the mayor’s office.
After a week-long power struggle, the City Council elected Bilandic, the alderman from Daley’s home 11th Ward, as acting mayor.
Burke ran into trouble when he recalled having negotiated the “peace treaty” that gave Frost a consolation prize: the Finance Committee chairmanship Burke now holds.
In a failed attempt at humor, Burke talked about the questions Frost asked before the deal was cut. Do I get the Cadillac limousine? Do I get the bodyguard detail? What about the cell phone in the back seat long before everybody had a cell phone?
The suggestion being that Frost was somehow more concerned about the trappings of the office than the position itself and the power it wields to deliver for the African-American community.
Ald. Carrie Austin (34th) said she would have been “mad as hell” if she thought Burke was trying to “say something negative” about Frost. But she gave her colleague the benefit of the doubt.
“He was trying to make a joke, and his joke died. It was just flat. It just came out the wrong way,” said Austin, who helped organize the Frost memorial.
Austin noted that everyone who spoke at the service had something funny to say about Frost’s “Wilson-isms.”
“Was his [Burke’s] in bad taste? I just think it came out in bad taste. That’s all. I don’t think he was trying to do anything insensitive,” Austin said.
The irony of Burke’s joke was not lost on Austin.
After all, it’s Burke who is known to covet the trappings of power.
His taxpayer-funded bodyguards have been an issue for decades. He is still squired around the city by bodyguards, even though Mayor Rahm Emanuel cut his security team in half.
Burke has even been under fire for how quickly city snowplows clear the pavement on his Southwest Side block.
“Even at the time with Ed, those were the perks that came along with being Finance chair. He has extended his,” Austin said of Burke, laughing out loud.
“He was trying to make a joke out of it. If he [wasn’t joking], it would be bad light on himself.”
She added, “If he was trying to say something negative, he wouldn’t have been invited to the South Side again.”
Contacted Friday, Burke refused to comment on his failed attempt at humor.
Former Illinois Senate President Emil Jones, (D-Chicago), who once served as Frost’s aldermanic secretary, repeatedly refused to comment when he was asked whether he considered Burke’s joke in bad taste.
He would say only, “I was surprised. But I knew it was not his intent to be offensive . . . For a cheap laugh, sometimes you say things you wish you didn’t say. It’s unfortunate.”
Jones added, “I know Wilson. That is not why Wilson agreed to the deal. It wasn’t the car and the trappings. That was not Wilson.”
Outgoing Cook County Assessor Joe Berrios said anyone who knows Chicago’s rich political history knows what Frost’s motivations were in accepting the consolation prize.
“Wilson knew he didn’t have the numbers to become mayor, so he took the second-highest position. Talking to him over the years, that was his main priority: to make sure the black community was represented and didn’t get left out of everything,” Berrios said.
As for Burke’s ill-timed attempt at humor, Berrios said, “Did he have to say that? No. But, he did. Burke is Burke. In his mind, that’s what happened. So, he said what he thought.”