The new chairman of the City Council’s Finance Committee on Friday angrily denied that he has a conflict of interest involving his wife’s thriving career as a real estate agent that should prevent him from assuming the job vacated by embattled Ald. Edward Burke (14th).
Ald. Pat O’Connor (40th) is the Finance Committee vice chairman who assumed the chairmanship that Burke relinquished last week, one day after a federal complaint accused Burke of shaking down a Burger King owner for legal business and for a $10,000 campaign contribution to Toni Preckwinkle.
The City Council’s Progressive Caucus favors its chairman Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd), citing conflicts posed by the fact that Barbara O’Connor has sold real estate after zoning changes authorized by her husband.
On Friday, O’Connor confronted those allegations head-on.
He argued that there has “never been a zoning change in our community that was done for the benefit of my spouse” even though she may have been involved after the fact.
The site of the shuttered Edgewater Hospital was a classic example.
Hospital parking lots were rezoned — from business to residential. More than a year later, the lots were sold to a developer whose architect had worked with Barbara O’Connor “many times and used her company to help them sell” the single-family homes, the alderman said.
“Unless I was clairvoyant and I knew, over a year out, that the successful bidder would come along and hire a company that my wife worked for, that’s just nonsense” to say it’s a conflict, said O’Connor, Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s City Council floor leader.
“In this day and age where women are entitled to their own livelihood, that’s what the rules state. That law exists and we followed it. And every time there was even a potential for conflict, I went to the ethics board . . . It was determined whether there was a conflict or not and [we] acted appropriately.”
O’Connor bristled when asked whether it would have been “better or more pristine” if he had simply told his wife not to sell real estate in the 40th Ward for which he had approved a zoning change.
“I should have probably said, `Stay home. Be barefoot. Be in the kitchen because I’m the man. I work outside the home. You work inside the home,’“ he said sarcastically.
“You take . . . one of the best in the business in the city of Chicago and you say, `Sublimate your ability to succeed for mine.’ If my wife sells a single family home in Chicago — whether it’s in my ward or not — she’s entitled.”
Demands for Waguespack to assume the Finance Committee chairmanship have a hollow ring, O’Connor said.
“They all voted for Ed Burke to be the Finance chairman. All of them. Ed Burke wasn’t installed by the mayor. [He] was installed by a vote of the City Council. They all voted for me to be the vice chairman. And they all voted for the rules that make me the successor as a result of his inability to perform,” he said.
Now that Burke has relinquished the top spot, O’Connor — an alderman for 35 years — is the new poster boy for old-school politics in Chicago.
He’s not only second in seniority to Burke. During the Council Wars power struggle that saw 29 mostly-white aldermen led by Burke and then-Ald. Edward Vrdolyak (10th) thwart then Mayor Harold Washington’s every move, O’Connor was a member of the Vrdolyak 29, albeit the most moderate voice.
On Friday, O’Connor, 64, tried to take the bullseye off his back.
“At one point in time, having experience and being steady and dependable were virtues. Now apparently, they’re not. Now, having no work history, living in your parents’ basement until you get elected, knowing nothing — now, that’s the best way?” he said.
“Longevity isn’t a gift. It’s earned. I’ve been there a helluva long time because the people I represent think I do a good job and because Chicago has benefitted by decisions that I’ve made and had input into. Local voters will determine whether it’s time for me to retire.”
As for the post-Burke stampede toward ethics reform, O’Connor said it’s a study in political avoidance.
“If I was running for mayor, I certainly would rather stand up . . . and talk about Ed Burke and conflicts of interest than how I was gonna solve the pension problem, than how I was gonna make the city safer,” he said.
Although Burke has been charged with attempted extortion, he has vowed to remain on the ballot.
O’Connor said he’s not at all certain “it stays that way.”
“It’s not what I would do . . . I wouldn’t have the fortitude,” said O’Connor, who came close to political retirement.
“If I were unfortunate enough to be in that position, I don’t think I would put myself before the people and say, `Vote for me still.’“