Ald. Edward M. Burke often says there are only three ways to exit the City Council: “The ballot box. The jury box. Or the pine box.”
Now, Burke is moving closer to that second option.
The City Council’s most powerful and longest-serving alderman was charged Thursday with one count of attempted extortion for allegedly trying to use his position on the City Council to win business for his private law firm, according to a criminal complaint.
The allegations come five weeks after federal agents showed up in force at Burke’s 14th Ward and City Hall offices, covered the windows and doors with brown butcher paper and spent hours inside before hauling off boxes of records and computers.
After the raids, Mayor Rahm Emanuel said it was too soon to demand that Burke resign as Finance Committee chairman because no federal charges had been filed. But within an hour of the criminal case being unsealed on Thursday, Emanuel called on Burke to step down.
Now that the feds have showed their cards, Burke will almost certainly be forced to relinquish the job that has long been the primary source of his power.
It was one thing for Burke’s law firm to handle property-tax appeals work for clients that do business with the city and recuse himself on City Council votes involving those law clients.
It’s quite another for the Southwest Side alderman to continue to preside over the Finance Committee at the same time he’s fending off a federal corruption case.
Survived threats to his political power
The criminal complaint marks a stunning fall from grace for a man who knows how to use the levers of power better than almost anyone in the history of the Chicago City Council.
The only exception would be former Finance Committee Chairman Tom Keane (31st), whose political career ended in 1974 with a federal conviction on mail fraud and conspiracy charges tied to real estate deals. The mail fraud law that formed the basis of that conviction was subsequently overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court.
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 helping his wife win election to the Illinois Appellate and Supreme Courts, for having taxpayer-funded bodyguards squire him around and for how quickly city snow plows 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.
Like his Council Wars cohort, former Ald. Ed Vrdolyak (10th), Burke has walked away unscathed from so many federal investigations, some politicians speculated he was working undercover for the feds.
Now, both “Eddies” might end up as grandfathers fighting for their freedom. Burke celebrated his 75th birthday late last month.
Tale of two Eddies
Vrdolyak, 80, is facing a trial in the 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,” mayoral candidate Lori Lightfoot, a Burke nemesis, has said.
Burke’s demise has already impacted the crowded race for mayor.
State Comptroller Susana Mendoza considers Burke a political mentor; she wouldn’t have been elected to the General Assembly without him. Burke held a fundraiser at his home for Toni Preckwinkle’s re-election campaign for County Board president.
But both Mendoza and Preckwinkle have run away from Burke in anticipation that he would face criminal charges.
Preckwinkle donated $12,800 in direct contributions from Burke to a pair of nonprofits that work to empower Hispanics.
Mendoza gave the $10,326 she got from Burke to the families of three Chicago police officers killed in the line of duty over the past month.
All three candidates have much to lose by Burke’s political or legal demise.
So does a City Council in transition.
A storied 50-year reign
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 Committee chairman, he controls legislation. His clout also stems from his massive campaign war chest — 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.
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 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. Garcia has endorsed 28-year-old Tanya Patiño in the 14th Ward aldermanic race.
After the first of two raids on Burke’s City Hall suite, Garcia could not stop himself from 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.”
Now that he’s been charged, most political observers expect Burke to drop out of what would have been an uphill battle for re-election to focus exclusively on the legal battle ahead.
Days after the first raid, Burke held his annual fundraiser at a downtown hotel. Movers and shakers showed up in force to kiss the chairman’s ring, just as they always did.
On that night, some of the best observations came from a would-be judge, who said the annual event drew the usual crowd. “They’re all there: the wannabes, the has-beens, the they-ares and the powers that be. No one stayed away. Loyalty trumps integrity in this town every time,” he said.
Now, Burke will be forced to use some of the $12.2 million he has salted away in his campaign war chests to defend himself and stay out of jail.
Trip down memory lane
Thursday’s humiliation marks a stark contrast from the honor Burke received in early March.
On that day, Burke proudly stood before the City Club of Chicago. He celebrated 50 years in politics with a Chicago history lesson and a rundown 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 the 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.
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 Vrdolyak — in the Council Wars power struggle that thwarted former Mayor 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,” Burke said. “But there were also many more statesmen who furthered the interests of this great city quietly and with great dignity.”
Those statesmen included former U.S. Sen. 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 Institute of Technology for whom Throop Street is named.
As for his legislative greatest hits, Burke talked about his campaign to mandate carbon monoxide detectors and defibrillators, joining 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 Emanuel warmly introduced Burke, whom he once threatened to depose as Finance Committee chairman or strip him 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.”
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 alderman 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.”