Ald. Edward Burke stopped by a 14th ward polling place Tuesday morning to thank election workers. He didn’t take off his raincoat.
“Pretty cold out there,” he said, setting down a box of candy. Burke chatted for a few seconds about turnout, which approached a record low. Then he backed out the door.
An Election Day ritual. But that was about all that was usual about Burke’s 13th and perhaps last aldermanic race. Accused by the government of attempted extortion, stripped of his powerful finance committee chairmanship, time may be running out for a man who has wielded clout in Chicago for half a century.
The wonder is he lasted this long.
On March 11 it’ll be 50 years since Burke, 75, was first elected to City Council. Typically he ran unopposed in the ward where he grew up, where his father Joe was alderman before him. This year he was challenged by Jaime Guzman and Tanya Patiño, acolytes of foe Jesus “Chuy” Garcia.
Together, Guzman and Patiño had raised less than $150,000 in the last quarterly filing. Burke had nearly $5 million, and easily cruised to victory Tuesday.
Still, Burke was facing one of the more significant challenges since he won a secret ballet for Democratic committeemen in 1968 by three and a half votes.
The FBI took the warm glow off Burke’s Golden Anniversary by raiding his ward offices in November, and again in December, charging him in January with demanding that a Burger King franchise steer business to his law firm. In return, he would stop opposing the remodeling of the chain’s 4060 S. Pulaski location, the feds alleged.
Will Burke have long to enjoy his victory?
The common wisdom is, if the government didn’t have the goods on Burke, it wouldn’t conduct the raids. Yet Burke has been in tight spots before — a 1997 ghost payroll scandal come to mind — and survived. He is a uniquely cautious politician. The Better Government Association tallied that Burke recused himself from City Council votes due to conflicts of interest 464 times in the past eight years, or four times as much as the other 49 aldermen put together.
Even without his legal troubles, Burke’s grip on power was facing challenges, as his ward underwent demographic change, despite efforts to stop it, the entire ward, during various rezonings, inching away from Hispanic and black populations surrounding it. Every year there were fewer places like the Red Barrel, where Burke supporters gathered late Tuesday to celebrate what might be his final victory.
It is too soon to deliver one of the eulogies that Burke is so good at. But since many younger readers might not have a grasp of who Burke is, or was, beyond his round glasses, emerald green Rolex, and chalk pinstripe suits that look like the costume rack for “Guys and Dolls,” a quick reprise is in order.
In the commotion after the death of Richard J. Daley in 1976, Burke was the one who introduced the motion suspending the rules so that malleable Michael Bilandic could be elected immediately.
When Jane Byrne said she was running against an “evil cabal,” she meant Burke and his wingman Ed Vrdolyak — the “Two Eddies.” She ran against them then, clueless in victory, ran into their arms for guidance.
After the election of Harold Washington, it was Burke, along with Vrdolyak, who led 29 white aldermen in unified opposition to everything Washington tried to do.
The city’s first black mayor had no illusions as to why.
“Burke is a racist,” Harold Washington told his press secretary.
That’s part of his legacy. The complete picture will be worked out by historians. The author of several books about politics, buildings and the police, Burke seemed to once care about his reputation. What the last chapter is, and whether this is it, will be decided somewhere other than the ballot box.