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New Chicago political dynasty born as Ald. Burnett makes his son state rep

Setting aside questions of nepotism and residency,  a group of Democratic ward bosses Friday chose Ald. Walter Burnett’s son as the newest state representative from the city’s West Side.

Jawaharial “Omar” Williams
Jawaharial “Omar” Williams takes the oath of office from Circuit Judge Robert F. Harris as his father, Ald. Walter Burnett (27th), center, holds the Bible.
Mark Brown

Politics is a family business in Chicago, always has been and probably always will be, reformers and journalists be damned.

So it only made sense that on the same day Chicago’s new reform mayor demoted a powerful City Council chairman, in part for alleged transgressions involving hiring her relatives, a new political dynasty was born elsewhere in the city.

Setting aside questions of nepotism and residency, a group of Democratic ward bosses Friday chose Ald. Walter Burnett’s son as the newest state representative from the city’s West Side.

Jawaharial “Omar” Williams, 44, a laborer in the city’s Department of Water Management who says he still lives with his parents, was selected over seven other candidates vying to occupy the Illinois House 10th District.

Williams, a past president of the Young Democrats of Illinois and a precinct captain in his father’s ward organization, was sworn in on the spot, with Burnett holding the Bible on which he placed his hand to take the oath of office.

Williams will immediately take his place in Springfield for the conclusion of the spring legislative session.

The vacancy was created by the election of Rep. Melissa Conyears-Ervin to the post of city treasurer.

Conyears-Ervin is married to Ald. Jason Ervin, the 28th Ward alderman and Democratic committeeman, who along with Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd) raised behind-the-scenes objections to Williams’ selection.

But it only took 40 minutes of closed-door discussions for the Democratic committeemen whose wards comprise the 10th House District to decide Williams was the best choice.

In fact, the decision was likely made beforehand with Burnett’s political mentor, Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White, helping round up the votes.

Afterward, Burnett made no apologies for advancing his son, argued in fact that the offspring of politicians have a “natural leg up” on doing the business of politics from witnessing it up close — leaving out the part about them also having a leg up on getting hired or promoted.

“Zalewski’s son, I mean we can go on and on if we start naming people. Half the people in Springfield. Bob Rita. Marge Laurino’s cousin, nephew. Lisa Madigan. So there’s a lot of people who have given good service to the state of Illinois, the city of Chicago,” Burnett said.

He stopped before getting to Daley, Burke, Lipinski, Stroger, Mell, etc.

Some political families march on. Others get sidetracked by the voters — or federal prosecutors. New ones are born.

Williams’ mother, Darlena Williams-Burnett, is a former Cook County commissioner who now holds a job as deputy chief of facilities for the Chicago Housing Authority.

Although not related by birth, Burnett objected to the Sun-Times referring to Williams as his stepson, noting he’s treated his wife’s children as his own ever since they got married.

“He’s my son. This is my son. He call me Daddy. I’ve been Daddy for a long time,” Burnett said.

Minority politicians tend to get upset when reporters call out their dynastic urges after voters tolerated the white guys doing it for so long. I understand that.

I also understand how Burnett might have found it confounding to be taking flak from Ervin after just helping elect his wife, although Ervin makes a good argument there’s a distinction between being chosen by the voters and by insider selection.

Toward that end, Ervin pushed a compromise “placeholder” candidate, Eddie Rasul, a 72-year-old veteran of government service who promised he would not seek re-election next year. Ervin’s ultimate purpose was to keep the seat in his 28th Ward organization, but he and Waguespack only controlled 35% of the weighted vote.

By coincidence, this happened on the same day Mayor-elect Lori Lightfoot announced a new City Council committee lineup that dumped Ald. Carrie Austin (37th) as Budget Committee chair.

Austin, who succeeded her late husband as alderman and supported Toni Preckwinkle for mayor, was reportedly called out by Lightfoot for putting family members on her committee payroll, although that may have been the least of her mistakes.

Notably, Burnett, who also backed Preckwinkle, will retain his chairmanship of the Traffic Safety committee under Lightfoot.

Among the other candidates who presented their credentials Friday, probably the most prominent was WVON radio host Maze Jackson, best known for his catchphrase: “What’s in it for the black people?”

Jackson, a veteran political strategist and lobbyist who like Burnett got his start in White’s organization, said he plans to be a candidate for the seat next year, and if elected, intends to continue hosting his radio show.

That would be different.

Jackson, by the way, is married to Metropolitan Water Reclamation Commissioner President Kari Steele. She is the daughter of former 6th Ward alderman and state appellate court justice John Steele.