End of an era in Chicago politics as Burke chooses retirement over uphill battle for a record 15th term
Indicted Ald. Edward Burke (14th) chose not to seek reelection to a record 15th term in a ward dramatically redrawn to eliminate his most favorable precincts.
An extraordinary era in Chicago politics ended quietly on Monday — and not in the way the City Council dean once predicted.
Indicted Ald. Edward Burke (14th) chose not to seek reelection to a record 15th term —including the two-year term served after a special election to fill the vacancy created by his father’s death — in a ward dramatically redrawn to eliminate his most favorable precincts.
Instead, the 54th year that makes Burke the longest-serving alderperson in Chicago history will be his last.
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The proud politician who famously said there are only three ways to exit the City Council: “The ballot box. The jury box. Or the pine box,” instead chose the box that read, “None of the above.”
“He will go down as one of the most influential and powerful aldermen in the history of the City Council. You will never see the likes of him again,” said former Ald. Joe Moore (49th).
Ald. Ray Lopez (15th), Burke’s ally and City Council seatmate, said Burke’s outsized “footprint” is all over legislation that has “impacted everyday life” in Chicago. That includes a trailblazing ban on indoor smoking and Burke’s campaign to mandate carbon monoxide detectors and defibrillators and help championing a ban on phosphates.
“I don’t think anyone truly understands the magnitude that was Ed Burke in terms of shaping the laws and creating the city of Chicago that we know,” Lopez said.
Burke’s exit leaves only two candidates on the ballot for 14th Ward alderperson and sets the stage for a proxy fight between the retiring alderperson and mayoral challenger Jesus “Chuy” Garcia.
Garcia has endorsed Brighton Park resident Jeylu Gutierrez, district director for Cook County Commissioner Alma Anaya. Burke is expected to support Raul Reyes, a loyal member of his 14th Ward Regular Democratic Organization.
The retiring alderman, who turns 79 on Dec. 29, could not be reached for comment. Nor could former state Rep. Dan Burke, D-Chicago.
Last summer, Dan Burke urged his big brother to retire from politics and focus on his health, his family and his upcoming trial on federal corruption charges rather than risk a humiliating defeat in a ward redrawn to exclude Garfield Ridge, a more conservative white area near Midway Airport that was the source of his greatest political strength.
“Do the math. Seventy-eight years old. Come on. When is enough enough? ... They’ve had a long run. It’s not insulting to say there’s an end to everything,” Dan Burke said then.
Dan Burke was speaking from experience.
In March 2018, he lost his seat in the Illinois House to Aaron Ortiz, a Garcia protége.
At the time, big brother Edward had only been charged with attempted extortion for allegedly shaking down a Burger King franchise owner for legal business and for a $10,000 campaign contribution to County Board President Toni Preckwinkle.
Now, Edward Burke faces far more sweeping racketeering charges. They include the alleged Burger King shakedown and three similar schemes chronicled by former Zoning Committee Chairman Danny Solis (25th), who spent two years wearing a wire on Burke.
Among the charges: that Burke tried to extort legal business from 601W Companies, developers of the Old Post Office, in exchange for his help with a variety of matters, including an $18 million tax increment financing subsidy, a $100 million tax break and help resolving issues with Amtrak and the city’s Department of Water Management.
In those recordings, an irritated Burke asks Solis, “Did we land the, uh, tuna?”; complains that the “cash register has not rung yet”; and states that, until he scores legal business, he was not “motivated to help the developer.”
“As far as I’m concerned, they can go f--- themselves,” Burke says.
Although the final chapter will be written by the verdict in his federal corruption trial, Burke’s has already been a remarkable story of political survival and rehabilitation.
In 54 years as ward committeeman and 53 as alderman of a now-majority Hispanic ward, Burke 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 survived federal investigations that had threatened to undercut his power base, once even by blaming a dead man for ghost-payrolling irregularities on his committee payroll.
He’s been in the public spotlight for having taxpayer-funded bodyguards drive him to and from City Hall and for how quickly city snowplows clear the street where his fortress of a Southwest Side home is located.
A Democrat, Burke shrugged off criticism regarding his law firm’s business relationship with one of former President Donald Trump’s companies. Burke’s former law firm, Klafter & Burke, repeatedly sought to reduce the property taxes that Trump tower and other commercial properties have to pay.
Burke also managed to overcome his own political extremism during the “Council Wars” power struggle that saw a 29-member group of mostly white alderpersons led by Burke and then-Ald. Edward Vrdolyak (10th) thwart then-Mayor Harold Washington’s every move.
An entire generation of Chicagoans remembers only the new Ed Burke, who adopted and raised an African American son and forged alliances with Black and Hispanic alderpersons on a host of issues benefiting communities of color.
Jacky Grimshaw, who served as Washington’s director of intergovernmental affairs, said Monday she is not fooled by the new Ed Burke and neither are most African Americans.
“Say Eddie Burke to anybody. Council Wars is the first thing they think about. That is his legacy,” Grimshaw said.
“Ed Burke and Eddie Vrdolyak led an anti-Harold Washington, racist government — at least they tried to lead it. But Harold wouldn’t give in. ... That’s the bed he chose to lay in. Now, he’s stuck with it. ... Harold would come right out and say that Vrdolyak was about the green. But that Burke was a racist. He didn’t pull any punches about that.”
Former mayoral challenger Gery Chico, who got his political start as a Finance Committee staffer under Burke, countered, “Each and every one of us can look back on our lives and see things we wish we had done differently. We’re all human beings who make mistakes. We have to remember ... what Jesus said: ‘Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.’”
Ald. Anthony Beale (9th) said he, too, believes that Burke’s metamorphosis was real — not calculated.
“When you grow up in a certain era, and the era starts changing, you evolve. I think he did a wonderful job of evolving throughout his entire career,” Beale said.
Since being deposed as Finance Committee chairman, then silenced and humiliated at Lightfoot’s first City Council meeting, Burke has been a mere shadow of his former self.
He is no longer the center of attention at Council meetings he once dominated. He occupies the front-row seat closest to the door, arrives late, leaves immediately and seldom flashes his notorious speaking skills, encyclopedic knowledge of Chicago history and Roberts Rules of Order.
He still knows where the bodies are buried, but less frequently uses that knowledge to make political mischief. Nor does he champion an avalanche of headline-grabbing legislation with colleagues he has taken under his wing.
“The transition to the Burke of five years ago to the Burke of this year has happened already,” said veteran political operative Victor Reyes, who is advising Garcia’s mayoral campaign.
“They’ll miss his institutional knowledge. But in terms of that old style of governing, they’ve moved on. It’s a whole new Council. Some of the people who are in office in Council weren’t even born when he became an alderman.”
Beale argued that Burke’s diminished status has allowed Lightfoot to repeatedly run roughshod over the City Council with a series of questionable rulings that ignore the Council rules that Burke knows like the back of his hand.
“He had the ability, the knowledge to stop all of the maneuvering, throwing around the rules, abusing the rules. He would have stopped a lot of that stuff because of his tenure and his stature in the city. She’s been able to get away with all of the things she’s been able to get away with because Burke is so silenced by his legal troubles,” Beale said.
Four years ago, Burke appeared before the City Club of Chicago to celebrate 50 years in politics.
He said on that day that he had been “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 in Council Wars. 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. But there were also many more statesmen who furthered the interests of this great city quietly and with great dignity,” Burke said then.
Former Illinois Supreme Court Chief Justice Anne Burke, who retired in September, said then that her husband managed to survive so long in the cutthroat world of Chicago politics because he “listens to everyone with an open mind and an open heart” and “keeps up with the times.”
“He’s learned Spanish, and there are a lot of Hispanic aldermen now who can’t even speak Spanish,” Anne Burke said on that day.
Anne Burke was understandably and visibly moved when her husband ended his speech by talking about the 50th anniversary that mattered most to him.
Choking back tears, the normally stoic 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.”