Inside the political survival of Chicago City Council dean

Ald. Walter Burnett expected to be stuck in the political wilderness. Instead, he became vice-mayor, with a $400,000 budget, keeping the staff he had as chairman of the Committee on Pedestrian and Traffic Safety.

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Ald. Walter Burnett (27th) Chicago City Council

Ald. Walter Burnett (27th).

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times file

After sticking with incumbent Lori Lightfoot, then pivoting to Paul Vallas, Ald. Walter Burnett (27th) was prepared to spend the next four years in political purgatory. He expected to be punished by Mayor Brandon Johnson.

But that didn’t happen.

Instead, Johnson’s reorganization plan anointed Burnett as vice-mayor, with a $400,000 budget that allowed the Chicago City Council dean to retain the staff he had as chairman of the Committee on Pedestrian and Traffic Safety.

In exchange, Burnett will be put to work as a citywide emissary for the new mayor.

In an interview Thursday, Burnett, 60, took the Chicago Sun-Times inside his fight for political survival.

It started with what Burnett called a “spiritual connection.” Johnson is a pastor’s son. Burnett is a church deacon.

It continued with “big time” support from Burnett and Ald. Jason Ervin (28th) that helped Johnson defeat Cook County Commissioner Richard Boykin in 2018.

“I’m the type of guy that, when I’m in with you, I’m in 100%,” Burnett said. “I went that extra mile working on his campaign for county commissioner, and he won. You could say … we’re part of his success because if he wouldn’t have been county commissioner, he wouldn’t have run for mayor, and he wouldn’t be where he is today.”

Alderpersons Jason Ervin (left) and Walter Burnett, shown at City Council meeting in March 2023.

Alderpersons Jason Ervin (left) and Walter Burnett, shown at City Council meeting in March, backed Brandon Johnson’s bid for county commissioner.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Burnett said he considered backing Johnson after Lightfoot was eliminated, but the candidate’s “philosophy didn’t match with mine.”

“When they were talking that defund the police stuff, when they were talking some of the tax [increase] things, I was, like, ‘I’m not feeling that so, I’m sorry, I can’t be with you.’ I was just straight up with him,” Burnett said.

“I’m not one of those guys who say that I’m with you, then go cross you out. I’m gonna tell you I’m with you or I’m not with you. … Brandon respected that. And after he won, a lot of people in the business community were letting him know that Ald. Burnett is a worker. He works. He gets things done. Folks were telling him I can help him.”

Even after that full-court press, Burnett expected to be banished by the new mayor. He said he’s “still in unbelief” that he wasn’t.

“I believe in the old system,” he said. “To the victor goes the spoils. Even in the Bible, God says, ‘Go take everything in that land. Go and take it all’ ...

“But he saw kindness and grace in his heart to allow me to be with him. And I let him know, ‘I have a committee. I have staff. If you give me this title, I need to be able to keep my staff. I’m gonna need help.’ And he said, ‘‘OK.’”

Only later did Burnett learn he would be asked to sing for his supper, as the mayor’s surrogate at appearances across the city.

The logistics of that arrangement are still being worked out.

Burnett, used to speaking from the heart and only about issues confronting his Near West Side ward, will now speak for the mayor about all kinds of citywide issues.

He hopes Johnson’s staff will provide written remarks to deliver at public appearances, so he doesn’t step out of line.

“I know how to talk for myself,” he said. “Now, I’m talking for him. … Now, I’ve got to write things down and check with them. I’ve got to check myself.”

Burnett did not abide by the new “check myself” rule when asked how Johnson can deliver on his cornerstone campaign promise to make $1 billion worth of “investments in people,” bankrolled by $800 million in new or increased taxes.

Business leaders are dead set against Johnson’s proposals to raise Chicago’s hotel tax and revive the $4-a-month employee head tax they fought to eliminate. And Gov. J.B. Pritzker and Democratic legislative leaders have no intention of authorizing a financial transaction tax or raising the real estate transfer tax on high-end home sales.

“What people say during the campaigns is not reality when you get into office,” Burnett said. “A lot of the big business people in relationship to tourism are talking to him now and getting him to understand things. … He’s looking at things from a different lens now.”

Pressed on where Johnson will find the money to fund his social programs, Burnett said: “I don’t know if it was a promise. I think it was a goal.”

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