Mayor Rahm Emanuel said Friday he has no regrets over his decision to back off a threat to dump Ald. Edward Burke (14th) as Finance Committee chairman in favor of a political accommodation that allowed Burke to retain his power base for eight more years.
The backpedaling came in 2011, after Emanuel first took office and the city faced a dire budget situation.
“I have a $635 million [shortfall]. Twenty percent of the budget was in red,” Emanuel told the Sun-Times in an interview. “For three years prior to being mayor, we took $1 billion out of reserves.
“If I got rid of Ed Burke as Finance Committee chairman, I would be creating an organizing force against me and I have other problems,” he added.
While he saw that as a “threat” early in his tenure, he also saw an “opportunity.”
“He has tremendous knowledge about things,” Emanuel said. ” … The difference between you and I where we sit — I have to evaluate everything. You get to deal with one topic in isolation.”
The mayor didn’t have even a single qualm about his decision not to take on Burke?
“How do you know I didn’t take him on? You looked at one thing [the Finance chair post]. How do you know I didn’t? You don’t know everything that happened,” Emanuel said, refusing to elaborate.
Pressed on whether there were other instances the public doesn’t know about, the mayor said, “It’s not about taking him on. It’s about making changes for the whole benefit of the city.”
Those include ethics reforms the powerful alderman ended up supporting, Emanuel said.
“When we got rid of Shakman oversight, when we put an inspector general in every department, it got done. Of the five separate ethics packages we passed, he didn’t vote against a single one of ’em.”
In 2011, Emanuel privately blamed Burke for being the heavy-hand behind a challenge to Emanuel’s residency that nearly forced him off the ballot.
Shortly before taking office, Emanuel rocked the boat by threatening to depose Burke as Finance chairman and strip Burke of the bodyguard detail that had accompanied the alderman since the threats that followed Burke’s starring role in Council Wars years ago.
But Emanuel backed off.
He retained Burke as Finance chairman, cut his bodyguard detail in half, left the city’s $100-million workers’ compensation program in Burke’s hands and walled it off from the auditing scrutiny of Inspector General Joe Ferguson.
Like former Mayor Richard M. Daley, Emanuel concluded that Burke was far more valuable as a loyal legislative ally and that the alderman would have been far more dangerous sniping at the new mayor from the outside.
After all, nobody knows more than Burke about where the bodies are buried at City Hall. Nobody has more loyalists planted in city departments. Nobody has slated more judges who now occupy the bench.
Emanuel also signed off on the City Council reorganization that gave Chicago eight more years with the now-disgraced FBI mole, Ald. Danny Solis (25th), as Zoning Committee chairman.
A few years in, Solis came under federal surveillance himself. Only after being confronted with evidence of his own rampant and sordid wrongdoing did Solis agree to spend more than two years wearing a wire on Burke, according to a federal affidavit.
Emanuel made good on the threat to take out Burke — and strip the Finance Committee of control over worker’s comp — only after Jan. 3 of this year.
That’s when Burke was 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.
That allowed Emanuel to have his cake and eat it to. He was able to say he was the “only mayor in Chicago history” who never lost a City Council vote and also say that he was mayor when the council was liberated from Burke’s iron-fisted control.
Emanuel is leaving office before Chicagoans will know the full breadth of a City Hall corruption scandal with blockbuster potential to disrupt the city’s power structure.
Earlier this week, federal prosecutors asked a judge to grant a 35-day extension — until June 7 — in their deadline to indict Burke.
Emanuel’s political acquiescence left Burke and Solis in place for eight more years, allowing both men to wield extraordinary influence.
But Emanuel insisted Friday he is walking out with his head held high.
“I’ve made a major change in the city’s political culture on ethics. I’m not done. Nobody’s ever done in this city,” he said.
“I walk out after 24 years — two presidencies, United States Congress, DCCC [Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee] Chairman, mayor for eight years — I’ve never hired a lawyer. …
“I know how I’ve conducted myself.”