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Ald. Ed Burke at 50 years: A remarkable story of political survival

Ald. Edward Burke (14th) will stand before a sold-out City Club of Chicago crowd Wednesday to commemorate 50 years in Chicago politics.

It’s a remarkable achievement, and an even more remarkable story of political survival and rehabilitation.

In 50 years as ward committeeman and 49 years as alderman of a now-majority Hispanic ward once represented by his father, Burke has 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 has survived federal investigations that 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 pavement on his Southwest Side block.

A Democrat, he’s shrugged off criticism regarding his law firm’s business relationship with one of Republican President Donald Trump’s companies. Burke’s firm, Klafter & Burke, repeatedly has sought to reduce the property taxes that Trump Tower and other commercial properties have to pay — a lucrative business that’s also enriched Illinois House Speaker Michael J. Madigan, D-Chicago.

Burke also has managed to overcome his own political extremism during the Council Wars power struggle that thwarted then-Mayor Harold Washington’s every move to the point where an entire generation of Chicagoans doesn’t even remember the old Ed Burke.

Ald. Edward M. Burke, left, with then-Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump at the City Club of Chicago in 2016. | AP file photo

They remember the new version who adopted and raised an African-American son and now forges alliances with black and Hispanic aldermen on a host of issues benefiting minority communities.

Former Ald. Dick Simpson (44th) served together with the City Council dean for eight years, ending in 1979.

Simpson said he was just passing through while Burke managed to become the longest-serving alderman in Chicago history, because of his strong ward organization and massive campaign war chests, his institutional knowledge of city government, and because of the power he wields as chairman of judicial slatemaking for the Democratic party and husband of Illinois Supreme Court Justice Anne Burke.

“He’s evolved his positions over time and become somewhat more reform-minded. . . . He’s changed. But he’s always kept his base,” Simpson said.

“It’s remarkable that he’s played such a leadership role. Ever since the Byrne administration, he’s either been the floor leader or leader of the opposition,” Simpson said. “That’s unusual given all of the changes that have happened over all this time.”

Simpson also mentioned Burke’s reputation as the J. Edgar Hoover of City Hall.

“He does know where the bodies are buried from being an insider for so long. That may come into play in keeping people from attacking him more,” Simpson said.

Ald. Ameya Pawar (47th) obviously didn’t get the memo.

Last fall, Pawar condemned as a “disgrace” Burke’s decision to file a sixth lawsuit aimed at winning property tax refunds for the hotel and vacant retail space in the riverfront tower that bears Trump’s name.

Burke never responded publicly to Pawar’s broadside. State Rep. Dan Burke (D-Chicago), who is fending off similar attacks from challenger Aaron Ortiz, contends that his brother’s law firm no longer represents Trump.

Burke’s decision to represent dozens of clients that do business with the city has long been a source of controversy. He once used a rare parliamentary maneuver to change the record of four past Council votes involving his airline clients dating back as far as seven years and now meticulously abstains when a conflict arises.

In 1995, Burke said his deceased former chief investigator Horace Lindsey, “apparently connived” with Marie D’Amico, the daughter of former Ald. Anthony Laurino (39th), to carry D’Amico on the Finance Committee payroll from 1991 to 1993, even though she did no work.

“Obviously, I feel embarrassed. I have to assume responsibility, from a technical point of view. But I had no knowledge that this was going on,” Burke said then.

Ald. Edward M. Burke | Brian Jackson / Sun-Times file photo

Two years later, former Ald. Joseph Martinez (31st) admitted in federal court that he held ghost jobs with three City Council committees including Finance at the same time he was working full-time as an attorney for Burke’s law firm. Burke survived both ghost-payrolling investigations.

After the 2014 death of former Mayor Jane Byrne, Burke reminisced about his own political resilience.

He went from a “cabal of evil men” whom Byrne once accused of “greasing” a taxicab fare hike to one of her closest City Council allies — so much so that he agreed to become her candidate for state’s attorney in the 1980 Democratic primary in a failed attempt to stop Richard M. Daley.

The alderman recalled that Byrne was hell-bent on stopping Daley, and along with Edward Vrdolyak, her hand-picked Cook County Democratic Party chairman, tried to persuade a host of other candidates to take on Daley, all of whom declined.

“It was a combination of things that also involved probably 60 or 70 loyal, faithful 14th Ward political supporters [who] were on layoffs and had mortgages and tuition payments to pay. It was a way of helping them,” Burke said of that suicide mission.

“I guess I was the last one standing for the task.”

The same can be said of Burke’s remarkable political career. The 74-year-old prostate cancer survivor has been through it all — and he’s still standing.