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Axelrod says winning re-election is least of Burke’s troubles

The question is not whether Ald. Ed Burke (14th) can get re-elected after being charged with attempted extortion. The question is whether the election even matters to the future of Ald. Ed Burke.

That’s the bottom line from David Axelrod, the former presidential adviser now serving as director and founder of the Institute of Politics at the University of Chicago.

Two months ago, Axelrod predicted the Nov. 29 federal raid of Burke’s City Hall and ward offices would lead to Burke’s indictment.

Since then, Burke has been charged with attempted extortion. The following day, Burke relinquished the Finance Committee chairmanship that has been his primary power base for decades.

The Chicago Sun-Times has since disclosed that Ald. Danny Solis (25th) spent more than two years wearing a wire recording more than two dozen conversations with Burke as movers and shakers sought city actions.

Now, Axelrod says surviving the election is the least of Burke’s troubles.

Seventeen days before the May 20 inauguration, federal prosecutors must decide whether to seek Burke’s indictment from a grand jury.

“I’m not sure that it matters [whether Burke is re-elected] because the weight of evidence against him seems pretty dramatic … Charges that have been brought are the tip of the iceberg,” Axelrod said.

“It’s not surprising … that he said he’d fight. Most people in that situation start off in that position … But his lawyers are gonna have to examine the weight of the evidence and decide whether it is wise to fight the thing and take the risk of a [Rod] Blagojevich-type term” in prison.

He added, “Generally when people plead, they get better treatment with or without cooperation. He may get better treatment with cooperation if they think he has something to share … He has been witness to many, many chapters here in Chicago.”

The FBI secretly recorded Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan trying to get business for his private law firm from a developer brought to him by Solis, who was weighing the developer’s request to build a hotel in Chinatown, according to a federal court affidavit obtained by the Sun-Times.

But Axelrod said he would be amazed if Madigan is implicated in the scandal.

“Mike Madigan … is a very deliberate, intentional and cautious person … [He] has always understood the lines and been careful about it,” Axelrod said.

“It would be surprising to me if there’s anything on those tapes that would be incriminating to him. I don’t know a more cautious guy in public life.”

No matter how high the scandal goes or how many aldermen are ultimately charged, the City Council is in for tremendous turnover.

And that means the new mayor, whomever that person may be, will have his or her hands full winning support for their programs.

“We lived through a period in the late ’80’s when the City Council exerted itself, and we had a weak mayor after Harold Washington died and Eugene Sawyer served briefly,” Axelrod said.

“It could be Council Wars. It could be council chaos. It’s gonna be a real challenge for the next mayor.”

Chicago aldermen have been pushing back ever since Mayor Rahm Emanuel chose political retirement over the uphill battle for a third term.

“We’ve seen it in cities elsewhere. We just saw politicians in New York drive Amazon out of New York. There is this ferment going on at the grass roots,” Axelrod said.

“It’s gonna be challenging, especially because, given the fiscal situation of the city, there’s not gonna be a lot of emoluments for mayors to hand out to get members of the City Council on board, and there are gonna be hard decisions.”

Emanuel threatened to depose Burke as Finance Committee chairman, only to reach a political accommodation with the alderman that allowed Burke to retain his power base for eight more years.

Axelrod has a 30-year friendship with Emanuel; they served together in the Obama White House.

He argued that Emanuel made the right call.

“Ed Burke has been an important player in the City Council for half a century. His cooperation is valuable. His opposition could be really damaging. You have to weigh all these things,” he said.

“I don’t think it’s a matter of wimping out … It’s making that judgment: Weighing the cost of war with a really influential member of the City Council versus passing a program at a really [perilous] time for the city when you had to get stuff done. In the 80’s, we’ve seen what a resourceful and hostile Burke, [Ed] Vrdolyak, City Council could do to a sitting mayor.”