Why did Rahm Emanuel’s top black aldermanic supporter suddenly call it quits?
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With a record $588 million property tax hike in the books for the city and another $170 million increase coming down the pike for the Chicago Public Schools, it’s not a great time to be an alderman.
It’s even worse if you’re Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s staunchest supporter in the African-American community.
Only Ald. Will Burns (4th) knows whether any of that factored into his surprise decision to call it quits less than a year after cruising to re-election with support from President Barack Obama. Burns has so far refused to return phone calls or text messages from the Chicago Sun-Times.
What is clear is that Burns is quitting the City Council to become senior adviser and director of Midwest policy for Airbnb at a time when the home-sharing giant is finally facing city regulation that includes Emanuel’s proposal to slap a 2 percent surcharge on the booking of any shared housing unit, bed-and-breakfast or vacation rental.
Burns helped the mayor improve his South Side ground game on the way to capturing nearly 58 percent of the black vote in the April 7 runoff election.
In the six-week period between the Feb. 24 election and April 7 runoff, Emanuel boosted his support among African-American voters alienated by the mayor’s decision to close a record 50 public schools by 14.5 percentage points.
Burns, whose own 4th Ward delivered 8,006 votes or 58.6 percent for Emanuel, said then that the foot soldiers he oversaw in several black wards worked in crews of 30 and had already knocked on the doors of likely voters three times before the polls even opened.
“This was a ground game that didn’t exist before Feb. 24. A lot of those guys had worked on my campaign, and I converted them to Rahm’s campaign. We trained them on the mayor’s agenda. We did role playing. We had tests. If people couldn’t pass the test, they couldn’t knock on doors. They had to know the script and be conversant in it,” Burns proudly told the Sun-Times after the election.
“The school closings were a more potent issue two years ago. Given that 93 percent of kids are going to schools as good or better than ones they previously attended and Safe Passage has worked, the issue is not the lightning rod issue it was.”
Emanuel rewarded Burns for his loyalty by making him chairman of the City Council’s Education Committee, which has an annual budget of $205,609. Burns had already played a key role on the mayoral commission that recommended raising Chicago’s minimum wage to $13 an hour by 2019.
He, also a proponent of Emanuel’s ethics and education agendas, became embroiled in a huge fight with community groups over the future of Dyett High School.
Burns forged his political alliance with Emanuel before the unrelenting furor over Emanuel’s handling of the Laquan McDonald shooting video.
Now, African-American elected officials viewed as close to the mayor are likely to face a backlash among black voters who no longer trust the mayor and are not inclined to give him a third chance.
That puts Burns, a former state representative who aspired to run for Congress, in a political box he needed to get out of.
A City Council colleague, who asked to not be named, said Burns’ abrupt decision to call it quits had more to do with the fact that he was a bad fit as a Chicago alderman.
“He hated the job. He just didn’t like being alderman. He always thought he was too smart and too good to be alderman,” the colleague said.
Although Burns championed the mayor’s ethics reforms, he found himself on the other side of the issue last month.
During committee debate on a long-stalled ordinance that would empower Inspector General Joe Ferguson to investigate aldermen and City Council employees, it was Burns who dared to caution his colleagues about the political downside.
“We tell people `yes’ or `no.’ And sometimes when you tell people `no’ … you could anger those people and they could file complaints and … abuse, unfortunately, the ethics process to harass and to seek retaliation against an alderman for a decision they did not appreciate,” Burns said then.
Ald. Pat O’Connor (40th), Emanuel’s floor leader, responded to those concerns by creating a “working committee” to entertain possible changes to make aldermen feel more comfortable with Ferguson and his successors.
Burns is one of the members.
Downtown Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd) wants Emanuel to scrap plans to regulate and tax the burgeoning home-sharing industry in favor of enforcing the 2010 vacation rental ordinance that Reilly spent two years negotiating, only to have it largely ignored.
Asked Monday how he feels about Burns joining the website that serves as a vehicle for homeowners to rent out their homes, Reilly said, “I wish him well in his new endeavor and hope he’ll use his new position to ensure Airbnb comes into compliance with the Nightly Vacation Rental Ordinance that’s currently on the books.”
In an emailed statement, Emanuel congratulated Burns on what the mayor called “this new chapter in his life” and said he would “certainly miss him” in the City Council.
“He has spent the last five years advocating for better public schools, attracting new business and improving the economy in the 4th Ward. He has also helped to increase transparency, efficiency, and accountability in city government,” the mayor was quoted as saying.
“He can leave City Hall knowing he has helped to improve his community, and that he had a part in working to right Chicago’s finances. I thank him for his time and commitment to public service.”
Emanuel vowed to use the “same open and transparent process” to find a replacement for Burns that he has used to fill prior City Council vacancies.
“Any resident of the ward will be able to apply, and a commission of local leaders will help determine the finalists,” the mayor said.