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EDITORIAL: Even if Ald. Burke survives all this, next mayor could have it in for him

Shortly before the FBI raided offices of Ald. Edward M. Burke, agents visited the Mount Greenwood home of the alderman’s top political aide, Pete Andrews, the Chicago Sun-Times has learned.

Ed Burke has been alderman of the 14th Ward on the Southwest Side since 1969. | Lou Foglia / Sun-Times

Ald. Ed Burke is up against it.

He’s fighting the toughest re-election challenge of his career, with four Latino candidates running against him in a Southwest Side ward that has grown heavily Latino.

The feds are going after him. They raided his City Hall and 14th Ward offices on Nov. 29, and they raided the City Hall office again on Thursday.

EDITORIAL

On Wednesday, the City Council’s Progressive Caucus called for Burke to be stripped of his control of the city’s $100-million-a-year workers’ compensation program.

And then there is this: If Burke survives all that, he may still get a rude reception from the next mayor of Chicago.

At least 11 of the 21 candidates for mayor, including all but one of the presumed front-runners, tell us that it’s way past time Burke was stripped of a big source of his political power — his ability to manage the city’s workers’ comp program like a secretive fiefdom. The program, eight of the candidates add, should be moved to the executive branch of government.

As to whether Burke himself should go or stay — booted as chairman of the Council’s Finance Committee or left alone — there is less consensus.

One candidate for mayor forthrightly acknowledged Burke’s an old friend. Several others said it would be unfair to force Burke out as chairman unless the feds can produce proof of a crime.

Still others said nothing at all, perhaps in keeping with that old City Hall tradition of never crossing Burke. Because he knows stuff.

By email last weekend, we asked 19 of the 21 candidates what they thought should be done about Burke. Fourteen replied. Only one of the top tier of candidates, Garry McCarthy, did not.

Those who said they support moving the workers’ comp program from the Council to the executive branch were Dorothy Brown, Gery Chico, Bill Daley, Jerry Joyce, Lori Lightfoot, Toni Preckwinkle, Amara Enyia and Paul Vallas. Three other candidates — Susana Mendoza, Bob Fioretti and Willie Wilson — said Burke should be stripped of his oversight of the program but did not say they favor moving it out of the City Council altogether.

Burke “has been a friend for years,” Chico wrote, praising the alderman for “cooperating with the current federal investigation.” But Chico made clear he would want to shift the workers’ comp program out of the Council.

“We need to start fresh and consolidate all executive functions into the executive branch of city government — just like other major municipalities,” Chico wrote, “where they can be operated with efficiency and transparency.”

Daley argued that moving the workers’ comp program to the executive branch would allow the city inspector general, currently Joe Ferguson, to keep an eye on it. “Keeping this program under the Finance Committee,” Daley wrote, “removes vital oversight and keeps accountability away from the mayor. Voters deserve to know that funds like this are carefully managed.”

Daley did not address the question of whether Burke should step down or be stripped of his powers.

Enyia said she favors taking the program out of Burke’s hands, but she emphasized another point: Real reform requires changes in institutional structures. In this case, she wrote, that would mean “shifting the program to a separate agency” and giving Ferguson oversight powers.

Lightfoot wrote that Burke should be “stripped of his job” if he does not step down as head of the Finance Committee, but she took it further. As long as Burke is under federal investigation, she said, he also “should not play a role in vetting judges” for the Cook County Democratic Party.

Burke is so secretive in the way he runs the workers’ comp program, Lightfoot wrote, “that even some City Council members have said they do not know exactly how it operates.” The result, she said, is “cynicism among the taxpaying public.”

Among the 14 candidates for mayor who responded to our question, Preckwinkle was among the most pointed in calling Burke out. She cited the FBI raid and noted that Burke has built up “significant personal wealth related to his tax appeals practice.” She pointed out that he regularly has to recuse himself from Council votes because of conflicts of interest.

And for good and disdainful measure, she tossed in the fact that Burke represented President Donald Trump in property tax appeals.

Our own view, which we expressed in an editorial two weeks ago, is that Burke should resign as Finance Committee chair, or be pushed out, not because of the federal investigation, but because of his old-school political machine management of the workers’ comp program for many years. Several media investigations, including by the Sun-Times, have revealed abuses in the program — patronage hiring, as well as favoritism in cutting disability checks.

Where the candidates for mayor — and alderman — stand on this issue will be an important consideration as we size whom to endorse in the coming elections. We urge you, the voters, take it into account as well.

To read the candidates’ full replies to our questions about Burke and the workers’ comp program, click here. And we urge you to visit their campaign websites to learn more.

Bill Daley: daleyformayor.com
Paul Vallas: vallasforallchicago.com
Gery Chico: chicoformayor.com
Amara Enyia: amaraenyia.com
Robert “Bob” Fioretti: bobforchicago.com
La Shawn Ford: fordforchicago.com
Willie Wilson: williewilsonformayor.com
Ja’Mal Green: greenforchicago.com
Dorothy Brown: dorothyformayor.com/2019
Susana Mendoza: susanamendoza.com
Jerry Joyce: jerryjoyce2019.com
Lori Lightfoot: lightfootforchicago.com
Toni Preckwinkle: toniforchicago.com
Garry McCarthy: garryformayor.com
Neal Sales-Griffin: nealformayor.com
John Kenneth Kozlar: johnkozlar.com
Roger L. Washington: washingtonformayor.com

Send letters to: letters@suntimes.com.