Will Burns has barely passed the year-and-a-half mark as alderman of the 4th Ward, the South Side seat formerly held by Toni Preckwinkle, who blessed Burns as her successor before moving up to become County Board president. A University of Chicago graduate (bachelor’s and master’s), a former state representative and advisor to Emil Jones, and the deputy campaign manager in Obama’s unsuccessful 2000 bid for Congress, Burns, 39, is a canny campaigner. He’s also ambitious. When I interviewed Burns on the eve of his swearing in to his aldermanic office in May 2011, I asked him:
Some people say you have your eye on Washington. How long will you stay on the City Council?
“I have no idea,” he answered. “My philosophy has been to do the job that I have well, and the future takes care of itself.”
I’ll be surprised if Burns doesn’t take his future in his hands and try to mold himself into a Washington player. He tells me he’s “strongly pursuing” the possibility of running and promises a decision by the end of the week. In the meantime, we spoke by telephone about his plans and about the rapidly growing field of possible competitors. Ex-congresswoman Debbie Halvorson is the only officially announced candidate, but others considering a run include: the “rooftop Pastor” Corey Brooks; 9th Ward alderman Anthony Beale; state senators Donne Trotter and Toi Hutchinson, former state representatives Robin Kelly and David Miller, the newly elected state senator and former NFL linebacker Napoleon Harris; and even Blago and R. Kelly lawyer Sam Adam, Jr., So many wannabes are issuing statements and forming committees that Bobby Rush has warned that the black vote in this majority African American district—it snakes from the South Side and south suburbs to pieces of Will County and all of Kankakee County—could be split to the point that a white candidate, even a tea partier, could capture the seat.
Here’s an edited transcript of our conversation:
CF: Bobby Rush has advised potential candidates like you to “cool your jets.” Has he spoken to you?
WB: No, he hasn’t, but I think that’s always a concern, if white voters engage in racial block voting. The district was drawn to pair African Americans and whites who don’t engage in racial block voting. White voters voted for Barack Obama, Jesse White, Toni Preckwinkle.
CF: In following this race, I’ve heard the cliché “My phone’s been ringing off the hook” from potential candidates. Has your phone been ringing off the hook?
WB: A number of people have talked to me about running, talked to me about the need for energetic, vigorous leadership in Congress, about such important issues as gun control, the social safety net, reproductive rights, reducing the deficit. I’m really lucky. People have asked me to run.
CF: Can you give me names of some of them?
WB: Once I make my formal decision, I’ll list my supporters. I’m not going to tell you now.
CF: What factors are going into your decision?
WB: The huge need for economic development, underemployment, long-term debt—issues that affect everyday people. Poverty rates, protecting programs such as Social Security and Medicare that make us a decent society; weaning ourselves from fossil fuels; Coal is not the future. The future is solar and wind. How do we use the land in the 2nd District to further those?
CF: You can have an impact on at least some of the issues you’ve mentioned in the city council. Why leave after you’ve been there for such a short time?
WB: I personally think that in terms of hands-on work, dealing with everyday people, nothing beats being an alderman. It’s close up and personal. But the Congress lets you shape the national discourse, have a say in where we’re headed as a country. John Stuart Mill called legislatures, “national talking houses.” The Congress is a forum for moving the country forward.
CF: The primary is set for February 26, and, obviously, in such a heavily democratic district that’s the main event. Political strategist Eric Adelstein has said that a successful candidate will need at least $600,000. Do you have that kind of money?
WB: No, I don’t have $600,000 in a federal account. My expectation is that I could raise a significant amount of money in a short time.
CF: You’re currently a managing director with ASGK, which is the sister company to AKPD, the political strategy firm founded by David Axelrod. Would those people run your campaign, and could you keep the job you have now as an alderman with ASGK while you’re a candidate? [AKPD ran Burns’ campaign for alderman.]
WB: On the latter, I don’t know, will have to check with my attorney. If I run, I’ll list those consultants who would be staffing the campaign.
CF: During the 2011 mayoral race, there was a famous meeting of black ministers to attempt to settle on one candidate. Do you anticipate a meeting like that for this campaign?
WB: I don’t know. I think the fact that it’s a special election there are fewer disincentives for candidates to come forward. What’s the downside? [Candidates] don’t have to give up [their] seat in the state house or state senate. Given there’s very little downside except losing, no reason not to run.
CF: You’re a friend of the president’s [a former organizer/staffer for Obama going back to Obama’s state senator days]. Do you anticipate he’ll endorse you?
WB: I would doubt an endorsement. Whoever is elected from this district will be a supporter of the president’s. My relationship with him and $2.50 will get me on the bus.
CF: What about Rahm Emanuel? Have you spoken to him and sought his support?
WB: I haven’t spoken to Rahm about this.
CF: Toni Preckwinkle? Every story I read about you mentions that you’re her protégé.
WB: I have expressed my interest.
WB: She said nothing; she didn’t make any commitment; in the process of evaluating.
CF: Your ward is not located within the 2nd congressional district?
WB: That’s correct.
CF: When I talked to you just after you won your aldermanic seat in February 2011, your wife [an attorney then working in government relations] and young daughter were living in Washington while Congress was in session and moving back and forth between there and your Kenwood townhouse. Are they still, and would your family live in DC were you to be elected congressman?
WB: I won’t talk about that.
[Burns does not live within the district, although the law does not require him to.]
Photograph: Bob Stefko