Update, January 3, 2019: The Tribune reports that Burke has turned himself in on corruption charges.
Ald. Edward M. Burke knows how to make a performance out of power. I once tried to interview him, in his City Hall office, and found that watching Ed Burke play the role of Ed Burke is far more interesting than anything Ed Burke has to say.
I was writing a book about America’s industrial heartland, and I wanted to talk to Burke about the deindustrialization of Chicago. Burke is an amateur historian, co-author of books on Chicago political conventions and fallen police officers, so he agreed.
I was on time for our appointment. Burke arrived half an hour late, trench coat flapping, with one of the bodyguards who have shadowed him ever since he received death threats during the Council Wars in the 1980s. We sat down in his office, the walls covered to the ceiling with political cartoons depicting Burke. An assistant served us coffee on saucers monogrammed “EMB.”
The interview started promisingly enough, with Burke talking about the Union Stockyards, once the economic heart of his 14th Ward. But soon, he got word that an acquaintance had died, and began making calls, spreading the news and offering condolences. He called the office of former U.S. Attorney Anton Valukas — asking for “Tony Valukas, please” — and of course, Valukas took the call, because it was from Ed Burke.
I wasn’t able to fit in many questions around those calls, and when I brought up the Council Wars, Burke abruptly ended our conversation. He sent me away with a copy of his book Inside the Wigwam: Chicago Presidential Conventions 1860-1996, inscribed “with Best Wishes on the occasion of your visit to Chicago’s historic City Hall.” I didn’t use the interview in my book.
Ed Burke loves to flaunt his power — living in a three-story Gage Park compound that the Sun-Times once called a “palace,” wearing expensive pinstriped suits with green ties and handkerchiefs, sporting a pinky ring, helping his wife onto the Illinois Supreme Court, and monopolizing the City Council floor for lengthy speeches in which he quotes Winston Churchill, Horace Greeley, and the proverbial Wise Man. Burke has aspired to higher offices — congressman, state’s attorney, mayor — but has never made it out of the City Council. As long as he stays there, he wants everyone to know he’s the biggest fish in the pond.
This election season, though, Burke is in greater danger of losing that power than he’s been since 1969, when he won a special election to replace his father on the City Council.
In March, Burke’s brother, Dan, a state representative since 1990, lost his Democratic primary to Aaron Ortiz, a 26-year-old high school counselor and son of Mexican immigrants. The deciding issue in that campaign: the fact that Ed Burke, as a property tax attorney, won $14.1 million in tax reductions for Chicago’s Trump Hotel and Tower. Said Ortiz: “When I would explain we were giving tax breaks to these individuals, people were upset that he’s representing a largely Latino community, and he’s representing someone who has disparaged Latinos.”
Ortiz was supported by now Congressman–elect Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, who’s been a mortal enemy of Burke’s since they were aldermen on opposite sides of the Council Wars. After Garcia moved on to the state senate in 1992, Burke cast him into the political wilderness, beating him in his 1998 bid for reelection by supporting Tony Munoz, a police officer with ties to the Hispanic Democratic Organization, a cog in Richard M. Daley’s political machine.
Garcia clawed his way back to the top — as a county commissioner, mayoral candidate, and finally, congressman — and now he wants revenge. He has ties to three of the four candidates who have filed to run against Burke in February, and is expected to back one. Should they win, he’d give the 80-percent Latino 14th Ward its first Latino alderman.
A chastened Burke is now trying to make amends with the community whose support he’s been able to take for granted for 13 elections. In May, he dropped Trump as a client. And lately, he’s reportedly been going door to door in his ward, asking for votes like a first-time candidate.
Garcia is not impressed. “Too little, too late,” he told me in May. “If there had been a reflection by the alderman about what he was doing, it could have begun with an apology for representing [Trump]; he already took his money.” Dropping Trump after his brother’s defeat and before his own reelection campaign, said Garcia, “makes it look like it’s simply a political calculation.”
Burke took another hit last month, and again on Thursday, when the FBI raided his City Hall and ward offices, papering over the windows and carting off computers and boxes full of documents. Asked after the raid whether he would still run for alderman, Burke replied “of course.”
And why wouldn’t he? Burke has been an alderman nearly twice as long as he hasn’t been one. Being an alderman has given him the cachet that draws clients to his real estate tax appeals firm, Klafter & Burke. Being an alderman is the reason 1,000 politicians and lobbyists attended his annual fundraiser earlier this month, paying $150 each for the privilege of toasting him, and adding $150,000 total to a war chest that already amounts to $12 million — many times more than any other alderman.
Of course, Burke’s fate won’t be decided by his party guests, but by the Latino voters who helped throw his brother out of office — an electorate empowered by Garcia’s run for mayor and their growing numbers in local politics. Irish grandees have ruled the Southwest Side for generations, and many Latino voters in the area feel their time is up. Burke has done a lot for his ward — saving a Catholic school, building a $20 million charter school — but that may not be enough to overcome a clamor for succession and the taint of a federal investigation.
Burke is the last of a lot of things: the last alderman to serve under Richard J. Daley, and one of the last two, along with Patrick O’Connor, to participate in Council Wars. He’ll also likely be the last Irishman to represent the 14th Ward, and that may happen sooner than he wants it to.
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