When I wrote about Will Burns in 2011, I predicted that the University of Chicago graduate (BA and MA) would soon hang his hat in the House of Representatives or some place nearby. The former state rep was, after all, once a staffer for Barack Obama—deputy campaign manager for Obama for Congress in 2000 and deputy political director of Obama for America in 2008—and for Senate President Emil Jones—senior adviser and later deputy chief of staff. He is one connected guy.
In 2011, Burns moved from Springfield—elected in 2008 and then reelected in 2010 to represent the 26th District—to Chicago and the City Council as 4th Ward alderman. He took the Council seat held by one of his main mentors, Toni Preckwinkle, when she moved up to be President of the Cook County Board.
For Burns, who was just as closely mentored by Barack Obama and Emil Jones, the job of alderman carried much more name recognition and opportunities to make news. Still, my previous conversations with him made me believe that he saw himself as destined for far bigger stages, and that the City Hall wouldn’t keep him for long.
I was wrong. Burns, 41, is seemingly content to serve his South Side ward, which covers such neighborhoods as Hyde Park, Kenwood, Grand Boulevard, Oakland, and the South Loop. He is newly divorced; his seven-year-old daughter lives with his ex-wife in Virginia’s Prince William County. A Rahm Emanuel loyalist, he has formally endorsed the mayor, and, like him, is now in the thick of the controversy over where to put the Obama library. The site Burns prefers, Washington Park, is in his ward.
And like Rahm, he’s seeking a second term on February 24 and hoping to avoid a runoff. He has two opponents this time: Norman Bolden, self described “business and community activist,” and businesswoman Tracey Bey.
I caught up with Burns Friday afternoon at Petros across from City Hall to ask him, while he munched on a cheeseburger, about his future political plans, the Obama library, and more.
Below is an edited transcript of our conversation.
Where do you live in the 4th Ward?
A townhouse in Kenwood, three blocks away from the Obamas’ house. And I don’t talk about the Obamas very much.
Do you think they will return to live in Chicago after they leave the White House?
I have no idea.
That brings me to the Obama presidential library. Will it come to Chicago? Is it possible New York’s Columbia University will get it?
If that library ends up in in New York, there will be a lot of hurt feelings. Quite frankly, we need this library—in Washington Park. It will bring so much economic development.
You are okay with taking park land from this storied, historic Frederick Law Olmstead park to build Obama’s library?
Yes. People in my ward would like to see it in Washington Park. That was obvious at the community meeting we had a couple weeks ago [there were about 1000 people in a standing room only in the Washington Park field house]. Improvements will be made to the park. It’s a win-win.
Again, you’re in agreement with Rahm. My hunch is Washington Park is also his first choice. On other issues, you’ve been called a rubberstamp for Rahm and you’re not a member of the Council’s Progressive Caucus, the group of aldermen most likely to challenge the mayor.
I started out as member of the Progressive Caucus. I stopped getting invitations to meetings. I joined the Paul Douglas Alliance. Yes, I have friendly relations with the mayor. He respects how hard I work, my interest in policy, my willingness to work with everybody. If you’re going to pass a bill in the House, you talk to speaker Madigan; in the City Council, you talk to the mayor. Yes, I have conversations with the mayor; the best negotiations are done behind closed doors, not in the media. Doing the latter makes it harder for people to negotiate. From the vantage point of the 4th Ward, this is a good mayor.
Can you name a couple of issues on which you’ve opposed Rahm?
I voted against NATO Summit enabling ordinances that restricted protests and I voted against the speed camera ordinance. [According to a UIC study, in 67 divided roll call votes from June 8, 2011 to November 15, 2014, Burns voted with Rahm 91 percent of the time].
How’s the job of alderman different from job as state rep, and which is better?
There is an immediacy to being alderman. The alderman is first step or last step; when all else fails go to the alderman. It could be for tickets to the circus or Thanksgiving dinner for a senior citizen who’s indigent. There are tangible relationship between you and people you represent. In the state legislature, it’s much more abstract. I would walk the ward with Toni Preckwinkle when she was alderman. She would be mobbed and she would tell people, “Here’s my state rep.” They didn’t care. They’d be telling her we need to get the sidewalk fixed. [As alderman], when you leave your house you’re on duty
How long will you stay in the City Council?
I don’t know. I think there’s some people when they’re five years old, they’ve already plotted out their life—Rhodes Scholar, Yale, Harvard Law School. I don’t operate like that. Do your job, be committed, do it as well as you can, everything else takes care of itself. When you’re worried about what your next move is you are no longer present. I believe in being present.
Are you thinking of running for Congress or, in ’16, for the U.S. Senate? [In 2012, when the disgraced Jesse Jackson Jr. gave up his congressional seat, Burns put himself in the mix of people wanting to take that seat but, reportedly because of discouraging polls, he stayed out and another African American, Robin Kelly, won the 2nd District seat. Kelly is now talking about running for the Senate in 2016 against incumbent Mark Kirk.]
I haven’t thought about it. I saw on Facebook that Robin Kelly has expressed an interest in it. I’m focused on getting reelected. I don’t want a runoff. This is a weird time. Chicago politics is very polarized, and politics in Chicago has never been beanbag. There’s a roughness to it I haven’t seen before; stridency to politics [here] right now. It’s really that you are with us or against us. I’m a very practical person. When I was in the state legislature, I had to get votes from all sides to pass bills. In a pluralist democracy nobody gets all they want all the time. You sit and you compromise. There are more and more groups today whose [members] say, “Unless I get everything I want every time, we’re going to have a problem.” Then I say, “So you’ll have problem.”
Again, why didn’t you run for Congress when there was that nice open seat?
It wasn’t the right time. I had just gotten to the Council; it would have hurt me with constituents. I would have had to drop the ball on so many things, like the field house that people have been waiting for for over a decade, or Walmart. I would have been making the statement that my ambitions were more important.
So the polls showing you with little support weren’t the factor?
No. I’m in a fight all the time. I don’t like to lose. I was deputy campaign manager for Obama in 2000. I worked on that campaign seven days a week. I took seven days off in nine months. I gave it everything I had. It was crushing to lose. I told myself on Election Day that I don’t ever want to feel this way again. On the other hand, when I ran for state rep in 2008, my name recognition was two percent, less than the margin of error. So a poll was not the deciding factor.
In 2000, when Obama ran against incumbent Bobby Rush, you didn’t realize he was headed for defeat? I could see it.
When I’m in the middle of something, I couldn’t think like that. I was talking to volunteers, lots of young volunteers, I had to energize these idealistic young people. Am I supposed to say to them, “Thanks for wasting your time, we’re going to lose.”
How long did it take you to get over that?
I slept for two days. I played Madden on Playstation. I filed for unemployment because I didn’t have a job. I had burned a bunch of bridges. I had formally withdrawn from the U of C political science department (He had been working toward getting a PhD).
The last time I talked to you, you were boxing as a hobby. Are you still doing it?
Right now I have a bad knee, called jumpers’ knee. I lift weights, swim, and I meditate. I strive to be present and mindful. I go to church, West Point Missionary Baptist Church. I grew up in the church. My grandmother used to give me quarters to memorize Bible verses.
You worked closely with Obama over the years. Have the Obamas invited you the to White House?
Yes, I was at the holiday party in 2009. I was at the Motown concert in the East Room in 2011 with Jamie Foxx and Smokey Robinson. I went to the first inauguration and I cried. I was so proud of him and our city.
You were Deputy Political Director, Quinn for Illinois in 2010. You said earlier that you offered to help in 2014. What went wrong for Quinn in 2014 in such a blue state as Illinois?
It was just a bad year for Democrats. Bruce Rauner was more amenable to people. Bill Brady [Quinn’s opponent in 2010] just scared the hell out of everyone.
What bricks and mortar have you brought or helped to bring to the ward? [Note: Burns reeled off his accomplishments with such speed my typing lagged his list. His campaign press secretary, Patricia Andrews-Keenan, who sat in on the interview, emailed me a list the next day. Here’s part of it.]
A residential and retail development at 51st & Lake Park that will include a Whole Foods and a Marshalls; a Mariano’s on 39th and King Dr.; a fully-equipped Field House at 35th and Cottage Grove; a residential and retail development on East 53rd; housing, retail, including a Walmart, at 47th and Cottage Grove.