Will Burns, 37, is a protégé of Barack Obama, an outgoing state representative, and a commuter husband who lives in a Kenwood townhouse but travels regularly to Washington, D.C., where his wife and 3-year-old daughter live. A boxer by hobby, he battled six opponents in the race for Fourth Ward alderman. When his term begins May 16th, he’ll be one of the city’s youngest council members.
You were raised in Warrensville Heights, an inner-ring Cleveland suburb that borders the wealthier Shaker Heights. Your mother runs a settlement house located in a public housing complex in the city. But you attended Hawken, an elite, mostly white prep school. Was that your idea or your parents’?
My mom raised my brother and me [to be] really proud of being African American. There were things that you needed to do as an African American to thrive in society—speak standard English, do well in your studies—but you weren’t going to take anything from anybody because you were black. I was constantly going between different worlds.
What made you choose the University of Chicago for college?
Most of the kids in my high school went east. I wanted something different, and I liked the idea of a more egalitarian university, in the sense that it wasn’t about how much money you made. It was about being intellectual. There wasn’t a sense of “These are the really cool kids,” because at the end of the day, you were all going to the University of Chicago. So how cool could you possibly be?
What were your first impressions of Obama?
In 1995, I was invited to [Obama’s] campaign kickoff for state senator. I was impressed and showed up on Saturday mornings with a clipboard and petitions and went out and knocked on doors. I had been very cynical about electoral politics, much more interested in organizing, and Barack showed you could be a politician and be committed to social justice. Barack provided me with a path.
In 1998, you were working as a community outreach coordinator for state senator Obama and on your Ph.D. in political science. I understand that Obama suggested that you take a year off.
Barack said I could always come back and work on my dissertation. I never went back. [Instead, Burns went to Springfield to work for Obama’s mentor, Emil Jones, who was a state senator; he eventually became Jones’s deputy chief of staff.]
The Fourth Ward race was closely watched due to several ballot challenges. Did you lob any yourself?
Volunteers in my campaign challenged other candidates. Parenthetically, I was a volunteer on Barack’s challenge of Alice Palmer’s petitions. [In 1996, Obama won his first race by knocking Palmer off the ballot.] Standard operating procedure on campaigns. It’s nothing personal.
What is your relationship with Rahm Emanuel?
I didn’t make any endorsements for mayor. I had a couple of meetings with him during the campaign and [one meeting] subsequently, and, as I told him, [in] the Fourth Ward, people expect their alderman to think independently. That’s what I intend to do.
You had a second job while serving as state representative. Will you keep it as alderman?
I’m a managing director at ASGK [Axelrod, Sedler, Grisolano, Kupper, a sister company to the political strategy firm AKPD Message and Media, founded by David Axelrod]. ASGK handles corporate public affairs, and I do business development. I introduce them to folks that they’re interested to meet. I anticipate continuing my employment.
Some people say you have your eye on Washington. How long will you stay on the City Council?
I have no idea. My philosophy has been to do the job that I have well, and the future takes care of itself.
Photograph: Bob Stefko