The four best-funded candidates for mayor of Chicago — Toni Preckwinkle, Susana Mendoza, Gery Chico, and Bill Daley — all have two things in common:
- A close association with Ald. Ed Burke.
- A sudden desire to dissociate themselves from Burke, who as of Thursday is facing federal charges for allegedly extorting legal business from the owner of a Burger King in his ward.
One of Burke's campaign war chests is known as Friends of Edward M. Burke. Until last week, Burke had a lot of friends.
Toni Preckwinkle was Burke's friend. Burke has been giving her money since she was the 4th Ward's progressive alderman. In 2001, he donated $200 to Citizens for Preckwinkle. Once Preckwinkle ascended to the more powerful office of Cook County Board President, Burke gave her more money. Last year, he held a fundraiser in his Gage Park home that raised $116,000 for Preckwinkle. He also allegedly pressured the Burger King owner to donate $10,000 to his friend, Toni Preckwinkle.
Now that Burke has been indicted, Preckwinkle doesn't want to be his friend anymore. She's giving back the $116,000. As boss of the Cook County Democratic Party, Preckwinkle is removing Burke from his powerful post as chair of the Judicial Slating Committee, which he used to help advance his wife Anne's career all the way to the state supreme court.
Susana Mendoza was such good friends with Ed Burke that she was married at his house, in a ceremony performed by his wife. Friends of Edward M. Burke gave Mendoza $500 in 2000, when she ran for the Illinois House of Representatives in a district adjoining Burke's 14th Ward. Now, Mendoza says, "it's time for new leadership in the 14th Ward."
Gery Chico got his start in politics as an aide to Burke's Finance Committee in 1983. His law and lobbying firm, Chico & Nunes, has donated to the 14th Ward Regular Democratic Organization, another fund controlled by Burke. Burke endorsed Chico for mayor, but Chico says he will no longer "accept support" from Burke.
Bill Daley's family has donated money to Burke for decades, but Bill now says that "50 years is long enough and Ed Burke should retire." (To his credit, Daley made that statement in October, before federal agents raided Burke’s offices.)
It should not have taken a federal indictment for Chicago's most ambitious politicians to shun Ed Burke — his shenanigans have gone on for decades. But nobody in Chicago politics pursues money and power more avidly or amorally than Burke, and who wouldn't want some of that money and power for themselves?
Here’s what David K. Fremon wrote about Burke’s role in Council Wars, during which he and Ed Vrdolyak led the internal opposition to Mayor Harold Washington, in his 1988 book Chicago Politics: Ward by Ward:
“He was considered second only to Alderman Edward Vrdolyak among the anti-Washington bloc. He also assumed the role of vocal point man for anti-Washington attacks. By most accounts, he relished it. Burke attacked the Washington transition team’s report of racial bias in the city (while firing seven black members of his committee.)”
Burke and his wife live in a three-story Archer Heights compound the Chicago Sun-Times once called a “palace.” Burke didn’t likely build that house with his $109,994-a-year City Council salary, but with the profits from his law firm, Klafter & Burke, which specializes in winning property tax breaks for wealthy developers. Burke's business has no doubt benefited from his political clout, even if he was never before caught on tape allegedly demanding business in exchange for a building permit.
In 2006, Burke began working for the Trump International Hotel & Tower, securing its owners $14.1 million in property tax breaks. Burke, who represents an 80 percent Latino ward, retained Trump Tower as a client even after its namesake began deriding Mexican immigrants as drug dealers, criminals, and rapists on the campaign trail. Burke only dropped Trump after the association led to the defeat of his brother, state Rep. Dan Burke, and threatened his own re-election to the City Council.
Preckwinkle says she “won’t have my name dragged through the mud” by Burke’s hinky behavior.
But it’s too late for that. In her transformation from independent alderman to party boss to aspiring mayor, Preckwinkle has shown a willingness to align herself with the seamy side of Chicago politics that she once condemned.
First, it was Cook County Assessor Joe Berrios, whose candidacy Preckwinkle repeatedly endorsed. Now, it’s Burke. Preckwinkle knew all about Burke’s role in Council Wars, his work for Trump, and the conflict of interest inherent in doing real estate tax work while chairing the City Council's most powerful committee. But she still took his money.
Plenty of successful Chicago politicians took on Burke before the feds caught up with him. Ald. Ameya Pawar, who is now running for city treasurer, called out Burke on the Council floor for his association with Trump, scolding him for doing business with a “racist.” U.S. Rep. Chuy Garcia backed the candidate for state representative who defeated Burke’s brother, and is now backing a candidate against Burke himself in next month’s aldermanic election.
There are also 10 candidates for mayor who don’t have any political or financial ties to Ed Burke. They don’t have as much money as the candidates who played Burke’s game, but they may be more likely to turn the page on his brand of Chicago politics, which should have been retired decades ago.