Most Americans living outside the Chicago area identify the city with Oprah, Obama, or Michael Jordan. When the subject of who really runs Chicago comes up, most people would say Mayor Daley. Chicago's lack of term limits and persistent political machine have kept Mayor Daley in office for over 20 years.
Those who know Chicago politics know there's one man who's more powerful than Mayor Daley, Alderman Ed Burke. Mayor Daley may be the identifiable public face of Chicago's political system and act as a lightning rod for criticism, but the lower profile Alderman Burke wields the real power.
Chicago's City Council recently celebrated Alderman Burke's record-breaking 40 years in office. No Chicago Alderman has served so long or accumulated so much power. No man represents Chicago's political system better and all that is wrong with it. Only in a city that is hostile to checks and balances could a politician achieve what Alderman Burke has done. Since joining City Council in 1969, Alderman Burke has amassed a portfolio of positions to be the Machine's top boss. Alderman Burke not only represents the 14th Ward but also serves as Chairman of the Finance Committee. The city of Chicago’s own website is quite honest about exactly who's in charge:
As Chairman of the City Council’s powerful Committee on Finance, Alderman Burke holds the city’s purse strings and is responsible for all legislative matters pertaining to the city’s finances, including municipal bonds, taxes and revenue matters. Alderman Burke became Chairman for the second time in 1989. He previously served from 1983 to 1987. He also serves as a member of the Chicago Plan Commission.
One of the Finance Committee's responsibilities is dealing with workers compensation claims. A few years ago, the Chicago Sun-Times explained Chicago's system: "When city workers get hurt on the job, they usually turn to a handful of lawyers tied to City Hall. And the city often fights back by hiring lawyers with ties to Ald. Edward M. Burke, chairman of the City Council Finance Committee, which has sole authority to settle workers compensation claims against the city."
But, Alderman Burke's control of Chicago's financial purse strings isn't his only lever of power. Cook County has the largest unified court system in America. In heavily Democratic Cook County, 100% of all of the judges are Democrats. The Chairman of the Democratic Party Judicial Slating Committee is none other than Alderman Burke.The Chicago Reader astutely observed Burke's "Seat on the Democratic Party judicial slate-making committee ensures that Cook County judges owe him their jobs." Alderman Burke's influence goes beyond the Cook County level: his wife Anne is a justice on the Illinois Supreme Court.
Along with all of Alderman Burke's power to control Chicago's tax code and Cook County's judicial system comes campaign contributions. Alderman Burke doesn't represent a wealthy ward, nor has he ever faced a serious political opponent, but he still has amassed an eye popping campaign fund. The Chicago Tribune explains:
But the state’s richest political family was Ald. Edward Burke (14th) and his wife, Illinois Supreme Court Justice Anne Burke. Together, their political committees held $8.3 million in cash. The Tribune reported Monday that Anne Burke’s campaign was returning a large portion of her cash to donors because she is running unopposed in the Democratic primary.
Mayor Richard M. Daley, who traditionally ceases fundraising after elections, raised just $43,000 in the last six months, but had $3.1 million in cash on hand.
In terms of cash at the very least, Burke is already more potent not only than Daley but has more in his coffers than Daley and all 49 Aldermen combined. But, the ever active Alderman Burke is also a businessman, not surprisingly a rather successful one.
The state of Illinois has rather lax ethics laws, and since being an Alderman is a "part time” job, Alderman Burke has outside employment. Burke runs a successful property tax appeals business. Burke's latest ethics form filed with the city of Chicago shows his impressive list of clients. Such big corporations as AT&T, American Airlines, Bank of America, Northern Trust, Harris Bank, T Mobile and many others have done at least $5000 in legal business with Alderman Burke's law firm in the last year. They also – I am sure readers will be shocked – do business with the city of Chicago. WBBM, the local CBS affiliate, even has Alderman Burke handle some of its legal business.
Occasionally, Alderman Burke's conflicts get reported on. When Obama ally and Blagojevich influence peddler Tony Rezko was looking to get his taxes cut on a big land deal the Chicago Sun-Times explained:
Why did Ald. Edward M. Burke vote to approve Tony Rezko’s plans to develop the South Loop’s biggest piece of vacant land even as he was working for Rezko on that same deal?
Burke says: I forgot to abstain.
When Rod Blagojevich first decided to run for Governor in 2001, he got important backing from Burke. Blago's father in law, by the way, is Alderman Dick Mell, a colleague of Alderman Burke's who got the ball rolling.The Daily Herald unearthed this revealing statement from Alderman Burke in 2001 concerning Blago:
"I am with Rod 100% because he has what it takes to win – money, message and an army of supporters,” said Burke, referring to a rousing announcement speech given by Blagojevich to a reported throng of 10,000 people on August 12. Burke also mentioned filings with election officials that show Blagojevich with over $3 million in his campaign fund, double the amount of cash on hand of all of his potential Democratic opponents combined.
In the coming years, as Chicago style politics seeps into America's mainstream, remember Alderman Burke. Thirty of Burke's colleagues on Chicago's City Council went on to become convicted felons since 1970. But Alderman Burke is still standing, and still dominating in the shadows, atop much of what happens in the Windy City.
Steve Bartin is a resident of Cook County and native who blogs regularly about urban affairs at http://nalert.blogspot.com. He works in Internet sales.