CHICAGO — It was the end of an era back in April when one of the last of the old-school Chicago machine politicians, Alderman Ed Burke, bid the Chicago City Council farewell.
“Many of you have, over the years, heard me quote the great Anglo, Irish statesman Edmond Burke, who wrote, ‘In politics, there are no permanent enemies, no permanent friends, only permanent interests,” Burke said in his last council speech.
He may be retired, but the story of Ed Burke’s extraordinary 54-year reign is still unfolding, and the final chapter of his legacy will be written by the results of his federal corruption case.
“He was one of a kind in terms of the way this city operates, and sadly he was also not that unusual in terms of his willingness to be corrupted by the system that he helped create,” David Greising, President and CEO of the Better Government Association, said.
Burke’s rise began in the 1960s. After a stint as a Chicago police officer, Burke followed in his father’s footsteps, taking over his 14th-ward aldermanic seat. In the 80s, Burke captured control of the powerful Finance Committee.
“At that point, he had already been a long-serving member of council and he had formed an alliance with Eddie Vrdolyak, who was the most powerful person in council, and Vrdolyak was not the sort of person who’s going to dig into the nitty gritty, whereas Ed Burke was,” Greising said.
Following the election of Harold Washington as Chicago’s first Black mayor, Alderman Ed Vrdolyak and Burke banded together to challenge Washington at every turn. The men led a group of 29 aldermen in the years-long battle known as the ‘Council Wars.’
“Harold would introduce something, Burke and his allies would oppose it,” Dick Simpson, former alderman and Chicago historian, said.
At finance, Burke controlled the city’s $100 million worker’s comp program where he and political allies made decisions about disability checks for injured workers. Critics say there was no meaningful oversight or transparency.
“Instead of using the executive branch or just an insurance company to handle that question, they had it handled by the Finance Committee,” Simpson said.
For decades, Burke dodged federal investigations that threatened to weaken him, including a ghost-payrolling scheme. Dozens were charged, but not Burke.
Council colleagues marveled at Burke’s encyclopedic knowledge of Chicago history, constituent services and legislative insight. His immense skills and willingness to evolve allowed him to keep his job despite a demographic shift in his ward to majority Hispanic.
“He’s a lawyer, so he understands the law. He understands history. He understands the rules of order. But the most important is there are less than ten members of the city council at any given time who understand the finances, the city budget and how the city works,” Simpson said.
It’s a story reminiscent of embattled former Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan.
“As with Mike Madigan where there was, in the back of people’s minds, a concern that there must be, might be, something illegal happening behind the curtain. He also had such a capability in terms of the actual job performance that in some instances I think people were willing to suspend suspicion in order to say ‘well, Ed Burke can get it done,'” Greising said.
November 2018, the beginning of the end, as federal agents raided Burke’s City Hall office. Months later, Burke was indicted on 14 counts.
Among the allegations: Demanding a Burger King franchise owner use his law firm for tax work in exchange for help with city permits, offering to grease the wheels for the redevelopment of the Old Post Office, if the developer retained his firm, and threatening to derail a proposed museum admission fee hike because the museum wouldn’t give a friend’s child an internship. Burke denies the allegations.
“I’m not guilty of anything, I haven’t done anything wrong, and I’m sure once it gets to court, it’ll be clear,” Burke told reporters in 2019.
Prosecutors say the criminal activity was caught on tape.
For two years, former Alderman Danny Solis wore a wire secretly recording conversations with Burke. The court is expected to hear the tapes.
“There’s a difference between reading the transcript and hearing the tapes,” Greising said. “And I know from covering other trials that when you hear the audio, you really hear how real it is and there are inflections of voice that really bring to the surface the greed, the transactional nature of these relationships, the leverage that’s being applied.”
The charges didn’t stop 14th Ward voters from giving Burke a 13th term in 2019, but his Council exit came on his own terms when he decided not to run again, four years later.
Now the former dean of the City Council has a new goal: Avoiding prison time.