• Emailarticle
  • Writecomment

The Private Public Life of Ed Burke

Though only 61, Alderman Ed Burke, the king of a ward inherited from his father, is a relic of old Chicago politics.


Thirty-six years as an alderman have made Edward M. Burke the longest serving politician in the city, a mark that's brought him not only unrivaled clout but also a sensational history that swirls through the corridors of City Hall. Though only 61, Burke, the king of a ward inherited from his father, is a relic of old Chicago politics. With hair that's been white for decades always carefully combed back, well-tailored suits that coordinate with vibrant shirts, ties and handkerchiefs, cuffs monogrammed "EMB" and a brilliant gold pinkie ring and watch, Burke has a natty mid-century style. His many years of triumphs and debacles in the public realm and his rollercoaster relationship with Mayor Richard M. Daley seem to give everyone an opinion about the alderman.

"Nobody's neutral about Ed Burke," says Don Rose, a longtime Chicago political consultant. "He's got a lot of friends and a lot of enemies." Despite the friends, enemies, opinions and nearly four decades at the nucleus of local politics, Burke is a puzzling figure who few can grasp. He has as many different sides as he has arms of power that reach through the streets of Chicago, leaving many wondering, just who is Eddie Burke?

Although Burke may say political organizations today are pretty well broken up, his 14th Ward, located in the city's Southwest Side, is still one of the strongest, largest and most efficiently run ward organizations in the city. The demographics of the ward have changed completely--once heavily Eastern European and Irish, it's now 75 percent Latino. With those changes, the alderman himself has evolved. Once brash and divisive, he's "had a change of heart and style," Rose says. With a longstanding impeccable knowledge of the law, Burke, known as the dean of City Council, is a commanding presence on the floor.

"He's probably the most able leader of the City Council just in pure smarts and understanding of the legislation since Tom Keane, who was floor leader under Mayor Richard J. Daley--until [Keane] went to jail for corruption," says Dick Simpson, a political science professor at University of Illinois at Chicago, former alderman of the 44th Ward and author of Rogues, Rebels and Rubber Stamps: The Politics of the Chicago City Council from 1863 to the Present.

For decades there's been the telling City Hall adage, "Who are the smartest aldermen in the Chicago City Council?" "Ed Burke and then all the rest." Burke has been chairman of the City Council Committee on Finance since 1983, excluding a two-year hiatus in the late 1980s, which resulted from disagreements with the late Mayor Harold Washington. A fiscally conservative Democrat, Burke's content with his position, as "it holds the city's purse strings," says his press secretary Donal Quinlan. "He plays that role well." Burke, who's said to have saved the city millions of dollars, calls the work "uninspiring drudgery." "But I wouldn't do it if I didn't like it," he adds.

Considered the historian of City Hall, Burke has compiled numerous historical exhibits that hang on the building's walls. He co-authored the book, Inside the Wigwam: Chicago Presidential Conventions 1860-1996. A scholar of the past and a believer in studying the patterns of history, it can be said that the alderman has learned from his own mistakes. To understand and to know who Burke is, to appreciate his complexity and conflicts, one must realize that he is now where he's always been, the place where he came from, the 14th Ward.

"Politics was much more personalized then," says Burke about the era when his father, Joseph P. Burke, was alderman of the 14th Ward. From a young age, Burke would tag along to events with his father, who was a good friend of Mayor Richard J. Daley. The Daley's home ward of the 11th neighbored the Burke's. The 14th Ward was larger then than its current population of about 56,000 people. "It really was a neighborhood that was very much dependent on the work and the culture of the union stockyards," Ed Burke says. He remembers his father going out every night of the week to attend wakes. "For everybody in the 14th Ward who died, my father went to the wake," Burke recalls. "I still run into people today who say my father went to their grandfather's wake, and that meant a lot to people. I tried to start that way, but it was just too much."

Joe Burke's wife, Ann, raised their children. At an early age, Ed Burke became friends with Richard M. Daley, the eldest of the Daley children. It's been said that Burke would often go to parties in the Daley basement, and when both boys were enrolled at DePaul University, where they received their undergraduate and law degrees, they would carpool together. While in law school, Burke worked as a Chicago police officer.

"I think it makes one a cynic," the alderman says about police work. "It thrusts one into situations that are ordinarily negative. It was a great education. Some of the people I met during that period of time are still some of my best friends."

Nineteen sixty-eight was a year that threw the planned course of Burke's life into pieces. At 24, he was getting ready to graduate from law school, studying for the bar exam and preparing to marry Anne, a South Side Catholic girl, whom he fell in love with the moment they met, he says. Then, without warning, his father was diagnosed with lung cancer and died within three months. Amid the grief, Burke, who says simply that "there was a lot going on that year," was forced to make a quick decision about his own future. He remembers his father's former allies scheming about the future of the 14th Ward during the wake.

"In all likelihood, what would have happened is that when I finished law school I maybe would have been a potential candidate for the House of Representatives or that sort of thing, assuming of course that [my father] would be alive and would be mentoring me," says Burke, seated in at a long table in his corner office in City Hall. "But that process became undone when he died. I was left with the decision to either run to succeed him or forget about politics because in Chicago politics you have to move when you have the opportunity or forget about it." Ran he did, and now, a career later, Burke's office is filled with photographs and mementos of his aldermanic years. One wall is covered with political cartoons by Jack Higgins. Each depicts Burke--a snapshot from one period to another.

In 1969, after one year as committeeman, Burke became the second youngest alderman to ever get elected to City Council. "I believe there was a certain feeling that this is Joe Burke's kid, and he probably will follow in his father's footsteps and act like Joe did. That's how I wind up as 24-year-old Democratic committeeman and then the next year alderman. I've tried to be [the kind of politician my dad was]. I've tried to imitate what he did and not promise people things you can't deliver, try to be honest, try to be effective, take care of the neighborhood first and then everything will fall into line."

From early on in Burke's career in City Council, there were indications that his career would be explosive. Part of a coalition of younger aldermen who were not were hesitant to criticize the political establishment and the Richard J. Daley administration, he aligned closely with Ed Vrdolyak, alderman of the 10th Ward. Vrdolyak and Burke helped lead the Coffee Rebellion of 1972, which essentially sought to transfer more power from Daley into the council. Despite standing up to Daley, the man who'd watched him grow up, Burke, because of his intelligence and sharp debating skills, was often chosen to defend the administration's proposals on the council floor.

Upon Daley's death on December 20, 1976, Burke was one of the potential candidates for mayor, but couldn't garner enough support to get the position. He was still young, however, and had budding legal career and a growing family. It was shortly thereafter that Burke met his longtime law partner, the now deceased Melvin L. Klafter, sparking the beginning of Klafter & Burke, a firm specializing in property tax law. There were four young children in the Burke household, Jennifer, Edward, Emmett and Sarah, all of whom Anne was raising as she finished her bachelor's degree at DePaul University and earned her law degree from Kent College.

"A lot of the responsibility for raising the children fell to my wife," recalls Burke, who says fatherhood has taught him patience. "Of course in those days I was out trying to pursue a political career and build a law practice."

On the council floor, Burke's power was continuing to strengthen. Mayor Jane Byrne had run on a ticket of reform, seeking to break the influence of the group of aldermen that included Vrdolyak and Burke and their behind-the-scenes deals. Once elected, however, Byrne realized she needed their support. "I can't govern this city unless I cut a deal with [Vrdolyak and Burke]," Byrne supposedly said to Renault Robinson, quoted in Gary Rivlin's Fire on the Prairie and reprinted in Rogues, Rebels and Rubber Stamps. "I have no constituency in the council. I don't have anything in the bureaucracy. I bark orders from the fifth floor and nobody listens. If I don't have these people with me, government won't operate."

Despite her pledges for reform, under Byrne, Vrdolyak and Burke arranged the committees and the rules for the council, which ended up largely the same as they had been under Daley. Byrne, meanwhile, managed to split the party into pro-Daley and pro-Byrne factions. In the early 80s, she even supported Burke in a race against Richard M. Daley for Cook County state's attorney, which he lost. The men's once strong friendship had become strained during Burke's rigorous council debates with Daley's father.

Harold Washington was elected mayor in 1983, and the four years that ensued became known as Council Wars, a period that would forever change Burke and his reputation in the city. Burke, by that time chairman of the Finance Committee, and his faction, which still included Vrdolyak, consistently voted down the mayor's budget, and Washington in turn would veto or threaten to veto Burke's budget. The hostile debates and resulting stalemates, in a time of heated racial discourse, divided the city. Washington even claimed Burke was a racist, according to Don Rose, who was a strategist for late mayor.

"Ald. Burke is frequently fond of quoting me, which is correct, that Council Wars was not a bad thing for this city," says Dick Simpson. "Because Ald. Burke particularly, and Ald. Vrdolyak to some degree, had to come with alternative proposals to those of the Washington administration. Several times the city came out better. One example is they had terrible fights over community development block grant money. The white aldermen wanted it for their communities, even though the federal government gives it only for poverty communities. And they almost lost all the CDBG funds because of the stalemate. In the end, the compromise was was that the minority wards got most of the community development block grant money, but they passed the neighborhood bond

program, which sent money to every community in Chicago, so we had the biggest infrastructure improvement program up to that period in Chicago history."

In 1987, Washington was able to replace Burke as chairman of the Finance Committee. Later that year, however, the mayor died. Burke says that period was the most tumultuous of his entire career.

"The meeting of December 2, 1987, ran until 4:02 a.m., resolving [with] the election of Eugene Sawyer," Burke says, recalling the details as if he was reading from a history book. "There was a great deal of emotion and anger. This building [City Hall] was invaded by thousands of people trying to stop the council meeting from going ahead because they didn't want us to elect Eugene Sawyer--they preferred to have Jesse Jackson as candidate. The street outside City Hall looked like Port-au-Prince, Haiti."

Regardless of whether Council Wars was about politics, race or perhaps a bit of both, Burke developed a reputation among some, especially within the black community, of being racially divisive. "The black community perceived it [as a racial disagreement]," says Simpson. "That's not how Ald. Burke perceived it." Today, Burke expresses some regret over the period.

"Some of the things I said and did in the Harold years could have been said and done in a way that wouldn't have been quite as explosive," Burke says. "You learn from your mistakes."

When a special mayoral election was held in 1989, there were five candidates in the Democratic primary, including Acting Mayor Sawyer, State's Attorney Daley and Burke. Burke ended up withdrawing from the race and throwing his support toward Daley. He praised Daley and his campaign, but the rivalry between the two politicians, who'd known each other their entire lives, was unmistakable. Daley, who took the bar exam three times before passing, had lackluster careers as state senator and state's attorney and clumsy speaking skills, had managed to become mayor of Chicago, while Burke, long known as erudite, had battled and led the council for years, only to still be stuck there.

"Burke and Daley have been competitors and are not always the closest of allies," says Simpson. "But Burke has been head of City Council since Daley came to power, and they've managed to cobble together a working relationship where he delivers the council votes the mayor needs. I think they have a d?tente now."

D?tente or not, Burke says the current Mayor Daley is more powerful than his father ever was. "As long as a mayor is popular, the resistance to him in City Council will lessen," Burke says. When asked if little resistance can be a dangerous position, he adds, "Lord Acton said it very succinctly more than 200 years ago--'Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.'"

Amid the power struggles, Burke has focused on the issues most important to him and has evolved to meet the needs of his changing ward. He learned Spanish in order to communicate with his constituents, and while he speaks slowly and often struggles, he does it with enthusiasm. They, in turn, seem to appreciate the effort. Voter registration among Hispanics in the 14th Ward is heavy, and despite hopes that he will in time pick a Latino successor, Burke is a popular figure. He hasn't had a serious opponent in more than 30 years.

"There aren't too many sacrificial lambs in the business," says Juan Andrade Jr., president and executive director of the Chicago-based United States Hispanic Leadership Institute. "The man is unbeatable. He's probably the most unbeatable member of City Council. Even Mayor Daley is more beatable than Ed Burke."

Burke is unbeatable for a number of reasons. The alderman, of course, serves his ward well, but he has also adjusted his ward boundaries. "He has been the architect of his own aldermanic configuration," Andrade Jr., says. "He knows the voting patterns and trends of practically every single precinct in the city, and so as any astute politician would do, every 10 years, when it comes time to redraw aldermanic boundaries, he's going to pick and choose those precincts that will be within his district."

The alderman also has a campaign fund of around $3.8 million, one of the largest war chests in the state. Burke also holds the influential position of being chairman of the Democratic subcommittee that drafts the judicial slate every two years. All candidates must present before Burke, and because slated candidates typically win, his decision is tantamount to election.

Burke labels his political style as steady--

"I don't see myself as a person who says something and then--because there's some public criticism--apologizes for it," he says. Over the span of his career, the initiative he's most proud of is one he authored and had adopted during the Persian Gulf War.

"I believe we became the first city to supplement the salary of any city employee who's activated for military duty and continue their health care benefits, not only for them but for their families," Burke says. "The last thing in the world somebody needs to worry about when he or she is off in Iraq is whether or not their spouse and children are getting adequate medical coverage. Now cities and states all around the nation have followed suit."

Since the 1980s, many of Burke's legislative battles have centered on smoking. Impassioned by the issue since his father's death from lung cancer, his ordinances have resulted in the banning of distributing samples of free cigarettes and smoke-free work environments. "Any significant anti-smoking ordinance that exists here in Chicago has been initiated by me," he says. Burke has also led the movement to forbid smoking in bars and restaurants in the city, a measure that has been largely hindered by Mayor Daley.

"I've been waging a lonely battle for a long time," Burke says. "It's strange, too, since [Daley's] brother-in-law is a thoracic surgeon and former chief-of-staff of Northwestern Memorial Hospital, and certainly one would think he'd impress upon him the need for a tough anti-smoking ordinance. Listen, even in Dublin you can't smoke in a pub now, for God's sake. We may be the only civilized city in the world that doesn't have a strong anti-smoking ordinance. As they say in the law, "res ipsa loquitur," the thing speaks for itself. What I would have loved to have seen

is a letter writing campaign in the Chicago schools where students would write their alderman and tell him how important it is to adopt antismoking legislation.

"Remember that movie, Miracle on 34th Street?" Burke continues, smiling. "Remember the judge when he was trying the case on whether or not there is a Santa Clause, and the doors of the courtroom fly open and all these mailmen come in with bags of mail, dumping them on the desk in front of the judge. The judge looks over, and there's the ward healer with his stubby cigar, giving himthe nod, 'You better rule that there is a Santa Clause.' That's what I'd love to see."

In the public view, Burke, often serious,

stern and seemingly distrustful, always has a bodyguard at his side and doesn't often give interviews. Recent years have been no less trying that earlier ones. City Hall scandals have at times involved the alderman--incidents have included rumored conflicts of interest with his law firm and a former alderman who held a ghost job on his Finance Committee. Through the chaos, however, Burke has maintained support and remained council leader.

There have also been challenges in his private life. He and wife Anne, an appellate court justice, became foster parents when their children were grown. A long court battle and a media and public frenzy occurred when the couple sought to obtain legal guardianship of Travis, known to the public as "Baby T.," a black child born addicted to cocaine, whom they'd raised since birth. The Burkes eventually did get custody. In the black community, the situation tore open the deep racial scars of Council Wars, but to others, it was Burke's act of redemption. Sadly, the family faced a devastating loss in 2004 when son Emmett died in a snowmobile accident.

The alderman attends mass everyday. At jovial parties, he'll often play the piano, exhibiting a side not often seen in the political arena. "There is a more humane and personal side to Burke than is usually portrayed in his public presence or in media accounts," says Dick Simpson, sharing a story from when he ran for Congress and lost. "He was the only member of the council to send me a letter of condolence, saying he understood what it was like. He can be particularly more sensitive because of those experiences that he's had. I'm sure he's done that with everyone who's lost a major election."

In the next six months, Burke will be focusing his efforts on ordinances that include citywide WiFi, identity theft and underage drinking. Occasionally he works in tandem with his brother Daniel, an Illinois state representative. (Burke's other brother, Joseph, is a retired Chicago police officer.)

Many people speculate that Burke may still someday run for higher office, possibly even mayor. "If Mayor Daley were to be unhappy with the patronage scandal and retire tomorrow morning, Burke is actually the most likely person to be the interim mayor," Simpson says, adding that in light of Council Wars and questions of conflicts of interest, he could probably never get elected mayor on his own.

To his critics, however, Burke says the following: "I'm fond of quoting Edmund Burke, who said that in politics there are no permanent enemies, no permanent friends, only permanent interests."

Published: August 01, 2005
Issue: Fall 2005


Fattest Pig in the Trough
He is no more alderman than criminal
A. Citizen, Jun-23-2011