He was a larger-than-life presence at every Chicago City Council meeting.
It wasn’t just the power he wielded and the front-and-center seat he occupied as Finance Committee chairman.
It was his speaking skill, his encyclopedic knowledge of Chicago history and Roberts Rules of Order, the avalanche of legislation he championed and the relationships he forged with colleagues he took under his wing.
When there was political mischief being played — which was often — he was almost always the heavy hand behind it. That’s even though he’s had an uneasy alliance — more like a detente — with every Chicago mayor under whom he has served for 50 years.
To say indicted Ald. Edward Burke (14th) is no longer the center of attention at council meetings he once dominated is an understatement.
Burke is a blip on the radar — a shadow of his former self.
Since being deposed as finance chairman and stripped of control over the city’s $100 million-a-year workers’ compensation program, Burke has occupied the front-row seat closest to the door.
He arrives late, leaves immediately and seldom, if ever, speaks. The spigot of legislation and press releases churned out by the staff that once filled his $2 million payroll has been turned off.
Never mind that most of the ordinances he championed went nowhere, even after lengthy hearings that made them look like “fetchers” tailor-made to garner headlines, campaign contributions, legal business for Burke’s property tax appeals firm or all of the above.
Last week’s council meeting was a classic example of the new Ed Burke.
It ended with a public hearing on Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s proposed 2020 budget that the council is required by law to hold.
In the past, Burke would have sat in his catbird seat, flashed his fiscal knowledge by questioning critics and supporters alike, and stayed until public testimony was done, even though it dragged on for hours.
This time, it was Lightfoot who stayed until the bitter end.
That was hours after Burke had grabbed his trench coat and walked out the front door of the council chambers in a failed attempt to avoid reporters waiting to ask him about demands for his resignation as 14th Ward Democratic committeeman. Burke gave reporters the silent treatment. He kept walking.
Normally impeccably dressed, he looked distracted, hunched over and a bit disheveled. His hair was longer in the back than it had been in years. He was wearing casual shoes more fit for a boat ride than the suit he had on.
On Nov. 29, federal investigators famously raided Burke’s ward and City Hall offices, covering the glass doors with brown butcher paper. At the time, Lightfoot was languishing in single digits in a 14-candidate field vying to replace then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel.
On Jan. 3, Burke was charged with attempted extortion for allegedly shaking down a Burger King franchise owner for legal business and for a $10,000 campaign contribution to Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle.
The charge helped catapult Lightfoot into the mayor’s office.
Lightfoot set the tone for her relationship with Burke — and his new and diminished role in the City Council — 10 days after taking office.
Having presided over her first meeting and installed her new council leadership team, Lightfoot seized a chance to humiliate her political nemesis and gloated about her triumph over a pathetic-looking Burke.
“Alderman, please. Alderman, I will call you when I’m ready to hear from you,” Lightfoot told the once proud dean of the City Council. She never did.
The following day, Burke was hit with a 14-count racketeering and extortion indictment accusing him of using his governmental role to muscle business for his law firm.
It included the alleged Burger King shakedown. But it also alleged three similar schemes chronicled by former Zoning Committee Chairman Danny Solis (25th), who spent two years wearing a wire on Burke.
Among them: that Burke tried to extort legal business from 601W Companies, developers of the Old Post Office, in exchange for his help with a variety of matters, including an $18 million tax increment finance subsidy, a $100 million tax break and help resolving issues with Amtrak and the city’s Department of Water Management.
In those recordings, an irritated Burke, caught on tape, asks Solis: “Did we land the, uh, tuna?” and complaining the “cash register has not rung yet” and until he scored the legal business, he was not “motivated” to help the developer. “As far as I’m concerned, they can go f— themselves,” Burke said.
Burke has pleaded not guilty to the corruption charges against him.
Lightfoot’s repeated demands for Burke’s resignation were ignored. But her hand was strengthened, and she’s played it to the hilt. She convinced aldermen to restrict their outside income and grant sweeping new investigative powers to City Hall Inspector General Joe Ferguson.
Burke has resigned from the law firm that bears his name. Details of that financial separation are not known. Nor is it clear whether Burke’s decision to remove himself from a boutique law firm that still includes his daughter will satisfy the ethics changes.
Ald. Ray Lopez (15th) is Lightfoot’s most outspoken City Council critic. On the day she humiliated Burke, Lightfoot accused Lopez of opposing her plan to end aldermanic prerogative because he’s “carrying the water for Alderman Burke.”
Lopez said the tone of council meetings has changed immeasurably since Lightfoot put Burke in his place; there is “something lost by Ed Burke being silenced,” he added.
“You would hear great oratory on resolutions. You’d see his maneuvering to [push] what he felt was in the best interest of the city. Now you don’t have that presence. You don’t have the wealth of 50 years of knowledge on full display at every meeting. And when your mind’s preoccupied, mischief tends to take a back seat,” Lopez said.
“It’s evident to many of us when you see the questions and the furtive looks between members and the mayor as to what the next order of procedure is during council meetings. I’ve counted at least two or three errors-per-meeting, simply because Burke isn’t driving the agenda from start to finish.”
Without Burke as a dominating presence, “all of the horses are out of the barn. It’s a free-for-all. He kept structure. Right now, the City Council has no structure,” said another alderman, who asked to remain anonymous.
“Even though he played games, he kept things at bay. He knew what could go and what couldn’t go. He knew all the rules. Now you just don’t have that. It’s a night-and-day difference.”