Until last November when the feds raided Ald. Edward Burke’s offices, the 2019 municipal election seemed ready to pivot on three big issues: taming Chicago’s pension crisis, reducing gun violence and improving the schools. Pensions … violence … schools.
Then came the federal corruption investigation of the City Council, in which Burke, an alderman for 50 years, was charged with attempted extortion. He is accused of trying to shake down a Burger King franchisee to gain business for his law firm. Burke denies wrongdoing, but the investigation is ongoing. Oh boy, is it ongoing. Recall that investigators listened in on 9,475 of Burke’s calls over eight months. Ald. Danny Solis, who has not been charged with any wrongdoing, is known to have worn an undercover wire. A lot of people around City Hall have gotten very nervous contemplating what may have been heard by whom.
Activity surrounding the investigation has quieted in recent weeks. That’s not surprising, given the tradition of federal prosecutors of trying to avoid making headlines just before elections. But election day is Tuesday. Runoffs, if necessary, will happen on April 2. Then what? That’s a good question for voters — and for victors.
The federal investigation will take whatever path is required, but even if it winds down quickly, the next mayor and City Council had better add a category to their list of big problems to solve: End corruption in city government. A naive generality? How about demanding that the politicians take these measurable steps: Combat corruption and restore public trust by reforming political practices that lend themselves to abuse.
We’re urging that the new mayor and City Council take a serious look at such issues as aldermanic prerogative, which gives council members significant influence over routine permitting decisions. Reforms can come in many shapes and sizes, from reining in that privilege, to putting limits on outside employment for aldermen, to strengthening oversight of them, to instituting term limits. Anywhere government power and personal gain may intersect in City Council chambers is potentially problematic. The track record tells us so: Since 1972, 33 aldermen have been convicted of crimes related to official duties.
What’s required is that elected officials commit themselves to cleaning up government. Again, naive? No. The dramatic sweep of this investigation and the timing, coming so close to an election, is a gift to the people of Chicago. No one running for office can pretend that the political culture here is saintly. Maybe the city isn’t inherently corrupt, but clearly something went wrong after Honest Abe left town with the Republican nomination for president in 1860. We’ve spoken with dozens of candidates, and when asked about how to defeat endemic corruption, they all accept the premise that Chicago needs to change. They all offer up ideas. Easy for candidates, of course.
Let’s not allow the politicians off the hook after the election. We’re reminded of wisdom from two Chicago contemporaries. First, there’s departing Mayor Rahm Emanuel, oft-quoted as observing: “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste. And what I mean by that is it’s an opportunity to do things that you think you could not do before.” And there’s President Barack Obama: “Elections have consequences.” We certainly hope to see some.
Chicagoans go to the polls Tuesday. As people vote, federal agents and prosecutors will be beavering away on their investigation of City Hall. In May, a new mayor will take office alongside a new City Council. All of us expect them to work on three important issues: pensions, violence and schools. Plus this fourth: corruption.
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