No one represents Chicago’s old-school machine politics — or what’s left of it — more than City Hall’s longest-serving and most powerful alderman, Ed Burke.
But in the wake of federal agents raiding Burke’s City Hall and 14th Ward offices Thursday, the 21 candidates running for Chicago mayor — most of them on a proclaimed platform of reform — had very little to say about one of the most astonishing political developments in the city’s recent memory.
There were no news releases, few tweets and little professed outrage.
That’s because many of the race’s front-runners have some form of exposure, serving alongside Burke in the city’s political hierarchy, or counting him as a friend or mentor. And as the Burke investigation plays out in the final months of the Feb. 26 mayor’s race, the political fallout will leave some grasping for how to reconcile their self-professed desire to change City Hall with their ties to an iconic Chicago politician in the crosshairs of federal investigators.
On Friday, at least, few of them were talking.
State Comptroller Susana Mendoza got her political start with Burke’s backing and considers him a friend, even celebrating with him as a guest at her wedding. She declined to discuss his federal heat.
City Hall veteran and attorney Gery Chico worked at Burke’s Finance Committee as a young researcher and long has considered him a close friend and mentor. He declined an interview.
Bill Daley is the son and brother of two former mayors who navigated the halls of power with Burke, the two families’ 11th and 14th Wards rooted in the Southwest Side. For decades, each represented separate pillars of power with their own fiefdoms within the city’s political structure. He wouldn’t talk about Burke, who has made at least $30,000 in contributions to Daley family political funds over the years.
Neither would Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, a fellow party leader who has benefited from Burke’s support in the past.
Former Chicago Public Schools CEO Paul Vallas and former Chicago police Superintendent Garry McCarthy also wanted no part of discussing how their desire to make City Hall more efficient and businesslike would intersect with Burke’s potential departure.
“It seems all these other folks are running for cover and don’t want to talk about him, but frankly, that underscores the fact that we’ve got different factions of the political machine manifested in Mendoza, Preckwinkle, Daley and Chico and others who don’t want to rock the boat because they are very much wedded to the status quo,” said former federal prosecutor Lori Lightfoot, one of the few mayoral candidates eager to discuss Burke. “It’s telling that they aren’t willing to step up and say, ‘Look, this guy has been in office way too long, he’s been allowed to amass way too much power.’ ”
There were a few statements issued from campaign aides who wouldn’t take further questions.
“This news is extremely troubling, and it’s exactly the kind of politics we need to get away from in Chicago,” Mendoza said in a statement.
What she didn’t mention: Burke’s brand of politics is what helped her get her start.
READ MORE: Mayor Rahm Emanuel on raids at Ald. Ed Burke’s offices: ‘You don’t need me to guess about what are the implications’ »
After taking a job in 1998 with the city Department of Planning and Development, Mendoza ran that year with the backing of Burke and others for an Illinois House seat that included part of Burke’s Southwest Side ward. She lost narrowly, but ran again two years later — again with Burke’s endorsement — and won.
After 10 years in the General Assembly, Mendoza ran successfully for city clerk in 2011 with Burke among her high-profile supporters. When Mendoza had her son in 2012, it was Burke who announced the news, at a City Council Finance Committee meeting he was chairing.
Burke even was on hand in 2011 for Mendoza’s wedding reception at a Joliet banquet hall, according to an online photo gallery of the event. One picture shows Mendoza in her wedding gown and new husband, David Szostak, in his tuxedo posing together with Burke, all three smiling toward the camera. An action shot shows the couple laughing as Burke, wearing his trademark dark pinstripe suit, looks upward, smiling with his fist raised as though he’s mid-anecdote.
Chico long has been a friend of Burke’s too.
His decades of intersecting with City Hall began as a young researcher for the City Council Finance Committee. He started under former Ald. Wilson Frost but continued under Burke. And when Chico left government for his first private-sector job at a law firm, it was Burke who gave a glowing referral.
“I met Ed Burke three decades ago as young staffer in City Council, and he has been a friend and supporter for decades,” said Chico, who later worked as a chief of staff under former Mayor Richard M. Daley and has served as head of the City Colleges of Chicago, president of the Park District and president of the Chicago Board of Education. “I would be saddened and disappointed if there was any wrongdoing here, but I am glad to see that Ed is cooperating with federal authorities about whatever this investigation concerns.”
Burke was among the first to endorse Chico in his 2011 bid for mayor, in which he finished a distant second to Emanuel. And just last month, Burke lauded Chico as having the best resume to become Chicago’s mayor.
“I like Gery Chico,” Burke said, stopping short of a full endorsement. “As you know, he and I go back a long way. He worked for me here in City Hall. And there’s probably nobody more qualified than he is.”
Preckwinkle’s spokeswoman Monica Trevino said “Toni’s connection to the Burkes” was through the alderman’s wife, Illinois Supreme Court Justice Anne Burke. Trevino said the two had worked together to reform the criminal justice system and reduce the Cook County Jail population.
“Although Toni has known Alderman Ed Burke from his days in the City Council, they were far from close,” Trevino said.
They were close enough, though, for Burke to throw a political fundraiser for Preckwinkle last January at his home in Gage Park. “Chairman Edward M. Burke would like to invite you to a fundraiser in support of Hon. Toni Preckwinkle,” reads the invitation to the fundraiser, which offered the status of chair for $10,000, co-chair for $5,000 and sponsor for $2,500. In the weeks that followed, Preckwinkle’s campaign reported tens of thousands of dollars in contributions, and in recent years Burke has contributed nearly $13,000 to her campaign fund, records show.
Even though she is the chair of the Cook County Democratic Party, Preckwinkle is running a campaign as a self-styled progressive. Lightfoot, however, said there is nothing progressive about staying silent on Ed Burke’s 50-year reign at City Hall.
READ MORE: Who is Ed Burke? Alderman. Former cop. Ex-Trump attorney. »
“It’s just astounding to me. You cannot call yourself a progressive, you cannot tell people you are for them, that you are going to put them first, that you have a different vision and you want to have a different compact with government if you are not speaking up about this issue. It is unacceptable,” Lightfoot said. “This is a guy who has a lot of power, power that he doesn’t deserve, and we’ve got to talk about this. It has implications for the Finance Committee. We have a lot with city finances to work out, so how is that going to work with this cloud of an investigation hovering over this man? If not now, when? When are we going to break from the past?”
Amara Enyia also has sought to blaze a progressive path in her grassroots run for mayor.
She predicted voters’ reaction to the federal investigation will depend on its ultimate result, but said the raids place Burke “front and center” on the public’s radar even with voters who may not have known much about him.
“Alderman Burke has been in office for 50 years. He represents everything about Chicago politics and the establishment,” said Enyia, a public policy consultant who is director of the Austin Chamber of Commerce. “I think him being raided by the FBI and the outcome of it will reflect on the candidates he supported and the candidates he’s close to.”
Drawing on hip-hop artist Kanye West’s financial support for her campaign, Enyia said high-profile supporters can put candidates in a bind. She noted how she’s faced political attacks from her opponents who sought to link her with West’s more controversial stances and support of Republican President Donald Trump.
“If you’re supported by someone with a questionable past, then as a candidate, people expect you to explain that, to justify that,” Enyia said. “The assumption is if they’re supporting you, you are aligned with them as well. I’ve experienced that.”
Illustrating the politically toxic nature of the Burke investigation, Emanuel also tried to steer clear of the issue Friday.
The mayor made the surprise announcement to drop his bid for a third term in September, and he already has begun to eye a part-time role as a political pundit after he leaves office. But Emanuel wanted no part of analyzing the Burke dynamic.
He wouldn’t say if Burke should step down as Finance chairman. He wouldn’t say if he should drop his bid for a record 13th full term. He wouldn’t say what it could mean for the 74-year-old alderman’s re-election chances.
“The fact is, they’re in his office, you know what that means,” Emanuel said of the FBI. “What it means legally and what it means politically are different things.”
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