Burke keeps Finance and loses anyway

May 12, 2011

In letting word out that Chicago Ald. Edward Burke (14th) gets to keep the chairmanship of a somewhat diminished Finance Committee in the new City Council, there’s a suggestion of civility in both Burke and Mayor-elect Rahm Emanuel that papers over what actually happened.

I’ve loved hearing Burke talk about how he’d love to keep the committee but it’s up to the City Council – as if he hasn’t been molding that legislative body into his own design for decades. If we’re willing to suspend disbelief, Burke’s narrative now is that he’s an elder statesman, committed to the civic cause, happy to do his part – which is whatever the new mayor and new council determine for him.

And Emanuel’s posture as forgiving, as above the petty politics of the campaign (Burke’s not-so-hidden attempt to knock him off the ballot, or the anti-Rahm campaign of his puppet Gery Chico), gives him another opportunity to keep cleaning up his ruthless tough guy image. I mean, look, he’s letting Burke keep the Finance Committee, and if he’s taken away some of its powers, well, hey, that’s not personal – it’s in the interest of legislative efficiency and cost-cutting.

But the pow-wow at 40th ward Ald. Patrick O’Connor’s house aside, this is a lot less about two titans choosing to put their swords down than about the aftermath of a battle that’s already been won – and lost.

And have no doubt about it, Burke lost. And it was epic. That he gets to stay on as chair of the Finance Committee is not a sign of enduring power. What Emanuel is doing is letting him keep the crown while looting his kingdom.

We already know that there will be a new committee, the Workforce Development and Audit Committee, headed by O’Connor, the new mayor’s floor leader. The new committee will take over the most important thing the Finance Committee did under Burke: It will shepherd every single piece of proposed legislation to the City Council.

So it will now be Emanuel’s man, O’Connor, not Burke, who will have the power to move or kill legislation without even taking a council vote. (Yes, it has been an awesome power.)

And that’s just one of many authorities that Burke’s Finance Committee has been slowly usurping since the City Council was re-configured when Harold Washington became mayor in 1983 and the white aldermen – with Burke as one of two princes – pulled a legislative coup d’état to keep Washington’s policies from taking effect.

Though we’ve had two mayors since Washington -- Eugene Sawyer and Richard M. Daley -- the City Council has not had an overhaul of any significance in 20+ years. Some committees have altered their names, some have been dropped, a few have been added. But the core of the council – the power bloc created to run the city with Finance as the axis – has remained essentially the same.

Why? Because Sawyer didn’t have the clout to change it, and Daley didn’t need to: He and Burke managed to co-exist by respecting each other’s spheres of influence.

We don’t yet know what else, if anything, Emanuel will move from the Finance Committee. But under Burke, the Finance Committee has had approval on all expenditures and revenues in the city. Which means Burke has been the absolute bottom line. 

Under Burke, almost all of the council’s legal work has run through Finance – and there are already rumblings about Emanuel's displeasure over possible conflicts of interest, not just Burke’s, of course, but including Burke’s.

Finance has also administered Workmen’s Comp claims, which should probably have been handled by Human Resources, not a City Council committee, in the first place. And it has also jurisdiction over simple personnel matters, like extended sick leave and military leave – which can make all the difference to city employees – that are traditionally administered by, and more rightly belong to, HR.

Some aldermen may have been publicly saying they wouldn’t stand for Emanuel taking away Burke’s committee, but I suspect no one will balk too terribly much over this or any other change.

Emanuel’s keeping veterans Carrie Austin (34th) on Budget and Dick Mell (33rd) on Rules, which offsets any ruffled feathers. He’s also letting Danny Solis (25th) keep Zoning, which has absorbed Building and Landmarks (if you thought Solis was a suck-up to power before…).

It’s not that Burke won’t continue to be a player and exert influence. He will. His campaign chest, while not as rich as Emanuel’s, will still be useful. And he is a parliamentarian master, known to even go back and legally rewrite history.

But Burke is 67, and maybe good for another 10 years, and unless you’re an alderman with aspirations to be a local judge and need Burke to slate you, you would do well to consider playing on Emanuel’s team.

No, Emanuel’s not going to be mayor-for-life. But he’s gonna enjoy his victory for a while. And while Burke is keeping his title, the new mayor’s already having fun.