Ron Litke: The Emanuel/Burke match-up at City Hall

March 16, 2011

Produced by Eight Forty-Eight

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(AP/File)
Mayor-elect Emanuel has discussed stripping Ald. Ed Burke of his finance committee chairmanship.

In May, Richard M. Daley hands in his key to the fifth floor and Rahm Emanuel becomes Chicago’s 55th mayor. According to commentator Ron Litke, Chicago could be facing a new battle of the wills in city hall.


Like many people, I’m eager for the confrontation between Mayor-elect Emanuel and 14th Ward Alderman Ed Burke over Burke’s leadership of the City Council Finance Committee, as well as his cadre of police officers who are protecting him as if Burke is Moammar Gadhafi. I know it’s not the best comparison, especially since Gadhafi is way more sartorially stylish.

But something is up. By a curious but perhaps not so unexpected coincidence, it appears Burke, a former police officer, is now under siege himself. A fellow South Sider was recently arrested for apparently making several phone messages to Burke, threatening to kill the alderman. Also not unexpected is that the news comes via a newspaper columnist with a considerable history of obsequious fealty to Burke that goes back to the days of Council Wars, when Burke played the role of Cardinal Richelieu behind the scenes while Ed Vrdolyak led the revolt against Mayor Harold Washington.

Burke recently said he is “anxious,” to work with Emanuel. Not the usual, friendly “looking forward” and well short of the optimistic “eager” that would indicate a rapprochement. It’s intriguing, and well within the tradition of Chicago politics. A friend of mine who is a political consultant recently said he’s looking forward to the aldermanic run-offs to see who will be the first to throw a brick through the window of his own campaign headquarters.

This is a longstanding Chicago tradition, usually practiced by someone who is behind in the polls or otherwise threatened. Therefore, this being Chicago, it seems almost plausible that someone is now after Burke. The timing is perfectly kismet.

Moving Burke off the chairmanship of the Finance Committee and getting rid of his police detail would take away any prestige he has left. Sure, he’s the longest-serving alderman in the City Council. But I don’t think that’s enough distinction for Ed Burke.

And don’t dare think Burke isn’t girding for the encounter with Emanuel. Burke is in possession of a secret weapon very few people know about, and which I discovered only after months of watching him closely at City Council meetings while I was an aide to Mayor Washington.

During council meetings when the legislative debate would be uncertain, Burke often moved around the Council floor with a furtive look; he would focus in on one of his colleagues and engage in conversation. Then, apparently gesturing with his left hand, Burke would speak as his hand was moving. Whomever he was speaking to then nodded his head in agreement, and Burke walked away satisfied. And then that alderman would vote with Burke.

I couldn’t figure it out. What was he saying, what was he doing? I came to see that it wasn’t so much what he was saying, it was his left hand. It was his watch. Burke moved it in front of someone, and things suddenly changed. And you thought Mayor Daley controlled the City Council.

Not even James Bond’s various Breitling, Seiko, Pulsar, Omega, or Rolex watches, amazing as they were, could match Burke’s gold Rolex. But it wasn’t the gold; it was the seemingly emerald face of his watch, an intense green, I have come to learn, of malachite. He waved it in someone’s face, that someone became a rubber stamp.