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Embattled Alderman Ed Burke Leads Challengers In 14th Ward Election

Despite being charged with corruption less than two months before the election, Burke appeared headed to a victory Tuesday night.

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Ed Burke

File: Ald. Ed Burke, 14th Ward, enters the Dirksen U.S. Courthouse in Chicago on Thursday, Jan. 3 to face charges of attempted extortion. At his side was defense lawyer Charles Sklarsky, a former federal prosecutor who now works for the Jenner & Block firm.

Manuel Martinez

Despite being arrested and charged with corruption less than two months before the election, veteran Chicago Ald. Ed Burke appeared headed to yet another term Tuesday from voters in his Southwest Side ward.

With all precincts reporting, Burke, 75, led two far younger, Hispanic challengers in his bid to extend his 50-year hold on the City Council’s 14th Ward seat. He had 54 percent of the vote, compared to 30 percent for Tanya Patino and 17 percent for Jaime Guzman.

“It looks good, yes,” Burke said. “I’m pleased.”

But the feds could ultimately do what the voters would not and end Burke’s record-breaking tenure on the City Council anyway. Prosecutors have already hit him with one charge of attempted extortion and are preparing to file an indictment soon, which could detail additional allegations.

Burke has said he has done nothing wrong and vows to fight the case.

On a night when several of his long-tenured colleagues at City Hall looked destined for defeat, Burke expressed gratitude to voters in his ward.

“Everybody thinks they should get 100 percent of the vote, right?” he said. “But what I’m hearing about my colleagues around the city in so many upset races, it does make me feel even better.”

Burke’s main re-election challenger was Patino, a 28-year-old daughter of Mexican immigrants and first-time candidate who was backed by Congressman Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, D-Chicago.

She and another rival had hoped to take advantage of demographic changes in the ward, which has turned heavily Hispanic in recent years, and of the growing progressive influence in Democratic politics.

And Burke’s critics blasted him for his longtime private legal representation of President Donald Trump’s downtown high-rise tower.

What was already shaping up to be Burke’s toughest re-election fight in decades became even more difficult when he was arrested and appeared before a judge in federal court on Jan. 3.

For decades, Burke was the chairman of the council’s Finance Committee, amassing far greater clout than any alderman and parlaying that power into a lucrative private law practice representing major real estate interests in property tax appeals cases.

Earlier this year, however, Burke found himself in the same place as dozens of his former colleagues on the Council: in Chicago’s federal courthouse, where authorities allege he had abused his public position to try and fatten his personal bank account.

Prosecutors alleged Burke tried to shake down the owners of a Burger King outlet on Pulaski Road, holding up official approval for construction work on the fast food place until they agreed to hire his private firm.

The criminal case was unsealed just a few weeks after FBI agents dramatically raided Burke’s offices on the 3rd floor of City Hall and in his working-class ward. The raids were just the first sign of a corruption probe that had been going on covertly since before May 2017, according to court records. The feds listened to thousands of Burke’s conversations after secretly taping his personal cell phone.

According to the charge against him, Burke “used his position as alderman … in order to corruptly solicit unlawful personal financial advantage.”

Many Chicago political observers had long wondered whether Burke had done anything illegal in building up a law firm that has represented dozens of companies with interests at City Hall. His practice was so large that it often got in the way of Burke’s official work as an alderman and Council committee chairman.

An investigation by WBEZ and the Better Government Association, published just days before his arrest, found that Burke recused himself from voting on council measures 464 times in the last eight years. That’s four times as many “abstentions” than the rest of the aldermen combined.

The Burke firm’s most famous client was the Trump Tower. Appeals filed by Burke saved the skyscraper millions of dollars.

But the ties to Trump became a huge local political liability for Burke after Trump entered national politics and became president, using rhetoric and proposing policies that are widely seen as racist against immigrants, particularly Hispanics. They make up roughly 90 percent of the 14th Ward’s population.

Last year, Burke stopped representing the Trump Tower and heeven began criticizing Trump recently. One bilingual Burke campaign ad late in the campaign read, “Alderman Burke is NOT Trump’s friend,” and touted Burke’s pro-immigrant positions.

Critics, though, said Burke was simultaneously trying to pander to white voters with an English ad that featured a photos of Patino supporters and the caption, “This is what change looks like.” On Tuesday night, Burke told reporters he had nothing to do with those ads.

Burke became an alderman in 1969, when he succeeded his father. With his finely tailored pinstripe suits and emerald-green ties, Burke long has been the personification of the South Side Irish Democratic machine.

He harbored ambitions of higher office but became notorious for his role in the turbulent “Council Wars” period in the 1980s, when he and fellow South Side Ald. Ed Vrdolyak spearheaded the mostly white bloc of aldermen that frequently thwarted Chicago’s first black mayor, Harold Washington.

Still, Burke had highly privileged status as a loyal and crucial council ally of the last two mayors, Rahm Emanuel and Richard M. Daley. Until the criminal case against him, Burke had maintained his chairmanship of the council’s most powerful committee and continued to enjoy police bodyguard detail that costs taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars a year.

Burke and his wife, Illinois State Supreme Court Justice Anne Burke, own a fortress-like, three-story home that looms over his constituents’ bungalows and ranches in the Gage Park neighborhood. His influence was so great that city crews strayed far from their normal routes during blizzards to plow the side street in front of the Burkes’ home, even before more heavily trafficked roads got cleared.

Burke also long had taken the central role in the Democratic Party’s process for placing judges on the Cook County bench. And he piled up more than $12 million in campaign accounts. That’s a sum that far exceeds the political cash of all of his 49 council colleagues combined.

Patino sought to represent not only growing Hispanic political influence on the Southwest Side but also the progressive wave that knocked out other entrenched incumbents, including Burke’s brother, state Rep. Dan Burke, in recent years. She worked for the challenger who defeated Dan Burke in last year’s Democratic primary election.

But this race against Ed Burke is the first time Patino has been a candidate herself.

The other candidate, lawyer Jaime Guzman, also came from the independent, progressive movement in Southwest Side Latino politics, but Garcia chose Patino as his candidate in the race against Burke instead.

Despite the criminal case, Burke continued to enjoy the support of the police officers’ union.

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