Brighton Park resident Marta Castro wants a stop sign on the busy intersection where her sons’ school, Columbia Explorers Academy, sits.
On a recent weekday morning, she demonstrated how mostly-volunteer crossing guards have to slowly inch out into the middle of the road to stop cars for lines of kindergarteners.
“[They] actually have to walk up, and [say] ‘Stop, stop, stop. Slow them down, slow him down. Hey, hey, hey, stop, stop, stop,’ ” Castro said as she made a stop sign with her hand while cars zoomed past, even given the 20 mph speed limit sign a block or so away.
Despite recent incidents, including one that saw a student seriously injured in a hit-and-run, Castro said it’s been difficult to get her current alderman, indicted Edward Burke, 14th Ward, to pay attention.
Calls to Burke’s office, letters from students at the school, requests from community organizations have not been enough to get a sign installed, a group of parents told WBEZ. A spokesperson for Burke said the alderman did introduce an ordinance to get a stop sign at the intersection, but that ordinance failed to pass earlier this month. It failed, in part, a committee agenda reads, because stop signs are not recommended for arterial streets like Kedzie Avenue.
The 14th Ward mainly covers Gage Park, Archer Heights, parts of Brighton Park and parts of Marquette Park on the Southwest Side. But as part of the once-every-decade ward redistricting process, the Academy will instead fall in the city’s 12th Ward starting in May. Still, Castro said she is hopeful a slate of Latino candidates running on the Southwest Side this election season will work together to bring new ideas, and hopefully a traffic sign, to the area.
“[These candidates] are willing to work with us. Recently, they’ve been in our meetings, they’ve been listening to us. And we just want that support. We’re so tired of trying to fight our own battles like we do need help from politics,” she said.
Four years after his federal indictment, Burke made headlines in November when he did not file paperwork to run for reelection in the Feb. 28 election — quietly marking the end of his 54 years as an alderman. Two candidates had already filed to run in the race.
But Burke’s political shadow is still shaping the race between the candidates vying to replace him. And residents who say they’ve felt neglected by the once-powerful alderman are making long wish lists for their next representative.
Residents raise concerns about their ward
In addition to a new stop sign, community members want to see a welcoming ward office where the area’s growing Latino population feels comfortable going, said Joanna Cabrera, a resident of Gage Park for 14 years and organizer with the Brighton Park Neighborhood Council. The 14th Ward is now 88% Hispanic, according to the city, and Cabrera wants an alderman who reflects the community.
“If you can’t vote for [Burke], there’s no help. There’s no help,” Cabrera said of undocumented residents who can’t vote for Burke in elections. “Or there’s no one who can speak your language. So it’s hard to find someone who can help you at his office.”
Burke is facing federal charges that he used his power in City Hall, as the council’s former longtime Finance Committee chair, to steer business to his private law firm. He’s also been accused by numerous residents of ignoring heavily Latino parts of the ward, while catering to whiter areas that have helped reelect him.
Burke has pleaded not guilty to the charges. And though he has been mum on his retirement, or legacy, in the 14th Ward as he awaits a potential federal trial in November, he has proclaimed publicly in the past that he’s serviced every corner of his constituency.
Still, numerous residents told WBEZ they’re looking forward to a new chapter.
Resident and organizer Antonio Santos, who was born and raised in Gage Park and now runs the Gage Park Latinx Council, said it wasn’t until he moved to the North Side’s Edgewater neighborhood for college that he realized how tidy neighborhoods could be.
“I remember literally asking one of my neighbors like, how does Edgewater have this beautiful, brand new library? How is Broadway Street well kept and there are trash cans and Christmas decorations? I had never seen any of that growing up in Gage Park,” Santos said.
Santos wants to see an aldermanic candidate with a plan for upgrading Gage Park’s library, which, under Burke, he said, moved from a city-owned fieldhouse to a commercial storefront. He also wants to see more options for affordable food. And he wants organizations and residents to have a greater say in what businesses move in and out of the ward.
“Nobody knows what’s coming into the community before it opens up — we kind of find out the grand opening, and it’s like, ‘Oh, we have another frozen meat factory across the street from two elementary schools’ … things that are not necessarily the most desirable for a residential neighborhood,” Santos said.
The race to replace Burke
Candidate Jeylú Gutiérrez is running a campaign she hopes appeals to people who’ve felt neglected under Burke’s tenure. Gutiérrez is currently the district director for Cook County Commissioner Alma Anaya.
“Even I had a couple of experiences of going to that office and being neglected because I wasn’t a registered voter. I couldn’t get my garbage cans because I wasn’t a registered voter, and I couldn’t get a sticker for my truck because my husband was undocumented,” she said.
If elected, Gutiérrez says her main priority will be turning the 14th Ward office into a welcoming community space where residents can go for city and non-city services. She also notes public safety and education as priorities, but with few details on how she’ll pursue those platforms, reiterating only that she wants to collaborate with police and listen to residents.
Gutiérrez in September was endorsed by U.S. Rep. Jesús G. “Chuy” García, who is running for mayor and has backed Burke’s opponents in the 14th Ward before. García and Burke served on the City Council together in the 1980s, following a racially contentious era known as the “Council Wars” when a majority group of white aldermen, including Burke, thwarted the agenda of the city’s first Black mayor, Harold Washington, with whom García was allied.
Gutiérrez said she would join the progressive and Latino caucuses if elected to the City Council. She’s gained the support of several unions, including SEIU Local 73, which represents more than 31,000 workers in public service and publicly-funded positions, according to its website.
She does not have the stamp of approval from the progressive United Working Families political organization, which is spending half a million dollars on aldermanic and mayoral candidates. Nor does she have the backing from the progressive Chicago Teachers Union, which is supporting Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson for mayor.
While Gutiérrez said she was relieved to learn Burke wasn’t running again, she is running against a Burke family ally, who has been difficult to reach and doesn’t have much publicly available information on his campaign.
Raul Reyes is a longtime city employee with the clerk’s office and received $50,000 from Ed Burke’s brother to help him in the campaign.
Reyes does not have a campaign website, though he does have a Facebook page that boasts “community advocate for 25 years!” and union membership with AFSCME. He did not return multiple requests for an interview.
This isn’t Reyes’s first campaign. In a questionnaire for the Chicago Sun-Times in the 2015 election cycle, Reyes sheds some light on his priorities as a potential alderman.
He told the newspaper he would bring more police while also boosting opportunities for kids at risk of violence in the nearby 15th Ward where he was running at the time, for instance.
Along a bungalow-lined street not far from Burke’s own home, signs from his 2019 campaign still line some yards: “Estoy para Concejal Ed Burke” or “I’m for councilor Ed Burke” a sign reads, with the date Feb. 26 — the date of the 2019 election.
Burke won his seat that year, despite being federally indicted the month before, with upwards of 70% in some precincts throughout the ward.
Those precincts, tucked in the Garfield Ridge area near Midway International Airport, are home to residents like John O’Malley, a retired fireman who testified to Burke’s hard work in a campaign ad for him in the last election.
“I walk on safe streets and new sidewalks because of Ed Burke,” O’Malley, a 12-year resident of Garfield Ridge, said. “He’s transformed our neighborhoods and made a real difference in our lives.”
But large swaths of that neighborhood were stripped from the ward during the recent once-in-decade remapping process — dimming Burke’s chances at reelection.
Elected in 1969, Burke is the city’s longest-serving alderman. He has served under nine Chicago mayors.
But, if the amount of legislation he passed is any sign, his federal indictment largely suppressed him in his last four years on the council. In the term prior to the indictment, from 2015 to 2019, Burke sponsored and passed upwards of 1,000 pieces of unique legislation, according to the city clerk’s website. While a large bulk of those ordinances are small things like business awnings, handicap permits and other technicalities, there was some substantive work as well, such as adding sexual harassment as a violation of Chicago’s governmental ethics ordinance.
In his last term the number of ordinances he sponsored and passed dropped by 60%, to just around 380 pieces of legislation — some technical in nature, but others perhaps more meaningful, such as adding stop signs at five different intersections.
Mariah Woelfel covers Chicago city government and politics. You can follow her at @MariahWoelfel.
Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to include a statement from Burke’s office.
Read more of WBEZ’s coverage of Chicago Elections 2023.