How the massive power Ed Burke wielded paved the way for his alleged corruption

That power came from “scratch my back” Chicago politics, including aldermanic prerogative, a tradition that good government advocates have been fighting to end for years

Former Ald. Ed Burke
Former Chicago Ald. Ed Burke at a City Council meeting, May 4, 2011. Burke, who will soon go on trial on sweeping corruption charges, wielded enormous power on the council through “Chicago Way” politics, including aldermanic prerogative. M. Spencer Green / Associated Press, File Photo
Former Chicago Ald. Ed Burke at a City Council meeting, May 4, 2011. Burke, who will soon go on trial on sweeping corruption charges, wielded enormous power on the council through “Chicago Way” politics, including aldermanic prerogative. M. Spencer Green / Associated Press, File Photo
Former Ald. Ed Burke
Former Chicago Ald. Ed Burke at a City Council meeting, May 4, 2011. Burke, who will soon go on trial on sweeping corruption charges, wielded enormous power on the council through “Chicago Way” politics, including aldermanic prerogative. M. Spencer Green / Associated Press, File Photo

How the massive power Ed Burke wielded paved the way for his alleged corruption

That power came from “scratch my back” Chicago politics, including aldermanic prerogative, a tradition that good government advocates have been fighting to end for years

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Chicago may never have another alderman as powerful as Ed Burke.

Burke amassed his power through his longevity of 54 years, his chairmanship of the Finance Committee, his vast network in city departments, the judges he placed as judicial slatemaking chief for the Cook County Democratic Party and even his wife’s former position as chief justice of the Illinois Supreme Court.

Add to that the sheer force of Burke’s personality, the favors he did for other aldermen and the intimidation he wielded over his colleagues — it’s clear why almost everybody was either charmed by or afraid of Burke.

As Burke prepares to stand trial in federal district court on sweeping corruption charges in a racketeering indictment historically reserved for members of organized crime, the path to this moment was paved in part by the enormous power he gained through “scratch my back” politics, including aldermanic prerogative.  Also known as aldermanic privilege, the practice is an entrenched, off-the-books power that gives council members unquestioned say over a broad range of decisions–from zoning matters to parking permits.

And despite efforts to curb it, that tradition continues to this day.

“This is all part of the old-fashioned, I guess you’d call it, ‘Chicago Way’ with the Daleys,” retired Ald. and Ethics Committee Chair Michele Smith, 43rd Ward, said.

“The deal is, if you let Mayor Daley — Richard J., I mean — do what he wants, they’ll let you do what you want. This kind of toleration of individual corruption is part of that because Daley got to do what he wanted and so long as Ed Burke did what Daley [and his son] wanted, Daley didn’t care. That’s really where it starts.”

Network of lackeys

A former federal prosecutor, Smith argued the proof of her “Chicago Way” statement lies in one of the alleged schemes Burke is accused of engineering.

It involves the charge that Burke held up approval of a driveway permit for a Burger King in his Southwest Side ward until the owner agreed to hire his law firm that specializes in property tax appeals.

“There had to be someone inside City Hall in that department who went along with that. Burke could not have done that unilaterally,” Smith said.

Former Ald. Michele Smith
Former Ald. Michele Smith (43rd) at a Chicago City Council meeting at City Hall, Sept. 21, 2022. Ashlee Rezin / Chicago Sun-Times, File Photo

Former Mayor Lori Lightfoot, who did constant battle with Burke before and after becoming mayor, said the allegation that Burke did not act alone is included in the indictment. And it underscores how much influence he had over what should have been routine regulatory issues handled by the executive branch.

“Why is it that a building department employee felt an allegiance to play out the bidding of Burke and his ward employees, rather than doing the right thing?” Lightfoot said in a recent interview with the Sun-Times and WBEZ.

“Most city employees come to work every day and do their job with integrity,” she added. “But there are some who are products of that Machine who have that still baked into their DNA, where they feel like they’ve got to genuflect when an alderman calls, and they don’t have the courage to say ‘no.’ ”

When Lightfoot took office, Smith said she handed the new mayor a spreadsheet of the “large staff in other departments” that Burke had accumulated over the years who were technically on his finance committee payroll.

“They were in all kinds of weird places. That’s why, when Scott [Waguespack] became finance chair, his staff went down so much,” Smith said.

“That’s really the power he had … That gave him access to all people and all departments. That’s not supposed to be. That’s ridiculous.”

Aldermanic prerogative

Aldermanic prerogative — the tradition of deferring to local aldermen on zoning decisions in their wards — has been criticized by good government groups for giving too much power to council members, and by the federal government for allowing housing discrimination in this segregated city to flourish.

Yet mayors for decades did nothing to curb it, including Richard J. Daley, his son Richard M. Daley and Rahm Emanuel. Lightfoot, who was propelled into office by the Burke scandal, tried to make it a cornerstone of her campaign and her single term.

After using her inaugural address to denounce the City Council as corrupt and shaming alderpersons into joining her and the Wintrust Arena crowd in a standing ovation for reform, she rushed back to City Hall and signed an executive order meant to strip them of their prerogative on licensing and permitting.

The purpose, in part, was to send a message to department employees “that I would have their back if they just call balls and strikes,” Lightfoot said.

She threatened to do the same for the unbridled control City Council members have over zoning, but ran into a brick wall of opposition, even from members of her own leadership team.

Former Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot and former Ald. Ed Burke
Former Mayor Lori Lightfoot greets former Ald. Ed Burke before the start of the Chicago City Council meeting at City Hall April 21, 2021. Lightfoot attempted to diminish aldermanic prerogative while in office. Ashlee Rezin / Chicago Sun-Times, File Photo

“There’s no one more attuned to the needs of the neighborhood and neighborhood development than the alderman of that particular ward,” said retired Ald. Tom Tunney, 44th Ward, who served as Lightfoot’s handpicked Zoning Committee chair before making a public break with her.

Lightfoot’s Day One executive order did make a significant difference, Tunney said.

“Things like sign permits, sidewalk cafe permits, building permits, driveway permits. It streamlined it to the advantage of the applicant,” Tunney said. “In some cases, the time to get things dramatically decreased.”

Despite their political differences, Tunney gave Lightfoot credit for backing off on her threat to strip alderpersons of their control over zoning. It turned out to be “more complex than she originally thought,” he said.

One of the only times the zoning desires of the local alderperson were ignored was in December 2021.

That’s when the City Council voted 33 to 13 to endorse a 297-unit residential development at 8355 W. Higgins Road near O’Hare Airport — with 20% of those units designated as affordable.

Local Ald. Anthony Napolitano, 41st Ward, strongly objected to the project, fearing it would hurt the neighborhood in myriad ways, but his colleagues ignored those local concerns at Lightfoot’s behest.

At the time, Lightfoot said Chicago had a long and documented history of segregation, that “housing is at the heart of it” and that “not allowing people in certain places, particularly when it comes to affordability” could no longer be tolerated. A federal lawsuit filed against Chicago by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development underscored the point.

But Napolitano is still smarting.

“My ward was adamantly against a project. The city didn’t care … They just wanted to build something.”

Daivid Greising, president and CEO of the Better Government Association (BGA) said the corruption alleged against Burke “would not have happened without aldermanic prerogative.”

What he called a “culture of allowing alderpeople to be mini-mayors” — while not demanding that their elected jobs be full-time — allowed Burke to block “something as simple” as a driveway permit for a Burger King in his ward.

“It’s so hard to get rid of because the alderpeople like being mini-mayors. That’s something that makes them essential to their constituents. That if they simply provide good services, they can ensure their incumbency,” Greising said.

“Until they let go of that ‘mini-mayor’ concept, there will continue to be temptations that will lure some people into trading the powers of their office for their own personal benefit.”

Committee chairmanship

With or without aldermanic prerogative, Burke was a powerhouse by virtue of his position as finance chairman at a time when that committee controlled just about everything, including Chicago’s $100 million-a-year worker’s compensation program.

Former Ald. Mary Ann Smith, 48th Ward, recalled how intimidating Burke could be.

“There could be a hearing where he would be upset about something and he would come in and stand and stare. That would change the course of their discussion. They were afraid of him. They knew — all of us knew — that if he didn’t want something to get to the finance committee, often it didn’t.”

Smith recalled what happened when her elephant cruelty ordinance — inspired by the 2005 death of three elephants at Lincoln Park Zoo –– finally made it onto Burke’s Finance Committee agenda after her third introduction of that ordinance.

To Smith’s surprise, a law firm run by a close friend and associate of Burke’s turned up as the attorney for Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus, the company Smith’s ordinance targeted.

“I don’t know if there was some kind of finder’s fee but it was some kind of tit-for-tat. Some people will say that’s the ‘Chicago Way.’ I don’t buy it,” Smith said.

“It appeared that things would be held up and oftentimes, a brother’s law firm or a legal colleague, would wind up being involved in the creation of the deal when it finally did go through. That’s the way it seemed. That’s the way it looked. And I’ve been told by commissioners that deals would be held up until a conversation was had with the chairman.”

Former Ald. Patrick Daley Thompson and former Ald. Ed Burke
Former Ald. Patrick Daley Thompson shakes hands with former Ald. Ed Burke at City Hall, Dec. 18, 2019. Burke both charmed and intimidated those who knew him. Chicago Sun-Times, File Photo

Ald. Scott Waguespack, 32nd Ward, who replaced Burke as finance chair in 2019, said Burke had a team of legal and research staff who would prepare him for legislative battles that he almost never lost. Not only did he know Robert’s Rules of Order like the back of his hand, Burke would strengthen his arguments by citing sometimes decades old case law.

“It was a chess game, and he was always prepared several steps ahead,” Waguespack said. “You’re sitting there and you’re going: ‘I think I have him,’ and then he would wriggle out. And you’d be going, ‘Where did you get that case from?’ … They really had a system in place up there that was very powerful, very respectable … There was high respect for the machine that operated up on the third floor.”

After taking over for Burke, Waguespack was stunned to find hundreds of boxes of police files, firefighter files, workers compensation records, files on developers and more in the Finance Committee offices and in an off-site storage location.

“Anything you can think of over like a 40, 50-year period … I was thinking, wow, this is — when you look at the gamut of what was in there — it was his power over decades, that he had built up.”

Conditions for corruption alive and well?

The curtain will soon rise on a corruption trial that will give observers a backstage look at Chicago-style politics. Meanwhile, good-government advocates say there are steps the city can and should take to prevent anyone else from ever accumulating this much power.

Former Inspector General Joe Ferguson said the allegations at the heart of the Burke prosecution reflect “a city that still operates with the vestiges of the Machine and the Machine patronage culture of the late 19th and 20th century.”

He pointed specifically to a general “acquiescence of city bureaucracies and bureaucrats to the wishes and the pressure of alderpeople who know exactly where to push and who to call” to win “regulatory outcomes they wish to have happen” — whether it’s for their own personal benefit or to help their donors constituents.

“All of this generally, historically has occurred without documentation … It hasn’t been required that a permit have within the permit application file all documentation of outreach received by an alderman or member of their staff to either block or promote a specific outcome,” Ferguson said.

“Aldermen who know the system and know the players, therefore, have an enormous capacity because none of this or little of it is actually a matter of public record, to effectuate outcomes of the regulatory system without any of us knowing that they have put their thumb on the scale.”

Former city inspector general Joe Ferguson
Former Inspector General Joe Ferguson speaks to members of the City Council during a budget Committee Review, Oct. 7, 2021. Anthony Vazquez / Chicago Sun-Times, File Photo

Lightfoot “absolutely made some progress” toward reining in aldermanic control, but there are “still miles to go before we catch up to most other major cities,” Ferguson said.

The municipal code needs to be changed to take City Council approval out of the equation on most matters and limit aldermanic approval to “a very, very sort of narrow-band set of regulatory determinations,” he said.

Whether or not Burke is convicted, his 54-year tenure should be “Exhibit One” on the need for term limits, Ferguson said.

Elected officials should be allowed to serve long enough to “amass technical knowledge and understanding of a very complex city with complex challenges.”

“But, at a certain point, we need to say, ‘Okay, it’s somebody else’s turn,’ ” he said.

At the very least, there should be term limits for committee chairs, Waguespack said. He intends to push for it before the 2027 election.

During the 1990s, the Sun-Times did a series of stories detailing how Burke would cast City Council votes on behalf of his law clients, then recuse himself after the fact by introducing journal corrections to change the City Council record.

After that, he made a public show of recusing himself before City Council votes and declaring the nature of the conflict.

But, even that was disingenuous, according to a BGA investigation at around the same time the long-running federal investigation of Burke went from covert to overt.

“It showed that he did everything up to the actual public recusal to promote the interests of his law firm’s clients, and then, just at the last moment, he would gallantly step aside and say that he had a conflict,” Greising said.

Despite repeated attempts over the years to make City Council jobs full-time, Burke was allowed to maintain a “thriving legal business” while serving as finance chairman.

“Because we create and allow these conflicts of interest to exist, it should hardly be shocking that people will take advantage of that opportunity,” Greising said. “Preventing the conflict in the first place would be the best step we can take toward cleaning up [the] council.”

Fran Spielman covers City Hall for the Sun-Times. Mariah Woelfel covers city government and politics for WBEZ.