Why Rahm Can't Get Rid Of Ed Burke

In Chicago politics, what happens when an irresistible force meets an immovable object? They meet at Ald. Patrick O’Connor’s house, and agree to coexist in the same universe.

That’s what Mayor-elect Rahm Emanuel and Alderman-for-Life Edward Burke did last week, after finally realizing they couldn’t get rid of each other.
They tried; man, how they tried. The challenge to Emanuel’s residency was assumed by many to be a plot hatched by Burke at the 14th Ward Democratic Organization offices on 51st Street. The residency challenge failed. Even Burke’s wife, Justice Anne, voted to keep Emanuel on the ballot when the case came before the Illinois Supreme Court.

But Burke had a backup plan. You don’t survive 42 years in Chicago politics without having a backup plan. He ran his old protégé, Gery Chico, for mayor of Chicago. Chico grew up in Burke’s ward and got his start in politics on Burke’s Finance Committee. Chico wouldn’t have risked a Council Wars II by dumping Burke from his committee chairmanship. He would have allowed Burke to help write the budget.

During the mayoral campaign, I spoke to several aldermen who told me that Emanuel would never get the votes to replace Burke as Finance Committee chairman. Burke has given too much money and done too many favors for his fellow aldermen. Plus, an attack on Burke would have been considered an attack on the City Council’s independence.

“Emanuel…knows that Burke is popular with his colleagues and knows more than anybody about the city budget, Roberts Rules of Order and where the bodies are buried at City Hall,” Fran Spielman wrote in the Sun-Times

Burke has been in this situation with other mayors, and both times, he’s emerged the winner. In 1979, Jane Byrne campaigned against the “cabal of evil men” who ran the City Council, singling out Burke for his evilness. After Byrne was elected, she not only allowed Burke to name committee chairmen, she supported him when he ran for Cook County State’s Attorney against Richard M. Daley.

“Some cabals are more evil than others,” Burke said, explaining Byrne’s change of heart.

Burke lost his Finance Committee chairmanship in 1986, when Harold Washington’s faction took control of the City Council, ending Council Wars. But three years later, he got it back, after cutting a deal with another old nemesis, the newly-elected Mayor Daley.

Instead of reforming Burke out of a job, Emanuel says he will reform the City Council by reducing the number of committees, from 19 to 15. That will save money, and make the existing committees more powerful. Including Burke’s Finance Committee.

Burke is only 67 years old. He probably has three more terms in him, which is longer than Emanuel will be able to tolerate the mayor’s job. Burke is like a giant redwood growing through the floor of City Hall, adding more girth each year, casting a broader shadow, impossible to uproot.

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