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Ed Burke, the city’s longest-serving alderman

The alderman for the 14th Ward has been considered one of the most powerful on the City Council — but his 50-year tenure ends soon, Chicago.

Ald. Edward Burke failed to file nominating petitions by Monday’s deadline, which means his current term — his 13th — will be his last. He will leave City Council as the longest-serving alderman in city history.

The 78-year-old alderman whose wife, Anne, just retired from the Illinois Supreme Court is leaving in large part because he’s fighting a wide-ranging federal corruption indictment and faces trial, which is scheduled next year.

Even if you’re not familiar with Chicago politics, then you have probably seen the silver-haired Burke in the pages of the Tribune or on the local TV news. He typically wears a pinstriped suit with a tie, a pocket square and monogrammed cufflinks. He was once included on a list of the city’s best dressed.

Burke garnered much of his power on the council by heading the Finance Committee, which has a big say in how city funds are spent. He headed the committee for decades and was allowed to do so by several mayors who felt keeping Burke in the job helped ensure political peace with him. He’s also known at City Hall for proposing a variety of resolutions, including one in 1997, that cleared Catherine O’Leary and her cow. Both had been accused of starting the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.

What’s he really like?

Gregory Pratt, Tribune reporter covering Mayor Lori Lightfoot and City Hall: “On Election Night in February 2019, the Tribune sent me to cover Ed Burke’s attempt to get reelected despite facing federal extortion charges. This was a challenge for many reasons. The famously loquacious and longwinded alderman didn’t have much to say to the media, which tends to happen when folks are looking at the possibility of prison time. And he wasn’t talking to me much, either, as I’d spent a bunch of time drilling down on his connections to Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, who was the mayoral frontrunner at the time.

“I’d been on the team covering Mayor (Rahm) Emanuel, City Council and County Board for less than a year but I’d spent the past month writing about his namesake son, Ed Burke Jr., who left the Cook County sheriff’s job in a bizarre scandal. Records we obtained showed he had been under internal investigation for allegedly making inappropriate sexual comments at the sheriff’s office when Preckwinkle’s administration hired him to a nearly $100,000 per year job. A worker also said Burke Jr. called himself ‘the law,’ claimed to have ‘tapes’ that would ‘humiliate’ Sheriff Tom Dart, vowed to run for sheriff and said he would fire a bunch of employees when he won.

“I wanted to know: Did Burke talk to Preckwinkle about getting his son a job? It was a substantive question about how local politics works. And the answer, from a common sense perspective, seemed to be yes. But as a reporter, you can’t write about your hunches or instincts or what people tell you, you have to do the hard work of talking to as many people as possible and pulling paperwork to find out what’s true. In the end, Burke never addressed the question but after weeks of my badgering, Preckwinkle acknowledged that Burke talked to her about the job for his son.

“That relationship with Burke helped sink Preckwinkle’s campaign, as Lori Lightfoot capitalized on the chaos and used her former federal prosecutor status to persuade voters that change was needed. But it didn’t mean much in the 14th Ward, which had been drawn to protect the incumbent alderman.

“On Election Day, Burke’s team wasn’t returning messages and a bunch of media outlets spent the day chasing him. We ran into him in a church parking lot and he (naturally) bragged about the amount of lawn signs in the ward supporting his campaign. After all the votes were counted, we found out that he was at his campaign office, which shares a building with his ward office, so we sprinted over. It was a cold February night. Near the end, we spotted him through the window walking toward a back door and we all sprinted to catch him before he left.

“We asked him what it said that the voters reelected him despite his federal charges.

“‘Why don’t you ask them?’ Burke replied. ‘They voted for me.’”

Jason Meisner, Tribune federal courts reporter: “On Dec. 14, 2016, in the middle of a City Council meeting where the Cubs were being lauded for winning the World Series, the Chicago Tribune broke the story that then-Ald. Willie Cochran had been indicted on corruption charges alleging he plundered a ward charity fund. As Cochran sat awkwardly in his seat, Ald. Edward Burke, the dean of the Council, came over to him and appeared to show him something on his phone as they chatted. Burke later said in all his years he’d never seen an alderman indicted in the middle of a council meeting.

“What was NOT known was that at the time of that meeting, Ald. Daniel Solis had already been wearing a hidden wire for the FBI for several months. The FBI raided Burke’s offices less than two years later, on Nov. 29, 2018.”

Ray Long, Tribune investigative reporter: “While Ed and Anne Burke played up the idea that husbands and wives can have separate lives, they stretched the boundaries of what might be considered a conflict of interest.”

“That’s the way it is … Don’t you understand? What’s hers is hers and what’s mine is hers,” Burke told Long for a story in 1993.

And the reverse is not true, Long asked? “Exactly,” Burke said.

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Thanks for reading!

— Kori Rumore, visual reporter

Chicago history | More newsletters | Puzzles & Games | Today’s eNewspaper edition

Ald. Edward Burke and members of New City tour the neighborhood of 52nd and Green streets to view the rundown condition of the homes and alleys on Dec. 7, 1975.

Burke’s ascent to political dominance in the 14th Ward, which includes parts of Archer Heights and Gage Park, followed on the coattails of his father, Joseph P. Burke, a Cook County sheriff’s officer whose political aspirations led him to become alderman.

Despite demographic changeover in his Southwest Side ward, which was historically eastern European and is now predominantly Latino, Burke has held his seat for more than 50 years. Read more.

  • Timeline: Burke’s life, career and upcoming trial

See Burke’s career through the eyes of Tribune photographers. See more photos.

Aldermans Edward M. Burke, left, and Edward R. Vrdolyak at City Hall on May 7, 1983, in Chicago.
Vintage Chicago Tribune

Vintage Chicago Tribune

Weekly

The Vintage Tribune newsletter is a deep dive into the Chicago Tribune’s archives featuring photos and stories about the people, places and events that shape the city’s past, present and future.

The “Council Wars” — pitting a weak mayoral system against a strong contingent of 29 white aldermen — began at the first council meeting overseen by the city’s first Black Mayor Harold Washington on May 2, 1983. Burke is named chairman of the powerful City Council Committee on Finance. The battles continued until 1986, when a federal judge ordered that the city’s ward map be redrawn to better reflect the city’s racial demographics. That gave Washington’s supporters 25 of the 50 seats in the City Council, and with the mayor casting a tie-breaking vote, the stalemate was broken. Read more.

  • Photo gallery: Chicago’s Council Wars pitted defiant white aldermen against a reform-minded Washington
Unidentified people carry boxes from Ald. Edward M. Burke's 14th Ward office in the 2600 block of west 51st Street on Nov. 29, 2018, in Chicago.

In his more than 50 years in politics, the Southwest Side alderman had been under federal scrutiny several times before but never like this.

On May 31, 2019, he’s indicted on 14 counts including racketeering, federal program bribery, attempted extortion, conspiracy to commit extortion and using interstate commerce to facilitate an unlawful activity. Read more.

Ald. Edward Burke departs after turning himself in on Jan. 3, 2019, at the Dirksen U.S. Courthouse.

Burke, who pleaded not guilty in 2019, is scheduled to go to trial Nov. 6, 2023, at the Dirksen U.S. Courthouse. Read more.

Ald. Ed Burke, 14th ward, listens to city council discussion of Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s $16.4 billion 2023 budget on Nov. 7, 2022.

Fighting a wide-ranging federal corruption indictment, the alderman who has represented the Southwest Side’s 14th Ward for more than a half-century declined to file nominating petitions by Monday’s deadline, meaning his current 13th term on the City Council will be his last. Read more.

Join our Chicagoland history Facebook group for more from Chicago’s past.

Have an idea for Vintage Chicago Tribune? Share it with Ron Grossman and Marianne Mather at rgrossman@chicagotribune.com and mmather@chicagotribune.com.

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