We all know by now that Mayor Daley isn’t the most polished speaker—he’s known worldwide as a muttering Mr. Malaprop. But not every old-school Chicago pol is so uninspiring at the podium, and if there’s a Pericles of the City Council it’s 14th Ward alderman Ed Burke. Burke has served as alderman since 1969, the longest uninterrupted stint in Chicago history. He chairs the finance committee, which has oversight of most of the city’s major financial transactions. He has one of the largest campaign war chests in Illinois; his wife is a state supreme court justice; and he has a lucrative law practice on the side that often represents city contractors. He’s written several books on the history of Chicago, and he loves to sprinkle his speeches with quotes from Shakespeare, Shaw, Thomas Jefferson, Martin Luther King, and of course Tony Laurino, the former 39th Ward alderman indicted for his role in a ghost payrolling operation.
Council meetings typically start with a series of honorary resolutions and commendations. While most aldermen drift in and out of the proceedings, Burke stands up in his tailored suits and waxes eloquent on whatever or whoever is being honored—cops, firefighters, high school sports champions, award-winning chefs, retiring patronage workers, and especially the common man. “Those Gucci-gulch lobbyists—the ones wearing their Armani suits and their Gucci ties and their Gucci loafers—will make sure that these folks on Wall Street will never get hurt!” he roared on the council floor during the economic collapse in 2008. “But maybe we can send a message from the great American heartland, from the capital of the midwest, that here in Chicago we’re not going to do business with these Wall Street thieves!” It’s heart-stirring stuff—at least until you see him follow it up by pushing another corporate subsidy through the finance committee on behalf of the Daley administration.
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