Remember Forrest Gump,the storytelling, suit-wearing, veteran, runner, and entrepreneur who intersected with every major event in United States history from 1954 to 1982?
I was watching a clip from the film on YouTube the other day when it hit me: Ed Burke is Chicago’s version of Gump.
I want to be crystal clear here.
The movie character is portrayed by Tom Hanks as naive and slow-witted.
The city’s longest-serving alderman ever is neither.
But Burke is like the Southerner in that he has been witness to, and part of shaping, many of the city’s key events since the late 60s.
And, in that way, looking at his career provides a helpful lense into understanding Chicago’s evolution and growth during this time.
For those who haven’t seen it in a while (or ever), in the movie, Gump attends the University of Alabama, where he plays for legendary coach Paul ‘Bear’ Bryant, sees he witnesses George Wallace’s stand in the schoolhouse door, is named an All-American football player, and meets President John F. Kennedy. He also serves in Vietnam, speaks at an anti-war rally, invests in Apple, opens a successful shrimping company, unintentionally coins the phrase “Sh-t Happens”, and marries his childhood sweetheart, who dies of AIDS (This is a highly distilled summary.).
Here are 10 ways in which Burke has embodied and interacted with Chicago milestones and hallmarks of the past half-century.
Product of the Machine
The Irish-American politician has been called one of the last remaining links to the heyday of Chicago machine politics, Burke got his father’s committeeman and aldermanic seat after his father’s death. He’s been there ever since. In fact, Burke has not only served longer than both Daleys combined, he’s been in office since before many of his current colleagues were born.
Coming into office during upheaval of the 60s
Burke first became a committeeman in 1968, the year of the tumultuous Democratic Convention that brought Richard J. Daley unwanted international attention and that revealed deep divisions within the party that helped thwart Hubert Humphrey’s long-held dream of becoming president. Burke received a deferment from Vietnam before joining the reserves.
Young Turk during first Daley and Byrne years
In the waning years of the elder Daley’s regime, Burke made his name as a Young Turk. Along with later convicted felon Edward “Fast Eddie” Vrdolyak, Burke expressed impatience and sought reform. Manuel Galvan has written about how in 1972, Burke joined Vrdolyak in his “coffee rebellion,” a move that wrestled a share of power from Mayor Richard J. Daley’s floor leader, Aid. Thomas Keane (31st). Galvan also noted that Burke was tagged as a member of an “evil cabal” by then commissioner of consumer affairs Jane M. Byrne because he allegedly “greased” the way for taxi fare increases. However, her attacks ended after she became mayor in 1979 and needed Burke as a council ally, he said.
Protagonist in the Council Wars
Burke continued his close connection to Vrdolyak as one of the leaders of the “Vrdolyak 29” that reflexively opposed nearly every measure Harold Washington, the city’s first black mayor, sought to advance. Burke didn’t stop there, though. He sued unsuccessfully in Cook County Circuit court to have Washington removed from office.
Lawyer, Police, Private Eye and Author
Like Gump, Burke has had a varied set of jobs outside of his aldermanic position. He worked for several years as a policeman before entering the political arena and operates a lucrative law firm and has done so for many years. He has also, along with Thomas Gorman, written a book that pays tribute to every slain officer on the Chicago Police Department from 1853 to 2006. The Sun-Times pointed out last year that Burke is a licensed private detective who is trained and authorized to carry a semiautomatic weapon
The War Chest
Since 1999 Burke has raised more money that any politician in the city. This includes Richard M. Daley and uber-fundraiser Rahm Emanuel. To be fair, he had more than a decade head start over Emanuel. Still the total of more than $20 million raised and having $8 million in hand is even more impressive when one considers that he’s only faced a single opponent for office since 1971.
Clout beyond clout
Burke has run the all-important Finance Committee on the council for the past three decades, since the beginning of Washington’s first term. Beyond that, his wife Anne Marie is a Supreme Court justice. Is there anything more Chicago than the ultimate clout couple?
Tinged, but not burned by scandal
This is another classic element of Chicago politics that we saw throughout the tenure of both Daleys.
Although those close to Burke have faced indictment, he has remained untouched. Matt O’Connor of the Tribune wrote about the ghost payrolling on the Finance Committee that led to Marie D’Amico’s conviction.
Burke’s use of a security detail that has been paid for by taxpayer money for the past 30 years is another source of controversy.
Racial diversity in his family a subject of controversy
In 1996, Burke and his wife became foster partners to an African-American boy named Baby T. Perhaps fitting his role as an occasional lightning rod and a sign that Chicago remains a deeply divided city, this prompted a lawsuit by the mother who wanted to have custody of her child. In a racially tinged court fight that received plenty of media attention, the Illinois Supreme Court sided with the Burkes in 2001.
His district’s demographic changes
This is one of the clearest examples of the changes the city has gone through in the 45 years since Burke first joined the council. At that point the district was mostly Eastern European. Now, it’s nearly 90 percent Latino.
But he keeps on winning.
There is no word yet on whether Burke plans to spend three years, as Gump did, running around the country.
My strong guess is that he’ll continue to stay in Chicago.
But even though their activities and mental acuity differ, the way in which the alderman and the fictional character reflect, and contribute to, their eras’ main happenings remains remarkably similar.
I published this post first on http://www.vivelohoy.com.