HE WEARS A fedora hat, pinstriped suit and a scowl. In his breast pocket he folds a handkerchief, colourful and silky. For the past half century, since 1969, Edward Burke has run his fief, the 14th ward, a gritty district in south Chicago, as an old-school political boss. No other councillor—alderman, say Chicagoans—has amassed such clout. Since 1983, save a couple of years, he chaired the city’s powerful finance committee. A canny, financially literate figure, he also oversaw a compensation scheme for public workers, doling out $100m a year with little oversight.
Mr Burke was a fixture even as mayors came and went. The ex-cop played piano, wrote local histories and profited handsomely by running a legal office that helped corporate clients appeal against their city tax bills (Donald Trump, for a time, was a client). He was a noted figure, lauded for adopting a child from a deprived neighbourhood. Yet if you asked about Chicago’s machine—the system of patronage jobs, political donations by businesses seeking permits, corporate tax deals cut over lunches in clubs—his was the first name that sprang to everyone’s lips.
Now, most likely, Mr Burke is done. The FBI lodged a 37-page criminal complaint against him on January 2nd. He denies all wrongdoing. But for much of 2017 the feds bugged his phone, recording about 40 calls a day. They also trailed him. That exceptionally long period suggests they showed a judge strong cause for suspicion. Agents raided his office late last year. They accuse him of attempted extortion, saying he withheld a permit for a restaurant owner to renovate, while demanding a pay-off. He could face 20 years in prison.
He is the biggest fish caught in recent city history. The FBI alleges that he pressed the restaurant chain—reportedly Burger King—to hire his private office to handle all its tax affairs in Illinois. The firm resisted, but it did agree to serve up a whopper of a $10,000 political donation. One executive spoke of “reading between the lines”, grasping that he needed to pay to avoid trouble from powerful Mr Burke. The cash reportedly went to Toni Preckwinkle, the front-runner (until now) in the mayoral race, to be held next month. She says the campaign rejected it, so did nothing wrong. And she is returning a big pot of money Mr Burke raised separately for her.
For years Chicago’s political elite lauded Mr Burke and took his donations, despite his dubious past. He co-led a racist campaign to stymie reforms by the city’s first black mayor, Harold Washington, in the 1980s. Previous federal investigations into “ghosts” who padded city payrolls had nabbed people close to Mr Burke.
Now he is alone. Rahm Emanuel, the mayor, has stripped him of his committee post and promises an audit of his work. Ms Preckwinkle, who runs the Democratic Party in Cook County, has booted him from a party post. Other aldermen declare themselves shocked, shocked. “We are not all crooks,” said one, plaintively, this week.
Burke’s little platoon
Politics in Illinois encourages conflicts of interest that would be criminal elsewhere. “The real crime is what is legal,” goes a common Chicago refrain. Mr Burke could work as a public official, setting policies for companies, while also touting for business with the same clients to submit appeals against the city. A predecessor on the finance committee did the same. Michael Madigan, speaker of the statehouse, has long done something similar.
Criminality among the city’s 50 aldermen is also astonishingly common. Dick Simpson of the University of Illinois, in Chicago, estimates that there have been 200 councillors since 1969, when Mr Burke first got elected. Of them, 33 have been imprisoned for bribery, extortion, fraud or more. One notorious catch, Edward “Fast Eddie” Vrdolyak, is an ex-boss of the Democratic Party in Chicago. Recently other officials, including an ex-boss of Chicago’s schools who pocketed $2m in kickbacks, have been imprisoned.
“We are the most corrupt metropolitan region in America,” says Mr Simpson. Studs Terkel, a shrewd author, once declared Chicago is really the “most theatrically corrupt” city in America. Nothing is done by halves. The Justice Department says it recorded 1,642 federal public corruption convictions in Illinois’s northern judicial district between 1976 and 2013, more than in any other district nationally. Austin Berg, co-author of a newly published book on Chicago politics, says the autocratic power of the mayor and aldermen is the core problem. A city commission called the system an “anachronism” already in 1954.
Will anything change after Mr Burke’s fall? A survey in 2016 found over 90% of Chicago business leaders saw cronyism in the city government. Small firms, especially, consider that a drag. Mr Emanuel promises a clean-up in his final weeks. One mayoral candidate, Bill Daley (himself from a notorious clan of Chicago mayors) said this week that he wants most of the alderman posts scrapped.
Chicago could adopt practices of better run places. Annual “menu money”, in which each alderman gets roughly $1m to dispense in his ward, should end. The city needs a smaller city council; more transparency; a powerful inspector general; a charter and a set of ethics to ban politicians from enriching themselves with side businesses. City departments should take over zoning powers from aldermen. Gerrymandering of city districts should end. Will any of this come soon? Not likely. Chicagoans brag theirs is the “city of big shoulders”. It is also a city of back-handers.