“If we can change the flow of the Chicago river, anything can happen.” - Alderman Ed Burke
This is 14th Ward Alderman Ed Burke’s personal slogan about his native city. As the longest-serving alderman and youngest committeeman in Chicago’s history, Burke more than most, understands the complicated and unpredictable landscape. I had the pleasure of discussing Chicago’s colorful past and future possibilities with a man who has helped shape the community for nearly 50 years. If you aren’t a history buff yet, you will be after listening to him!
1. Ed Burke is the longest-serving AND youngest elected alderman in Chicago’s history
The alderman’s political career began in 1968 when he was elected to replace his late father’s seat as Democratic Committeeman for the 14th Ward. The following year, at age 24, he became the ward’s alderman following a special election. For those of us who aren’t well-versed in the intricacies of Chicago’s unique political organization, here’s a quick breakdown:
- The city has 50 geographical wards (most places refer to them as districts)
- Each ward has an elected alderman who serves four year terms
- The 50 alderman make up the Chicago City Council which serves as the city’s legislative branch
2. Ed Burke and George Clooney are both overshadowed by their incredibly successful wives.
Like George Clooney, Alderman Burke suffers from the wonderful problem of being married to someone equally, if not more, illustrious than himself. Married to Illinois Supreme Court Justice Anne M. Burke, he proudly recounts her role in founding the Special Olympics in the following clip:
3. The first Special Olympics event was held in 1968 at Soldier Field.
With humble roots, the first Special Olympics event took place at Soldier Field in July of 1968. Since then, it has grown to service millions children and adults with disabilities in 172 countries. Most associate Eunice Kennedy as the sole founder of the Special Olympics, but Anne Burke, then a physical education teacher, actually developed the idea of an Olympic-style competition in conjunction with the Kennedy Foundation.
4. That annoying disposable bag tax is actually making people switch to environmentally friendly reusable bags faster than anticipated.
Ed Burke most notably serves as the Chairman of City Council’s Committee on Finance, but is also a member of the Committee on Health and Environmental Protection. He is proud of the work he has done to improve public health, including his early initiatives to restrict smoking in public. “I’d like to think we’ve come a long way after a long battle,” Burke says of the years of pushback from Big Tobacco and the hospitality industry. His ultimate goal was to protect non-smokers from secondhand smoke without hurting the restaurant and hospitality industries’ profits. Time and a cultural shift made that goal a reality as it has for many other health and environmental issues.
Earlier this year, the city passed a 7¢ tax on disposable bags. I’ll be honest, I don’t completely agree with the inclusion of paper bags in the tax. America is planting more trees than ever while consumption of paper products continues to decline. Existing mills cutting down trees at a slower rate, combined with longer and more frequent droughts, dramatically increases the risk of forest fires. Responsibly continuing to produce and consume paper products (with proper recycling measures in place) would balance economic and environmental stresses.
When I asked the alderman about this decision and the implications, he explained that while paper bags degrade faster, the city wants to encourage a cultural shift back to reusable bags. He recalls how women used bring baskets or cloth bags to carry goods home prior to the introduction of the “brown paper bag.” The tax seems to be nudging Chicago citizens in the “green” direction, faster than initially forecasted. The city has only earned $3 million from the tax after its first six months, short of the $4.6 million projection. In the long run though, this indicates a positive trend toward environmental friendliness that will benefit the city well into the future.
5. Chicago is named the Second City because it was rebuilt after the Great Chicago Fire, NOT because it’s second to New York.
Contrary to rumors started by New Yorkers, the “Second City” nicknames derives from Chicago’s rise from its ashes after the Great Chicago Fire in 1871. During the city’s rebuilding and “rebirth,” architects flocked to the city to make their mark. Ed Burke believes modern planning and architecture solidified Chicago as the unofficial capital of the Midwest over cities like St. Louis and Cincinnati.
6. O’Hare is abbreviated ORD because of its original name, Orchard Field Airport.
While excited for the future of his native city, Burke prefers to focus on its history. I’m fairly certain this man can tell you about every Chicago event or politician from the past 150 years. One of his favorite stories, is about O’Hare International Airport. Have you ever wondered why the abbreviation is ORD? The airport’s original name was Orchard Field when it opened in 1944, but only kept the moniker for five years. In 1949, it was renamed after WWII Medal of Honor recipient Butch O’Hare.
There’s a little more to the story, but Ed Burke explains it better than I can in this clip:
7. In stereotypical Chicago political fashion, the Republican National Convention was rigged...in favor of Abe Lincoln.
In his book, Inside the Wigwam: Chicago Presidential Conventions 1860-1996, Burke discusses the rise of Presidential Conventions and Chicago’s colorful history hosting them. Chicago has hosted more National Conventions than any other American city, the first in 1860. The city didn’t even have a suitable meeting place for the convention so they hastily built a temporary one, nicknamed the “Wigwam.” The frontrunner heading into that Republican Convention was former New York Governor and current US Senator William Seward. Delegates voted three times over three days, with Seward winning the first two. Lincoln supporters spent the convention begging delegates to switch their votes, a strategy that (barely) paid off during the third and final vote.
The future of Chicago and the state of Illinois is impossible to predict much like its dramatic past. Whether it be the rise of self-driving cars eliminating the need for downtown parking structures or Elon Musk’s construction of high speed trains connecting O’Hare to the Loop, Ed Burke remains open minded and prepared to adapt as he had for the past 50 years. To hear more from this decorated Chicago politician, watch our full interview below.