CHICAGO – A federal corruption case against a powerful Chicago City Council member has rocked the crowded race for Chicago mayor. Some hopefuls sought Friday to distance themselves from Alderman Ed Burke, while others painted their rivals as part of the city's notorious machine politics he embodied for decades.
Burke, who resigned Friday as head of the council's finance committee, was charged with attempted extortion in a criminal complaint unsealed a day earlier. Federal prosecutors allege he pressured executives of a major fast-food restaurant chain to become clients at his own tax law firm in exchange for a remodeling permit in his ward.
Chicago's mayoral race already is a free-for-all, with 15 candidates vying to replace Rahm Emanuel, who isn't seeking another term.
"Public perception changes dramatically when there's an indictment," and the top issue could become corruption, said Dick Simpson, a former city alderman who now heads the political science department at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
Simpson, who has endorsed former federal prosecutor Lori Lightfoot in the race for mayor, said candidates with ties to Burke and city affairs have been touting their experience while others have been pledging reform.
The complaint alleges, in part, that Burke pressured company executives to donate $10,000 to an unnamed politician. The mayoral campaign of Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle confirmed that she received the donation from Tri City Foods CEO Shoukat Dhanani, a Texas businessman who owns a Burger King in Burke's ward, the Chicago Tribune reported.
The donation came during a primary challenge for county board president last year by Alderman Bob Fioretti – now also running for mayor – during which Burke held a fundraiser for Preckwinkle at his home.
Preckwinkle, considered a front-runner in the Feb. 26 race, said she returned the money after her campaign discovered it exceeded state limits for individual donors; the prosecutors' complaint said the candidate reduced the contribution to the allowable limit of $5,600 but didn't report it to the Illinois State Board of Elections. Burke also had contributed nearly $13,000 to Preckwinkle's campaign fund, but Preckwinkle donated it to charity after the alderman's offices were raided by the FBI last month, the Tribune reported.
Preckwinkle called on Burke to resign, saying his "behavior of abusing his position for personal gain does not reflect my values, and I do not condone it."
Nevertheless, the attacks from her rivals began immediately, with Fioretti demanding that Preckwinkle withdraw from the race, saying her explanation "raises more questions than it answers."
Lightfoot said federal prosecutors should investigate all of Preckwinkle's campaign contributions, saying "she's got to answer to the voters what exactly is the relationship between her and Ed Burke" and suggesting that Burke wouldn't give money without expecting something in return. And Paul Vallas, the former Chicago Public Schools CEO and Democratic candidate for Illinois governor, also called on Preckwinkle to explain Burke's contributions.
But Preckwinkle is not the only candidate with close ties to Burke.
He supported Illinois Comptroller Susana Mendoza in her previous races for the state House and Chicago city clerk and attended her 2011 wedding. Gery Chico was a City Council aide to Burke early in his career before going on to work for Mayor Richard M. Daley and to serve as board president of Chicago Public Schools, and still considers him a good friend. Burke has endorsed Chico's bid for mayor, which Fioretti said Chico should reject.
Mendoza and Chico urged Burke to step down as Finance Committee chairman, while Vallas, Lightfoot and public policy consultant Amara Enyia urged him to resign his aldermanic seat. Burke said Friday that he'll remain on the ballot. Meanwhile, former Obama chief of staff Bill Daley – the son and brother of Chicago's two longest-serving mayors, who also wants the job – said Burke's ward "needs new leadership."
But candidates who've benefited from Burke's support still have time to distance themselves further, particularly if they receive an endorsement from a high-profile person such as Obama – and as long as nothing damaging comes from prosecutors before the election, experts said. Prosecutors said they had wiretapped Burke's cellphone even before his alleged extortion attempt and the charge was just part of an ongoing investigation.
For Preckwinkle's part, "I don't think you can blame her for Burke's actions," said Chicago political consultant DelMarie Cobb, who said she won't endorse anyone until it's clear whether there is a runoff election. That will happen if no candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote.
"If she is honest from the very beginning about the money, it won't be something that sticks, but if we find she was less than transparent about the money, it will begin to get legs," Cobb said.
Political consultant Don Rose, who is working with Lightfoot, said the Burke charge has damaged Preckwinkle for now, but that could change.
"Six weeks is a lifetime in politics," he said.