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The World According To Will Burns

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When Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle took office in January, Mayor Daley appointed Shirley Newsome to replace Preckwinkle as alderman of the 4th Ward. Newsome is not running to fill the position permanently, however. And so this Tuesday, for the first time in two decades, voters in the ward will have to select a new face to represent their interests in the city council.

It's a highly coveted position. The 4th is one of Chicago's most diverse and powerful political communities: two different presidents - Toni Preckwinkle and Barack Obama - call the ward home; as do many politically active residents of Kenwood and north Hyde Park. During her lengthy tenure as alderman, Preckwinkle was widely respected as a pragmatic, independent and reform-minded voice on the city council. Now, a crowded field of seven candidates is vying to fill her old shoes.

One of those candidates, Will Burns, already represents much of the ward in his current capacity as Illinois State Representative for the 26th District. Though no polling data on the alderman race is available, Burns has to be considered the presumptive front-runner - he has the support of Preckwinkle and endorsements from both the Tribune and the Sun-Times. As a former staffer for both Barack Obama and Illinois Senate President Emil Jones, Burns has strong opinions about what it takes to get things done in a legislative body. He also believes that Chicago is in the middle of an uncertain time, in which aldermen will have to work harder than ever to win resources for their wards.

Recently, I sat down with Burns near his campaign office on 53rd Street to discuss the changing political landscape - both in the 4th ward and the city as a whole.

David Brent: Hyde Park has a long history of independent and reform-minded Aldermen: Paul Douglas, Robert and Charles Merriam, Leon Despres and, most recently, Toni Preckwinkle. How do you see yourself continuing this reform tradition?

Will Burns: The most important thing is to continue to stand up for progressive and independent values and politics, and to look at issues on their merits. And if [an issue] doesn't make sense for the people of the 4th Ward and the city of Chicago, to have the courage to stand up and stay no.

I think people like Toni Preckwinkle and Leon Despres, Paul Douglas and Ab Mikva, and a host of others, have often been on the losing side of roll calls but on the right side of history. And I think that's an important part of being alderman of the 4th Ward.

Interestingly enough, all of the aforementioned aldermen were affiliated in some way with the University of Chicago - either as professors or former students. You yourself are an alumnus of the College. The University has long had an uneasy relationship with the surrounding community. How do you see this relationship evolving moving forward?

The University has to be open and transparent about what it would like to do in the community. The University is obviously a large entity in the community, but that doesn't give it carte blanche to impose its will upon the community. It has to engage in democratic and open processes. And I've told the University that, you know, you're a critical part of the community, but if you blindside folks, if you're not open or you're not transparent, and you're not responsive to what the community is asking for, then we'll have a problem.

You mentioned that I'm an alumnus of the College, but I didn't graduate on time from U of C. I was supposed to graduate in the Spring convocation of 1995. And I ended up getting my degree in the summer convocation, because I was too busy leading black students in protest against the University of Chicago. So I have a track record of standing up to the University and working with the University as well.

You already represent most of the 4th Ward as State Representative of the 26th district. What have you learned about this community from your time as a State Rep? What are some of the particular challenges facing this constituency?

The one thing that I think is consistent across the ward is that people want improved public safety. They want retail and economic development in every part of the ward. One of the big concerns is that you've had a lot of residential development, but you haven't had the retail development to come along with that.

And there's also concern about making sure we get our fair share. I mean, the South Side - and I think historically this is the case, and the perception is still there - doesn't get its fair share compared to other parts of the city: whether that's the Central Business District or the North Side of the city. So there's a real concern about making sure we get the best teachers in our schools, and that we get our fair share of parks and city services.

Given that you already serve the community's interests in Springfield, what precipitated your decision to want to transition to the city council as alderman?

My wife and I bought our home at 48th and Drexel because we wanted to live in the 4th Ward, because we had a tremendous amount of respect for Toni Preckwinkle and the work that she did as alderman. The reason why I'm running is that she's no longer our alderman. And the question is, who's going to continue her tradition of both independence and progressive politics on the city council, and also her record of bringing economic development to the entire ward? We face I think a time of some uncertainty. Budget deficits in the city council - the budget is technically balanced, but there's a structural deficit that's around ten percent of the city's budget. And you know we're going have a new mayor and a number of new members elected to the city council. And I think having served in the state legislature as a member of the House of Representative, and working for people like Barack Obama and Senate President Emil Jones, I've learned how you get things done in a legislative body. How you convince people who are not like you to support your agenda.

And those are the skills we're going to need in this very difficult time. Because the issue is, someone's office is going to be gored. And I don't want it to be the 4th Ward. You have to be able to leverage your vote, your position, to achieve positive things for the ward.

Toni Preckwinkle is very popular in the ward. She also was alderman for almost 20 years. Given that there's now going to be a new alderman, there's potential for new ideas. You've mentioned you have great respect for Toni, but in what ways do you disagree with her? What kind of new ideas do you envision bringing to the ward?

I think we're different generationally. She's a Baby Boomer; I'm an X-er. We have different styles. I think that we want to achieve the same ends, but I think we're different people, and just have sort of different ways of doing things.

Not to mention that I am significantly shorter than she is.

During her tenure as alderman, Preckwinkle constantly faced the challenge of balancing her criticisms of Mayor Daley with a willingness to work with the Mayor to get things done in the City Council. We're going to have a new mayor. Rahm Emanuel is currently the front-runner in the race. How do you envision working with the next mayor of Chicago - whoever it is - to move the city forward?

I'm going to work with whomever the mayor is or work against whomever the mayor is, depending on the issue. In politics and in government, you have to evaluate everything issue by issue. You have to weigh it based on what's in the best interests of your community. The great thing about this ward and its political traditions is that you don't write blank checks to people based on who they are. That's what I plan to continue. If whomever is elected mayor has good ideas that make sense then I'll support them; if they have ideas that I don't think make sense then I'll oppose them. You have to have the intestinal fortitude to do that.

I've had [legislative] staffers come and talk to me at my desk and say, you know, we need your vote for this. Well, wait a minute - I need more details, I need to know more information, what's in it for my district, for my community?

There has been much talk about the degree to which race has played a factor, first in last year's County Board President election and now in the mayoral election - whether it has or has not played a factor. What role do you see issues of race playing in Chicago politics today?

I think white voters in Chicago tend not to engage in racial block voting to the same extent that they did 30 or 40 years ago. I think if you look at people like Barack Obama, or Carol Moseley Braun in 1992 and 1998 - Jesse White in 1998 and 2002 and every time he's run for office - they earned a significant amount of support from white voters. So I don't think racial block voting is as big an issue in the city as it once was. If you look at some of the numbers I've seen for Rahm Emanuel, a good amount of his support comes from both African American and White voters. So I think the people are looking for qualified, competent, committed individuals to serve as public servants. And I don't think - at least down here - I don't think race is salient as a political issue.

You mentioned that there's going to be a new mayor, there's going to be a potentially sizable turnover in the city council. Would you say that the famed Chicago political machine is finally on the verge of becoming extinct?

I think that the idea of the classic machine organization is pretty much done: the idea that you have a precinct captain, and an assistant captain, in every precinct - a guy who knows every voter in that precinct, and has a job someplace else, and gets [people] out to vote, and people vote the way the precinct captain wants them to vote because he's delivering some sort of service - I think that's long gone. I think the precinct captain of the day is the TV, it's being able to appeal directly to voters and having the resources to appeal directly to voters. Because of the Shakman degree and some of that other stuff, the old machine is gone.

But I do think there certainly is the interest of business and labor, and the amount of money they put into campaigns to influence the outcomes of elections. And I think if you look right now at the city, the big dividing line is around business and labor relations. Whether that's in the public school - when it comes to charter schools and Renaissance 2010 - or you look at privatization deals that unionized workers are opposed to, living wage ordinances that are proposed by pro-union, pro-labor alderman, that seems to me to be the real sort of dividing line right now.

So does that mean Alderman Burke doesn't have as much power as I think he has anymore?

I think Alderman Burke has a lot of power, as the Chairman of the Finance Committee and a long-serving member of the City Council. But I also think you can have influence in a legislative body if you're willing to do the work. A lot of it is just your willingness to do your homework, to read your ordinance, to understand the issues, to work collaboratively with your colleagues to amend it, to get secure passage, and I think you can have influence on the body.

You also need to recognize that, if something requires 26 votes, and you need to be the 26th vote, well, that gives you a certain amount of power. And how do you leverage that power, and how do you use it? Do you just give it away, or do you negotiate on behalf of your community for something that's meaningful and important? And then you also have to decide whether it's worth negotiating in the first instance - whether, [given] how your ward would view the issue, it's not even worth negotiating in the first instance. It's a complicated process.