The making of an alderman | Feature | Chicago Reader

The making of an alderman 

Anyone who really wants to understand how Chicago works needs to understand Walter Burnett Jr.

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Before he called a meeting of the City Council's special events committee to order on December 6, Walter Burnett Jr., the chairman, imparted a piece of political insight to his embattled colleague Nicholas Sposato.

"I keep telling you, there's a black caucus, a Hispanic caucus, and a white-haired caucus," said Burnett, the 27th Ward alderman. "But you need to get a little grayer before you can go there."

Sposato chuckled, though he didn't find the topic terribly funny. A former fireman, Sposato won his seat last year in an upset over a favored political insider, and his ward, the 36th, would be dramatically redrawn under proposed new boundaries—a sign that the rookie was on the shit list of the veteran white guys overseeing the decennial remap.

But the comment revealed even more about Burnett's mischievous sense of humor, shrewd understanding of how the city operates, and confidence about his own prospects based on years of loyalty to his patrons. In fact, anyone who really wants to understand how Chicago works should take a close look at Walter Burnett. Ward boundaries may shift around him, but he's virtually unmovable.

Burnett is easy to underestimate. Apart from the figure he cuts—he's a compact 5-6, wears brainy wire-rimmed glasses, and, when he can ditch the suit, favors the leather-jacket-and-turtleneck ensemble of an early 70s Donny Hathaway—Burnett often seems part of the indistinguishable mass of Chicago aldermen who go along with whatever the mayor wants, whichever mayor is in office. His voting record is full of "aye" votes, including on such pivotal matters as the widely loathed parking meter deal, tax increment financing handouts to Fortune 500 companies, and city budgets that have drained reserves, raised taxes, and cut services. Not only does he refrain from criticizing the mayor, he often joins his council colleagues in extended public ass kissings, while insisting that he spars with the administration behind closed doors.

Burnett grew up in public housing and served time in prison before getting into politics, and when he does speak up, he often comes across as unpolished, unscripted, and unsophisticated—an entertaining but lightweight elected official who follows orders so he can enjoy the comforts of political incumbency. In 2009 Burnett famously compared voting for the meter deal to taking a dose of erectile dysfunction medication, since, he said, it sounded great but could have lots of unforeseen side effects. Despite the spot-on analysis, Burnett voted to approve the deal anyway because former mayor Richard M. Daley wanted it done. Yet during Daley's final council meeting last May, Burnett effusively thanked the mayor. "You taught me how to be independent," he said.

But Burnett is a keen observer who uses the lowered expectations as cover. Even before Daley left office, the alderman went to work figuring out the new mayor. "Rahm, man, he is a powerful dude at this point," Burnett says. "And I see how he do it with the media. You ask him a question, he'll make a joke and try to check you on it. Like it's a joke, but he's saying, 'Why did you ask me that question?'

"What I do with him, the same thing I did with Mayor Daley—I pray for him. And it always works."

Last fall Burnett took me on a tour of his ward, one of the craggiest and loopiest in the city, stretching from gentrifying areas around the Loop to struggling communities in the heart of the west side. Our drive became a tour not just of the ward, but of a childhood and career shaped by political power plays dating back to the days of the Democratic machine.

Our first stop was on Division just east of Halsted, next to an empty lot that was once the site of a Cabrini-Green high-rise. "I lived over there as a kid," he said.

Burnett was born in Cook County Hospital in 1963, when his father was 21 and his mother was a teenager. Walter Sr. worked in a west-side grocery store and the family lived in the Rockwell Gardens public housing complex before moving to Cabrini-Green, first in the high-rise on Division and later in a row house a couple blocks away.

Though Cabrini became infamous for violence, Burnett has fond memories of growing up there. "People looked out for each other," he says. "We would get salt and sugar and cereal from our neighbors. If we didn't have clothes, we'd get their hand-me-downs."

At the time, the area was part of the 42nd Ward, which was dominated by Democratic committeeman George Dunne. An ally of Mayor Richard J. Daley's, Dunne became president of the Cook County Board in 1969 and held the job until 1991. Like Daley, Dunne wielded and retained power by doling out patronage jobs.

Walter Sr. was lucky enough to be introduced to Dunne after being laid off when Burnett was a small boy. "Mr. Dunne helped him get a job as a truck driver for the city," Burnett says. "I grew up under George Dunne. And my dad loved George Dunne. He was crazy about him."

Burnett says his father was one of the few African-Americans working for the city. "My dad's very light complected and had hazel eyes. He thought he was Italian because he had some white blood in his family. He used to hang out with all the Italian guys. Later on him and my mom separated. He was a ladies' man. He moved up to the Gold Coast, a place on LaSalle Street. He exposed me to all different cultures, different nationalities."

Burnett's father became an assistant precinct captain for Dunne, regularly checking in with voters to link them with services and persuade them to support favored political candidates. "He used to have a Cadillac convertible, light blue with a white top, and I would run down the street chasing his car. He would take me with him, and I would go to my friends' houses and he would talk to their moms and try to get them to vote for the Democratic Party, and if they had problems he'd connect them with the committeeman or the alderman to help them out."

By the time he was a teenager, Burnett's father was paying him to do much of the campaign work in the precinct. But Burnett says he rejected his father's suggestion that he approach Dunne for a city or county job. "At at that time I was a young punk, independent, and I had me a little job at McDonald's. So I said, 'Look, Dad, I don't mind helping you, but when George Dunne and them call, you have to jump. I'm not going to be like that.'"

Burnett laughs when he gets to that point in his story. It's laughter trying to mask regret.

Burnett went to night school to earn his high school diploma, and by the summer of 1981 he had his own apartment, his own car, and a job as a janitor at a bank. He was 17. And then he nearly ruined his chances to do anything else.

One Friday, a payday, he got drunk with one of his coworkers. "It was an older guy who'd been in trouble before," Burnett says. "He got me mixed up in one of his dreams."

At the behest of the coworker and one of his friends, Burnett drove to Kankakee, where the coworker asked him to stop at a bank so he could cash a check. Instead he robbed the place. Wielding a gun, he hurried out with $3,000 and ordered Burnett to drive away. A few minutes later the coworker and his friend told Burnett to pull over. They carjacked another vehicle. Burnett dove into the backseat.

The police caught up with them within minutes.

"Next thing I know, I find myself running from bullets, being chased and apprehended by police. I'm crying. I said, 'My parents are going to be disappointed. I messed up my life.' The police officer said, 'It's going to be all right.' Lo and behold, later in life, when I went to get a pardon, that police officer wrote a letter and told the governor that he knew I was a good kid even at the time when we got in trouble."

Burnett pleaded guilty to armed robbery and was sentenced to six years in prison. He put his energy into going back to school. By the time he was paroled after two years and three months, he had an associate's degree in political science and a certificate in drafting.

Burnett was simply looking for a way to restart his life. Politics wasn't even on the radar.

click to enlarge Burnett talking with constituents in front of the Cabrini-Green row houses where he grew up. - MICHAEL BOYD
  • Burnett talking with constituents in front of the Cabrini-Green row houses where he grew up.
  • Michael Boyd

As we drove past the row houses on Cambridge Avenue where Burnett lived for much of his childhood—the only part of Cabrini-Green that hasn't been torn down for mixed-income developments—he resumed his story.

Getting out of prison didn't immediately solve his problems. He continued his studies at Loop College, now Harold Washington College, but couldn't find a job. "That was the 1980s—it was hard out here. So my dad said, 'Let me take you down to see Mr. Dunne.'"

Burnett says he'll never forget paying Dunne a visit at the county building. "Mr. Dunne says, 'So you've been locked up?' I say, 'Yes sir.' He says, 'OK, I want you to go here'"—the county highway department—"'tomorrow. I want you to tell them the truth. I'm not going to promise you anything—I'm going to see what happens.'" Burnett did as he was told, and by that afternoon he was working as a highway department draftsman.

It was generally understood that patronage employees had two jobs—their day jobs with the city or county, and their responsibilities on behalf of the Democratic Party. But Burnett says that working the precincts was never a condition of his employment. "But I knew to help—I was appreciative." He says he made the rounds of the precinct for his dad, only this time he brought along a city directory. When one of their constituents needed a service, he'd dial up the appropriate city department. All he had to do was mention that he was with Dunne's 42nd Ward organization and the matter would be taken care of. "I said, 'Man, this is cool.'"

Eventually, when one of Dunne's precinct captains became ill, Burnett was tapped as his replacement, making him the youngest precinct captain in Dunne's organization. Soon he was named the organization's sergeant at arms, meaning he helped coordinate meetings and precinct work. Burnett came to think of himself as a junior member of Dunne's political crew, which included 42nd Ward alderman Burton Natarus; Jesse White, then a state rep and now the Illinois secretary of state; and other longtime city and county workers who owed their careers to the Democratic Party. Burnett called these men—they were all men—"the Italian guys."

Burnett also figured it would be smart to network with young political activists from other corners of the city. He became active in the Cook County Young Democrats, where he met a number of future elected officials and political operators, most importantly Darlena Williams, now the second-in-command in the county Recorder of Deeds office and Burnett's wife of 21 years. In 1991 he was elected the organization's chairman.

Natarus, who was defeated in 2007 after 36 years in the City Council, says Burnett grasped ward-level politics early in his career. "Walter doesn't have a PhD, you know—he got to know all those people and he worked and he watched how they did things. Everybody talks about the machine this and the machine that, but the point is that everything was local. The precinct captains knocked on doors and people came to them for everything in the ward."

Just north of Division and Sedgwick are the Marshall Field Garden Apartments, a subsidized housing complex that's long been a base of Jesse White's political strength and a focus of his community service. White is Burnett's political mentor, and more. Decades after they grew close, Burnett still refers to his patron as "Mr. White" and describes him as another father. White describes their relationship as one of friendship but calls his protege "the alderman."

When Burnett was incarcerated, one of his younger brothers joined White's youth gymnastics group, the Jesse White Tumblers, and Burnett's mother helped out as a parent volunteer. At the time the Tumblers were appearing in TV commercials, and royalties were helping Burnett's family scrape by.

After he was released, Burnett started helping out with White's charitable work—handing out turkeys and hams around the holidays, working with the Tumblers. He says he was eager to do what he could to help people. He also saw how the good deeds strengthened White politically. "We helped him get back on the right track, and he helped himself," White says of Burnett. "Since he got his life together, he has never disappointed us."

Their allegiance would be crucial after the contentious ward remap that followed the 1990 census, which resulted in a breakup of the old 42nd Ward. Its practical effect was that Natarus's base shifted to the Loop and Gold Coast, while Cabrini-Green was attached to the black 27th Ward, which stretched into the west side.

Burnett soon launched a bid to become the ward's alderman.

The western part of the 27th Ward was controlled by Alderman Rickey Hendon, whose knack for self-promotion and interest in filmmaking earned him the nickname "Hollywood" Hendon. After Hendon was elected to the state senate in 1992, Mayor Daley had to pick a replacement alderman. So Burnett paid a visit to the mayor's patronage chief.

"I put on my suit and tie and I went up and asked him, 'Will you ask Mayor Daley if he can appoint me alderman of the 27th Ward?' He started laughing. I knew they were going to say no. But I was like, 'I'm going to ask, they're going to tell me no, but they're going to think about me.' That was my method. Make them tell me no, but it's hard for them to tell me the next time, because they feel guilty saying no again. I still use that method."

As expected, Daley bypassed Burnett, instead appointing Dexter Watson, a member of Hendon's organization. So Burnett took a job with White and started quietly gearing up for the 1995 election. With White as his campaign manager, Burnett enlisted the help of Dunne's old Cabrini-area precinct captains and friends from the Young Democrats.

Hendon wasn't about to let Burnett and White grab control of his ward. He struck at Burnett's weak spot. Voters began receiving flyers with pictures of Burnett's face covered with bars.

Burnett responded by sitting down for an interview with the Sun-Times in which he told his story. "I feel that politics has saved my life," he said.

It worked. A little luck helped too. Despite his mudslinging, Hendon made a tactical error when he failed to challenge Burnett's candidacy on legal grounds. Convicted felons are disqualified from holding office in Illinois.

Late in the race, Burnett got another boost when Mayor Daley dispatched patronage workers to help. "You know how they do it—they put their money on a good horse," Burnett says. He won the seat in a runoff.

A year later Burnett helped White oust Hendon as the 27th Ward Democratic committeeman. In 1998 White was elected secretary of state, an office that oversees scores of jobs coveted by politicians across the state. Before Burnett had to face reelection, White helped him get an official pardon.

Their takeover of the 27th Ward was complete. As White puts it: "We play hardball."

As we drove through the ward, Burnett pointed to glittering new high-rises on Division and brick row houses on Larrabee. "People from Cabrini live in this building, in this complex, and these are all new developments. I'm making sure the Cabrini folks have a place to stay over in this neighborhood."

Early in his City Council career, Burnett didn't exactly stand out. "Burnett barely spoke for his first two years in office," the Sun-Times wrote in 1998. "When he did, Ald. Edward Burke often acted as a kind of prompter. Burke would announce that Burnett had something to say, and Burnett would quietly say it."

Burnett was hardly the first alderman to speak only when spoken to, but housing activists were infuriated when he went along with the destruction of his childhood community, Cabrini-Green, in favor of mixed-income developments. Others maintain that there was nothing odd about his silence—they believe Daley helped Burnett win his seat so the alderman could help provide cover for the effort. While many former Cabrini residents live in new buildings in the area, others had to move to CHA developments or subsidized apartments in other neighborhoods.

Though he recalls most of his years in Cabrini fondly, Burnett insists the redevelopment was the right thing to do. "My mom used to have to throw me in the bathtub because they were shooting outside," he recalls. "The goal is to bring people up, not segregate them and separate them. Now they have doormen, and the mailboxes aren't torn out, and the gangbangers aren't standing in front of the building checking you before you come in."

Even as he's become more comfortable speaking aloud, Burnett's remained cautious about stepping on the toes of the powerful. He told me repeatedly that he thinks it's more appropriate to fight with the mayor behind closed doors than to appear to grandstand on the council floor. And Burnett argues that he knows how to work the system to get what he wants out of it. Perhaps the best example is the tax increment financing program. While the program has been used as a mayoral slush fund, Burnett says he doesn't have a problem with it, since he knows how to "raise a stink" and pressure the administration to spend TIF funds on things he wants. He doesn't mention the fact that he's also lucky: most wards don't have TIF districts that collect tens of millions of dollars a year.

Nor has he been shy about accessing TIF funds for pet projects. Last year, at his mentor's behest, Burnett helped secure $5 million in TIF funds to finance a community center on Chicago Avenue that will be used as a training facility for the Jesse White Tumblers. "I think it's a great thing," Burnett says.

Ironically, the use of TIF money was at the center of an unusually confrontational fight Burnett waged for more than a year with the Daley administration—and other aldermen—on behalf of the Sweet Home Chicago ordinance, which would have set aside 20 percent of all TIF funds for affordable housing.

"We have to be committed to the people who live here, not just the people who want to move here to open multibillion-dollar businesses," he said last year. But Daley's council allies wouldn't allow a vote. And even though Burnett was the chairman of the black caucus, most of its members wouldn't back the measure either. Finally, in his last council meeting, Daley got the council to pass a weakened version of the ordinance that provides incentives for affordable housing but drops the mandate.

By then Burnett had quit his caucus post. "The ironic thing was that when the mayor finally decided to do something, all of them voted for it. And I said straight up, 'This man is leaving—why you all still carrying his water?'"

Twenty-first Ward alderman Howard Brookins Jr., who succeeded Burnett as the black caucus chairman, calls his colleague "a stand-up guy." But he said Burnett may not have understood that other caucus members weren't in a strong enough position to support the housing ordinance. "Nobody wanted to hear that you're bringing in more low-income housing," Brookins says.

He notes that most black aldermen don't have political godfathers like Jesse White. Nor do they represent affluent areas that generate tens of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions each election cycle. Records show that Burnett has little trouble raising money—through the years he's received contributions from real estate interests, including some of those who carried out the Cabrini-Green redevelopment, and downtown law firms such as Daley and George, home of one of the former mayor's brothers, and Katten Muchin Rosenman, which did the work on the parking meter deal and now employs the former mayor himself. He's also received checks from heavy hitters like the Labkon family, owners of a metal recycling company, who have donated more than $100,000 to Rahm Emanuel.

"People will kind of govern according to who they represent," Brookins says. "Walter has high-income people and low-income people in the ward. Mine is mostly middle income African-Americans. Mayor Daley could say what he'd like to me but he wouldn't necessarily say the same things to Walter because of Jesse White. But it's a blessing and a curse, because I could also tell Mayor Daley 'Fuck you,' while Walter would have to take into consideration what Jesse White wants."

The west-side part of the 27th Ward is a much different place from the north side—a collection of depressed neighborhoods struggling with abandoned buildings, commercial disinvestment, high crime, and frustration. On one recent afternoon, police were called to Monticello and Chicago Avenue when a fight broke out among people waiting in line for free samples of heroin offered by a neighborhood dealer.

We were headed down a worn-out section of West Chicago Avenue when Burnett noticed several people sitting on a couch outside a liquor store. He pulled out his cell phone and called his ward streets-and-san office. "See if you can get it moved as soon as possible," he directed. He hung up and chuckled. "They hang out there all the time and we have some challenges—but a couch? I guess they want to get comfortable."

Burnett says he's hopeful that a planned overhaul of that stretch of road, including repaving and planter medians, will help spur business. "But one of the challenges I have is that people are afraid of progress," he says. "People tell me they don't want planters—'If you put in planters, the drug dealers will hide drugs in the planters.' So I'm like, what comes first—the chicken or the egg, know what I'm saying?"

Most aldermen have some sort of "ward night," in which constituents can drop in for unscheduled chats with the alderman. In the 27th there are two such nights—Burnett joins White on the north part of the ward on Mondays, and on Thursdays Burnett has open hours in his office on the 1400 block of West Chicago Avenue.

A few weeks after our ward tour, Burnett invited me to sit in on one of his Thursday-night meetings. The gentrified strip outside his office was bustling—the restaurants and taverns were busy and there were no open parking spaces on the street. But it was a slow evening for Burnett, with just eight visits.

Among the visitors was Judy, an energetic woman with curly gray hair who has lived up the block for 20 years, since the area was, in Burnett's estimation, "skid row."

She noted that it had been a few months since she'd dropped by, so wanted to wish him a happy new year and pass on the news that her son was doing well in his freshman year at Whitney Young High School. "That's great!" Burnett said. "What's his name? I'll tell my son to look out for him."

Judy thanked him, and then admitted that there was just one thing she wanted to run past him. She moved into his office and took a seat facing his desk. When could he reinstate the moratorium on liquor licenses?

A moratorium had been in place on Judy's block until last year, when she and her husband agreed to let Burnett lift it so an upscale wine shop could open.

Burnett shook his head. By law, the current regulations would have to stay in place for two years. "You asked me to do it," he said. "That's what you wanted."

Judy frowned. "I didn't know it was for two years."

"Well, that's what it is."

"So we've got to wait two years."

Burnett nodded, then changed the subject. "Are you letting your hair grow?"

Judy patted the back of her head and smiled. "I'm letting it go to its natural color."

"I like it!" Burnett said. "You've got a young face so it looks good."

After Judy left, Burnett said it was almost certain that the 27th Ward would be picking up more of the west side and losing some "yuppie areas" like the one where we were sitting. But as long as the ward still included Jesse White's home on the near north side and his own home on the near west side, it was all good.

"After ten years you start cruising, 'cause people know you," he said. But when his ward moved slightly after the last remap in 2000, he'd had to work to get to know new constituents, and he could do it again. "It's like your first car," he said. "Once you sell the first one, it gets easier to let go. I mean, I drove that Bonneville till it was falling apart."

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