Some thoughts on Edward Burke, CAN TV, and Chicago Media Action

Posted by Mitchell - January 2, 2023 (entry 739)

Edward Burke, the longest serving alderman in Chicago history, is leaving the Chicago City Council after serving in the Chicago City Council for nearly fifty-four years.

Chicago Media Action and I had a number of interactions with Alderman Burke over the years, particularly in light of our efforts over the years to help Chicago's public access cable TV outlet, CAN TV. I'll discuss that in some depth, as well as some other implications of Ed Burke's departure. But first, some background on Mr. Burke.

Ed Burke earned a BA and JD from DePaul University, worked as a police officer for three years, then in 1969 became the youngest alderman in Chicago history at age 24. The "election" Burke won was a vote of 65 precinct captains, held after the death of the previous alderman -- Joseph P. Burke, Ed's father.

Ed Burke proceeded to win his council seat for fourteen terms, also an all-time record (note: there are no term limits for any Chicago elected officials). Ed Burke's only electoral loss came in 1980 when he was trounced 62-37 in the Democratic party primary for the Cook County State's Attorney's office (the Chicago equivalent of a DA) to his future boss, Richard M. Daley.

Burke is well-known for his key role in the Council Wars of the 1980s, in which a block of 29 aldermen (28 of whom were white) opposed the policies of Harold Washington, Chicago's first black mayor. For decades, Burke served as the chair of the Chicago Finance Committee, and was able to evade many threats to his seat and his power over more than a half-century, including federal investigations and controversies involving his own law firm working on behalf of Donald Trump.

But even the vaunted Ed Burke has lost his power. Burke finally did lose his finance chair, and was "silenced and humiliated at Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s first City Council meeting". Lightfoot openly called for Burke to resign. Also in 2019, Burke faced well-publicized extortion charges, the trial for which began just two months ago (November 2022). The charges came right before the 2019 Chicago city elections, and despite it all Burke was able to win re-election yet again, even avoiding a runoff.

Chicago Media Action and I would cross paths with Ed Burke a number of times from 2004 through 2011. The matter concerned funding for Chicago Access Network Television (CAN TV), Chicago's fleet of public access cable television channels. Chicago Media Action participated in CAN TV's Community Forum, and CAN TV had consistently provided coverage to lots of activist and community efforts at a time when such efforts got precious little extensive or sympathetic major media coverage. Chicago Media Action consistently made support of CAN TV one of our key focal points.

CAN TV found itself in rough waters over its funding, which are paid by cable television providers as an obligation of their cable franchise. In Chicago, those cable providers are Wide Open West, Comcast, and the company formerly known as RCN. In 2004, RCN defaulted on its payments to CAN TV; RCN in return earned the ire of many Chicagoans and also received record-setting fines from the Chicago Cable Commission; RCN it so happened filed for bankruptcy. The Chicago City Council entered the fray by making a proposed revision to the city's cable franchise fee, which would have awarded millions to CAN TV to help fill the RCN funding gap. The revision was headed for rapid passage -- until it was delayed in part by...Ed Burke. During that delay, the funding fee was diluted from 20 percent of the franchise fee that would have gone to CAN TV to 5 percent.

In 2008 and 2009, Burke and Chicago Media Action crossed paths again, this time related to addressing the long-term funding structure for CAN TV. There had been longstanding concerns about the funding structure for CAN TV; it wasn't keeping up as things changed. Ed Burke, to his credit, co-sponsored an ordinance to address the matter. There was one Finance Committee public meeting hearing held during the morning and afternoon on Halloween -- October 31, 2008. The CAN TV funding ordinance was originally scheduled sixth on an agenda of some thirty agenda items, but for some reason that was never publicly stated, Burke himself then moved the CAN TV ordinance from sixth to last place.

The meeting stretched on for nearly four hours, during which (among other things) Ed Burke presented a slideshow decrying some of the unsavory characters involved in the subprime mortgage crisis which took place in the summer of 2008. This was a topic that was getting ample media attention at the time, and not the best use of precious meeting time. The overall effect was precisely to eat up time, exhausting the dozens upon dozens of people who attended, and ultimately forcing the meeting to end "prematurely" because the meeting recorder, by law, couldn't work beyond a certain time limit and the meeting couldn't be held without a recorder.

Months passed. Finally, the CAN TV funding ordinance was scheduled for a vote at a finance hearing on March 16, 2009 at 10AM. But on the cusp of that vote, we discovered that the ordinance had changed in ways that were harmful to CAN TV's long-term viability and which directed away money that should be designated into CAN TV. We switched on a dime from support to opposition. Unlike the hearing on Halloween, the funding ordinance was front-and-center: much of the hearing time on March 16 was devoted to testimony from various CAN TV supporters and advocates. Ed Burke left the hearing just as the testimony was starting, presumably to eat lunch and/or hobnob with lobbyists. When he returned after more than an hour, I happened to be giving my testimony, at which point Ed Burke gaveled me down, and in the course of doing so he pronounced my last name correctly, which I admit was kind of surprising. Burke then cleared the remainder of the scheduled testimonials, and with a "voice vote" deemed the ordinance passed.

Needless to say, I was pissed at Ed Burke. Still am. For years, I had flirted with ideas of getting back at him, through shame and/or mockery. I had the idea of making a song, and I even worked out the first lyric and verse: "Edward Burke / He's a jerk / Edward Burke". I never got the song more developed than that, and while I still could, is it worth doing? After all, Ed Burke is on his way out, and CAN TV is on the air -- you can even watch the channels online.

It would seem the fight against Ed Burke has been won, especially given the litany of corruption charges he will have to contend with. I and we should devote our energies to other fights, other struggles, other ways to improve Chicago and our world.

In one final irony, Burke said there are only three ways to leave the Chicago City Council: "The ballot box. The jury box. Or the pine box." And yet Burke is about to by none of those routes. This is how Ed Burke's career ends, not with a bang but a whimper.

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