Some advice for Will Burns

We anticipate a solid victory for Ald. Will Burns (4th). Although perennial challenger Norman Bolden seems to have finally made significant inroads into Hyde Park — as evidenced by a letter signed by numerous Hyde Park residents that appeared in last week’s Herald — he is still challenged organizationally and financially. That combination is lethal in Chicago politics, and Bolden will have to remedy it to unseat Burns.

Bolden’s growing list of supporters is both a credit to his determination and hard work and also reflects Burns’ missteps as alderman. While politicians always have their critics and naysayers, the two critical areas where Burns needs to adjust his approach to grow his base of support in Hyde Park are education and development.

Chicago Public Schools’ closure of 50 schools was stunning in scope and conducted with only symbolic opportunity for input from the communities impacted by the closures — disproportionately African American communities with large percentages of low-income residents. In the north end of Burns’ ward, where some of those closures took place, his silence was conspicuous. In Hyde Park, where he had nothing to say about the closure of Canter, both his silence and the reaction to it by residents were notable. There can be little doubt that Burns shed voters during that process.

It was not unreasonable for Hyde Parkers to expect a voice of conscience during those proceedings. In fact, this is the foundational legacy of Leon Despres, Hyde Park’s paragon of aldermanic behavior. And that expectation is no surprise to alderman. To be a politician in Hyde Park and not speak out on behalf of the vulnerable is always a conscious choice — and has consequences.

Another misstep that surely shaved some votes from Burns was in connection to Vue53 — the high-rise slated to be built across from Nichols Park. Whether Burns came down in favor or against the building, he was going to gain critics, but it was important that he did not appear to be caving in to interests on either side. Hyde Parkers with long memories know that a development of a similar nature was quashed by then-Ald. Toni Preckwinkle, who was extremely successful in gaining campaign donations from developers. It is possible to say no to developers and still succeed in politics. Likewise, had Burns said no to the anti-high-rise crowd but not appeared to be carrying water for the University of Chicago, it would have merely been a difference of opinion, not a moral or ethical question, that separated them. Instead, the appearance was that he was dismissive of criticism about the massive project and giving a free pass to the developers of it and the university.

This year, Burns’ election was his to lose, and it appears he will not lose it — we won’t know for sure for another week. But that may not always be true, and hewing closer to the fundamental qualities Hyde Park expects from its aldermen will serve him well going forward.