Oh, How the Three Mighty Whirlwinds Fell – Chicago Magazine
A long, long time ago, in a far, far away Chicago, there was a triumvirate known as the “Three Eddies”: Edward Vrdolyak, alderman for the 10th Ward and chairman of the Cook County Democratic Party; Edward Burke, city councilor for the 14th arrondissement; and Edmund Kelly, general superintendent of the Chicago Park District.
The Three Eddies had one thing in common: they hated Mayor Harold Washington.
As a committee member for the 47th Ward – the “Fightin’ 47th” – Kelly was the first Democrat to endorse Washington’s Republican opponent Bernard Epton.
Ed Vrdolyak, nicknamed “Fast Eddie”, was the leader of “The 29”, the bloc of white ethnic aldermen who united to end Washington’s legislation and appointments. The conflict became known as the Council Wars, the city as “Beirut on the Lake”. Ed Burke was nicknamed “Slow Eddie”. According to the book Chicago Political Ward by Wardby David K. Fremon, Burke “was considered second only to Edward Vrdolyak among the anti-Washington bloc.
“He also assumed the role of spokesman for the anti-Washington attacks. Obviously, he savored it. Burke attacked the Washington Transition Team’s report on racial bias in the city (while firing seven black members of his committee)…He led a fight to stop Washington from firing 700 partisan workers; sought board approval for all contracts over $50 million; and most notably, tried to have Washington removed from office because the mayor filed an ethics statement three weeks late.
The Three Eddies were the face of the white backlash against Chicago’s first black mayor, a movement that included nearly half of the city’s voters and nearly all voters on the southwest, northwest, and southeast sides. At the 1986 Lincoln Park Alive! cultural festival, a group of clowns presented Washington with a sword-shaped balloon, “for your battles at City Hall.” When one of the clowns asked Washington who he’d like to use it on, the mayor snapped, “any of the three swirls.”
Washington died of a heart attack in 1987. He was at the top of his game. A year earlier, he had won a majority on the city council in a series of court-ordered special elections. In April, he was elected for a second term. The Three Eddies are still with us, however, and they all met an unfortunate end. Their stories are a lesson in what happens to politicians who survive their power and the political era in which they gained it.
Vrdolyak, the most powerful of the Eddies, fell the most. After losing the 1987 mayoral election to Washington, he joined the Republican Party – a fatal decision in Chicago. None of his former precinct captains would follow him into Reagan’s party. He lost races for circuit court clerk and (again) mayor. Vrdolyak retired to a lucrative law firm – so lucrative he was jailed twice for making money he shouldn’t have. In 2010 he went to prison for his role in a kickback scheme involving the sale of a school building. He is currently detained #19511-424 at Federal Prison Camp in Rochester, Minnesota, where he is serving time for tax evasion on $12 million he skimmed the $9 billion tobacco company settlement state in the 1990s. Vrdolyak’s lawyers recently called for his release, arguing that, at 84, he suffers from dementia and is at risk of dying from COVID-19.
Slow Eddie fell slower than Fast Eddie, but he too was stripped of his political power and in trouble with the feds. On the southwest side, Ed Burke’s nemesis, U.S. Representative Jesús “Chuy” García, dented the Burke family’s power base. First, he beat Burke’s brother, State Rep. Dan Burke, with 26-year-old teacher Aaron Ortiz. Then Ortiz took the committee member seat from Burke, stripping him of his role as head of the party’s judicial selection committee. In January 2019, Burke was arrested for racketeering, bribery and extortion. Among the charges: pressuring the renovation company of the Old Post Office to do business with his tax appeal firm in exchange for municipal permits. Burke’s arrest led to the election of Mayor Lori Lightfoot, who removed him as chairman of finance, the city council’s most powerful committee. Burke, who won a record 13th term in 2019, still attends Council meetings, but he no longer gives long speeches with quotes from Winston Churchill and the proverbial “wise man”. He doesn’t say much at all.
Ed Kelly has no problem with the law. But the man who led the park district for 14 years can’t have a park named after him. A move to rename Green Briar Park after Kelly faced objections from Friends of the Parks. They filed a lawsuit in 1982 accusing the park neighborhood of neglecting black and Latino neighborhoods. The lawsuit was settled a year later with a federal consent decree, in which the Park District agreed to spend more money in those neighborhoods.
“You’d think they were naming Soldier Field after me!” grumbled Kelly, now 97 and retired to Lincolnwood. “You can’t defend yourself with these people. They don’t know my past. I worked my keister.
Green Briar Park is still Green Briar Park. Harold Washington has a community college and library named after him, but no one wants to name anything after an Eddie. The Eddies practiced politics based on race, patronage, and political favors. It may have worked in another, older Chicago, but it left them without honor in this one. The Three Eddies may have thought they were sages, but they turned out to be stooges.