Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle was a no-show at the first televised mayoral debate on Thursday, so organizers of the Northwest Side forum left the traditional empty seat.
They probably should have done the same for Ald. Ed Burke.
The criminally charged 14th Ward aldermen isn’t running for mayor, but his presence loomed as large with some of the candidates as that of the missing frontrunner.
It was the first major forum since Burke appeared in federal court on attempted extortion charges.
“Just about everybody up here is going to say they never heard of Ed Burke,” former White House chief of staff Bill Daley said, referring to the other mayoral candidates crowded onto the state alongside him.
“It’s time now to make fundamental changes to our system of governing. We should have maybe 15 aldermen [instead of 50 in City Council],” Daley said.
Illinois Comptroller Susana Mendoza tiptoed around the question of how she would assure voters she could change an alleged culture of clout and corruption in City Hall.
“I’m focused on the future first and foremost. We have to look at this holistically and say we cannot have elected officials who are running for office to profit themselves,” said Mendoza, who has caught flak for having her wedding at Burke’s Southwest Side home.
“I’m focused on the next generation,” she said.
Gery Chico, former chief of staff to Richard M. Daley, touted his “record of performing whenever I’ve been asked to serve.”
One place Chico served was in Burke’s Finance Committee during the Council Wars of the 1980s. And he accepted Burke’s endorsement before the alderman’s legal troubles started.
On Thursday, Chico said he supported reducing aldermanic privilege over zoning changes and licensing within their wards.
“Every piece of data that affects a city contract should be published on the city website,” Chico said.
Absent from the forum at Steinmetz College Prep was Preckwinkle, who is indirectly mentioned in the criminal complaint against Burke. The alderman allegedly muscled a Burger King franchisee to donate to Preckwinkle’s campaign committee.
Lawyer Jerry Joyce Jr. showed up for the final 30 minutes of the 90-minute forum.
The 12 candidates showed up on time all said “yes” when asked if they supported a ban on alderman earning an outside income beyond their City Hall paychecks. The feds say Burke was trying to funnel business to his property tax appeal law firm.
But candidates were split on whether Burke should resign from the 14th Ward post he’s held for five decades.
Daley and Chico said it’s up to Burke himself. Former Ald. Bob Fioretti, ex-Chicago Police Supt. Garry McCarthy and state Rep. La Shawn Ford said he shouldn’t give up his office.
Mendoza, Cook County Circuit Court Clerk Dorothy Brown, Austin Chamber of Commerce director Amara Enyia and DePaul grad John Kozlar all said Burke should resign, while former Chicago Public Schools CEO Paul Vallas and former federal prosecutor Lori Lightfoot said 14th Ward voters should decide his fate.
All 12 said they support term limits for aldermen.
It was a largely civil debate with virtually no verbal sparring between those who attended.
Chico pounced on Mendoza during introductions in one of the few barbed encounters of the forum, which was hosted by WGN News and Ald. Gilbert Villegas (36th).
“What I see right now from people like Toni Preckwinkle and Sue Mendoza is raising taxes. We are not an ATM machine for lazy government,” Chico said.
“Just to be clear, Gery, it’s ‘Susana,’ ” Mendoza said in turn. “The ‘s’ is not silent, and neither am I.”
The organizers kept the 90-minute forum moving, limiting the 13 candidates eventually participating to one-minute answers and asking a series of “lightning rounds” requiring one-word answers.
“At the risk of getting hounded by my mother tonight who is watching, yes,” Vallas said.
“Yes,” businessman Willie Wilson said, “because everybody is going to be smoking it anyway.”