A long, long time ago, in a Chicago far, far away, there was a triumvirate known as the “Three Eddies”: Edward Vrdolyak, alderman of the 10th Ward and chairman of the Cook County Democratic Party; Edward Burke, alderman of the 14th Ward; and Edmund Kelly, general superintendent of the Chicago Park District.
The Three Eddies had one thing in common: they hated Mayor Harold Washington.
As committeeman of 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 shut down Washington’s legislation and appointments. The conflict became known as Council Wars, the city as “Beirut on the Lake.” Ed Burke was nicknamed “Slow Eddie.” According to the book Chicago Politics Ward by Ward, by David K. Fremon, Burke “was considered second only to Edward Vrdolyak among the anti-Washington bloc.
“He also assumed the role of vocal point man for anti-Washington attacks. By all accounts, he relished it. Burke attacked the Washington transition team’s report of racial bias in the city (while firing seven black members of his committee) … He led a fight to stop Washington from laying off 700 patronage workers; sought council approval for all contracts over $50 million; and most notably, attempted 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 the city’s voters, and nearly all the voters on the Southwest, Northwest, and Southeast sides. At the 1986 Lincoln Park Alive! cultural festival, a group of clowns presented Washington with a balloon shaped like a sword, “for your battles at City Hall.” When one of the clowns asked Washington whom he would like to use it on, the mayor cracked, “any one of the Three Eddies.”
Washington died of a heart attack in 1987. He was at the top of his game. A year earlier, he had won a City Council majority in a series of court-ordered special elections. That April, he was elected to a second term. The Three Eddies are all still with us, though, and they’ve all come to unfortunate ends. Their tales are a lesson in what happens to politicians who outlive their power, and the political era in which they gained it.
Vrdolyak, the most powerful of the Eddies, has fallen the furthest. After losing the 1987 mayoral election to Washington, he joined the Republican Party — a fatal move in Chicago. None of his old precinct captains would follow him into the party of Reagan. He lost races for clerk of the circuit court and (again) mayor. Vrdolyak retired to a lucrative law practice — so lucrative he has twice been imprisoned for earning 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 inmate #19511-424 at the federal prison camp in Rochester, Minnesota, where he’s doing time for evading taxes on $12 million he skimmed off the state’s $9 billion tobacco company settlement in the 1990s. Vrdolyak’s lawyers recently requested his release, arguing that, at age 84, he has dementia and is at risk of dying from COVID-19.
Slow Eddie fell more slowly than Fast Eddie, but he, too, has been stripped of political power and is in trouble with the feds. On the Southwest Side, Ed Burke’s nemesis, U.S. Rep. Jesús “Chuy” García, has been chipping away at the Burke family’s power base. First, he beat Burke’s brother, state Rep. Dan Burke, with a 26-year-old schoolteacher, Aaron Ortiz. Then Ortiz took Burke’s committeeman’s seat, robbing him of his role as head of the party’s judicial slating committee. In January 2019, Burke was arrested for racketeering, bribery, and extortion. Among the charges: pressuring the company renovating the Old Post Office to do business with his tax appeals firm in exchange for city 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 delivers long-winded speeches with quotes from Winston Churchill and the proverbial “wise man.” He doesn’t say much at all.
Ed Kelly isn’t in any legal trouble. But the man who ran the park district for 14 years can’t get a park named after him. A movement to rename Green Briar Park after Kelly ran into objections from Friends of the Parks. They brought up a 1982 lawsuit charging that the park district neglected Black and Latino neighborhoods. The suit 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 in Lincolnwood. “You can’t defend yourself with these people. They don’t know my background. I worked my keister off.”
Green Briar Park is still Green Briar Park. Harold Washington has a community college and a library named after him, but nobody wants to name anything after an Eddie. The Eddies practiced a brand of politics based on race, patronage and political favors. That may have worked in another, older Chicago, but it has left them without honor in this one. The Three Eddies may have thought they were wise men, but they’ve turned out to be stooges.