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Chicago deans still have clout in council policy making



Deans of the Chicago City Council have always been men of history. The outgoing dean, Aid. Anthony Laurino (39th) had been in real estate and insurance. A former city inspector and a boxer, he ran his northwest side ward for 29 years as it became one of the city's wealthiest residential areas. Before him, Aid. Vito Marzullo (25th), always and ever a politician, became a living example of what happens when you don't share power with a growing populace. Hispanics took control of the near southwest side ward and severed Marzullo's ties to its power base.

Today, there are two deans, a pair of men who became aldermen 25 years ago as the result of special elections and now rank above their peers in seniority. Aid. Edward Burke (14th) succeeded his father, Joseph Burke, as director of the southwest side ward. Aid. Theris Gabinski (32d) was tabbed by U.S. Rep. Dan Rostenkowski for the northwest side post after Aid. Robert Sulski became a circuit court judge.

"I think the biggest change in the council over the last 25 years has been the erosion of the traditional, political neighborhood base," said Burke. "Now, people get here by accident as much as anything else."

Burke and Gabinski were seated as aldermen in 1969. Burke has always been the more vocal of the two during their quarter century in the council. Gabinski preferred to meet quietly with his mentor, Rostenkowski, and for years served as the congressman's point man in the city council.

In 1972, Burke joined then 10th Ward alderman Edward Vrdolyak in his "coffee rebellion," a move that wrestled a share of power from Mayor Richard J. Daley's floor leader, Aid. Thomas Keane (31st). For years, Burke, Vrdolyak and others had been branded "young Turks" for their rebellious streak in attempting to pull power from Keane and other "gray wolves," so called because of their age and political nature. Always an out-front guy, Burke was tagged as a member of an "evil cabal" by then commissioner of consumer affairs Jane M. Byrne because he allegedly "greased" the way for taxi fare increases. However, her attacks ended after she became mayor in 1979 and needed Burke as a council ally.

When Mayor Harold Washington's election in 1983 divided the city council into warring factions, Burke once again sided with Vrdolyak and "the 29." But this time, the battle against "the 21" placed Burke on the side of the status quo. His reversal from council outsider to insider was complete. Gabinski was a member of "the 29," but unlike many of his colleagues, he declined to take part in the rhetorical barrages that led the body's proceedings to be dubbed "council wars." Not surprisingly, Rostenkowski also avoided taking public sides.

Burke is an accomplished attorney. Gabinski is a former high school teacher. Their professions are in keeping with the careers of past and current city council members, who have been everything from saloon keepers to police officers. The biggest shift from recent years as co-deans are Burke's and Gabinski's clout. Deans from the past, such as Laurino and Marzullo, have mainly been the oldest guy around. To them fell this honorary title that recognized their years of service and signaled to freshmen aldermen that this "dean" could help them out if they had a question or a council problem.

"I feel wiser, but not older," Burke quipped about taking a post normally held by seniors. As to helping council newcomers, Burke said he "would like to think of myself as someone who encourages younger member to make the institution (city council) a distinguished and respected organization."

Indeed, Burke has already helped some freshmen. In 1991, he worked

38/September 1994/Illinois Issues

Indeed, Burke has already helped some freshmen. In 1991, he worked together with Roosevelt University to offer a special session on "Duties and Responsibilities of the Office." The course included resource materials and lectures. Burke hopes to repeat the session after next year's aldermanic elections. While saying it's too early to predict class size, he noted that there has been a huge turnover in recent years. In fact, nearly one-third of the 50-member council has been appointed by Mayor Richard M. Daley.

Burke and Gabinski not only outlasted many others to become deans, they have thrived in their city council tenure. Burke is the long-time chairman of the Finance Committee, the council's most powerful sub-group. Because of his close ties to Rostenkowski, the most powerful congressman in Illinois and arguably one of the most powerful on the Hill, Gabinski has not lacked for contacts, or the ability to call in favors. However, with Rostenkowski on the political ropes after his federal corruption indictment, Gabinski has been more low key than usual. He even declined to be interviewed for this column.

Burke and Gabinski have gained stature in the city council, not so much because of their years as elected officials, as was the case with their predecessors, but rather for their able skills as politicians.

Voters keep returning them to the City Council, and constituents still favor them to run their wards, somewhat like "the old days." Rather than the town hall meetings on issues of concern that some of the younger, more liberal aldermen seek out, Burke and Gabinski usually meet with constituents in the privacy of their ward offices.

They have also weathered the city's political storms through half a dozen mayors, surviving controversy and sometimes especially in Burke's case during the Washington administration triggering the wrath of critics. They are important men of Chicago history in the council in their own right, and their recognition as deans only serves to add to their resumes; it doesn't conclude them.

Manuel Galvan is a Chicago writer and marketing consultant. 

September 1994/Illinois Issues/39

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