Although five Democrats are already jockeying to replace Secretary of State Jesse White, Ald. Walter Burnett (27th Ward) told WTTW News that he will not run to replace his political godfather.
Burnett, elected to the City Council in 1995, said he decided that he could not continue to serve as alderman for the West Loop — where the COVID-19 pandemic has only slightly cooled the red-hot pace of development — while running for a statewide office amid the pandemic.
“I have a great ward,” said Burnett, who was widely expected by political observers to replace White once the state’s most popular Democrat finally retired. “I can’t do both.”
Burnett said he would have accepted an appointment from Gov. J.B. Pritzker to replace the 86-year-old White, who was first elected secretary of state in 1998. White won his last term in office with 68% of the vote in 2018, smashing his Republican challenger.
But Burnett said he could never get a commitment from the governor that he would get the nod to replace White as part of a maneuver perfected by Chicago’s Democratic machine during the past several decades to hang onto power by giving the party’s favorite a head start in office via an appointment.
Emily Bittner, a spokesperson for Pritzker, told WTTW News “the governor doesn’t contemplate filling hypothetical vacancies.”
Dave Druker, a spokesperson for White, told WTTW News that White has no plans to resign and will complete his sixth term in office in 2022.
“Mr. White deserves to leave on a high note,” Burnett said. “He deserves to enjoy the rest of his life.”
Burnett said he would follow White’s lead in endorsing a candidate in the March 15, 2022, Democratic primary.
That would give Burnett cover to pick among two of his City Council colleagues — Ald. Pat Dowell (3rd Ward) and Ald. David Moore (17th Ward) — and City Clerk Anna Valencia. Also running are former state Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias and state Sen. Michael Hastings, who represents south suburban Frankfort.
Giannoulias is leading the race for campaign cash, and has already drawn fire from Valencia on ethics.
“The secretary of state likes everyone who has announced,” Druker said.
White’s decision to retire without anointing a successor has set off a scramble among ambitious Democrats eager to lead the office that oversees driver’s licenses and state identification cards and has a workforce of 3,600 employees.
The five other Democrats who hold statewide office are expected to seek re-election in 2022.
“Gov. Pritzker is committed to electing Democrats up and down the ballot next year so we can continue to move Illinois in the right direction,” said Quentin Fulks, a spokesperson for Pritzker’s political operation. “It’s critical we elect a Democratic secretary of state to continue Secretary White’s unparalleled legacy, and Gov. Pritzker plans to throw his full support behind the Democratic nominee."
No Republicans have announced that they plan to run for secretary of state, although former state Sen. Bill Brady, of Bloomington, is expected to run after leading the Republican minority in the Senate from 2017-20.
Burnett said he expects the general election fight for secretary of state to be fierce, as Illinois Republicans challenge Pritzker’s bid for a second term — and attempt to win back at least one statewide office after being locked out by Democrats in 2018.
“This is a different day,” Burnett said. “It is going to be a different race.”
With White’s resignation and Burnett’s decision not to seek statewide office, the political operation started by former Cook County Board President George Dunne will see its grip on Illinois political power, which dates back to 1969, wane.
Dunne, the longest-serving county board president in history, encouraged White — then a teacher — to change careers and run for the Illinois House. In 1975, White won and served as a state representative until 1993, when he was elected as Cook County recorder of deeds, an office he led until he became secretary of state.
Burnett, who served as an aide to White when he was Cook County recorder of deeds, launched his own political career in 1995, winning the 27th Ward seat on the Chicago City Council, which was once held by former state Sen. Rickey Hendon, who led a rival political operation.
But Burnett knew he was unlikely to win another term on the City Council because of a state law that prevented convicted felons from holding public office in Illinois, leaving him vulnerable to a challenge by Hendon, who wanted his City Council seat back. When the future alderman was 17, he spent two years in prison after being convicted of armed robbery.
White convinced then-Gov. Jim Edgar to pardon Burnett, paving the way for the Cabrini-Green native to spend the next quarter-century on the Chicago City Council.
Burnett choked back tears when asked about the role the secretary of state played in his life, and that of his family. Both of Burnett’s parents volunteered for White, and his brother was a member of the Jesse White Tumblers.
“I don’t like to talk about it,” said Burnett, overcome with emotion. “I wouldn’t be here without him. He has been a great partner. It has been a great run.”