Eileen O’Neill Burke is ‘Not Related to THAT Burke’ — But He Backed Her Appellate Court Bid

Video: The WTTW News Spotlight Politics team discusses the 2024 primary race for Cook County state’s attorney and more of the day’s top news. (Produced by Andrea Guthmann)

 Usually, in Cook County, a familiar Irish name is an asset on Election Day.

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But for Eileen O’Neill Burke, locked in a fierce fight for the Democratic nomination for Cook County state’s attorney against Clayton Harris III, her last name has turned out to be a double-edged sword.

So O’Neill Burke took to social media to clear up the issue as voters filled out their mail-in ballots and voted early in advance of Election Day on March 19.

“For the record – no, I’m not related to THAT Burke,” she posted on X, formerly known as Twitter, confident that she didn’t have to spell out her reference to former Ald. Ed Burke, convicted Dec. 21 on 13 counts of racketeering, bribery and extortion. He is scheduled to be sentenced in June.

Harris, an attorney and lecturer at the University of Chicago, frequently refers to his opponent simply as Burke, leaning into the apparent confusion that O’Neill Burke — who has always used both of her last names professionally — hopes to dispel.

The jury that convicted Burke heard in exhaustive detail how the former politician routinely sought to corruptly leverage his elected office for perks or cash — without anyone around him blowing the whistle or even voicing the mildest objection.

In several secretly recorded conversations heard by the jury, Burke touted his power to reward his friends and political allies with not just official city actions but also plum positions on benches in courtrooms across Cook County.

“We made his daughter a judge here in Cook County,” Burke said on one recording, referring to a member of the Amtrak board of directors. “You’ll find out that Chicago’s a very small town.”

Despite O’Neill Burke’s lighthearted social media post, like nearly all current and former Cook County judges, she contributed to Burke’s campaign fund before seeking, and winning, his support during an election. In her case, it was for her bid to join the first district of Illinois’ Appellate Court.

O’Neill Burke, now retired from the bench, has put her experience as a judge front and center in her bid for state’s attorney — she often uses the honorific “Justice” and urges voters to elect her because she “has spent her career committed to seeking justice for the people of Cook County.”

Burke had the power to handpick judges in Chicago and Cook County because as the head of the judicial subcommittee of the Cook County Democratic Party, he could either bless — or torpedo — a bid to sit on the bench nearly anywhere in Illinois.

Burke held that unquestioned position of power in the Cook County Democratic Party for more than three decades. He used it to fill the courthouses with those whom he could count on to return the support he had shown them during tough elections, always ready with a check, a reassuring word and perhaps a well-timed recommendation.

Burke used that power to help his wife, Ann Burke, become a judge in 1995, even though she had no experience as a trial lawyer. After serving as the chief justice of the Illinois Supreme Court, Ann Burke retired in 2023 and appointed Joy Cunningham to replace her. Cunningham is now running for a full term on the Illinois Supreme Court, with the support of the Cook County Democratic Party.

But Ed Burke’s record of picking judicial candidates, referred to as slating by insiders, was not unblemished.

In 2008, O’Neill Burke, then working as a criminal defense attorney, won her first race to become a judge without the blessing of Burke or the Cook County Democratic Party. O’Neill Burke beat four others vying to replace Cook County Circuit Court Judge Aurelia Pucinski, who had been appointed to serve on the Illinois Appellate Court.

Pucinski’s father was Roman Pucinski, who served as a congressman from 1959 to 1973 and then on the Chicago City Council from 1973 to 1991, cementing his status as the most powerful Polish American politician in Chicago for decades.

The only woman running in the 2008 10th subcircuit race with an Irish last name, O’Neill Burke defeated Kenneth Fletcher, who was the party’s pick to replace Pucinski. A 2011 study published in the DePaul University Law Review by Albert J. Klumpp that analyzed data from several judicial elections, including the one that vaulted O’Neill Burke to the bench, found a statistically significant advantage for female candidates with Irish surnames.

In that race, Burke “underestimated a woman with unmatched credentials,” according to O’Neill Burke’s spokeswoman Aviva Bowen. O’Neill Burke declined to answer questions directly from WTTW News for this story.

“Unfortunately, despite her 30 years of service as a prosecutor, criminal defense attorney, and judge, Eileen O’Neill Burke has still been accused of not being able to think for herself,” according to O’Neill Burke’s campaign. “The only time Ed Burke and the political machine supported Eileen was when she was ran unopposed.”

After six years as a Cook County judge, O’Neill Burke had her eye on an appellate court seat. In 2015, O’Neill Burke contributed $500 to Burke’s main campaign account, her only direct contribution to Burke’s war chest, which he would eventually use to fund his criminal defense, according to records filed with the Illinois State Board of Elections.

In 2016, O’Neill Burke — this time with the backing of Burke and the Cook County Democratic Party, which likely helped clear the field — won an uncontested race to replace Illinois Appellate Court Justice James Epstein, who retired.

Harris said in a statement to WTTW News that he is “deeply concerned that Eileen Burke apparently paid off Ed Burke in exchange for his slating committee’s endorsement.”

“(O’Neill Burke’s) financial involvement with the disgraced former alderman is just one more sign that she intends to bring Cook County backwards to the bad old days of wrongful convictions, police torture, and pay-to-play politics,” Harris said in a statement to WTTW News.

Eileen O’Neill Burke and Clayton Harris III are running for the Democratic nomination in the race for Cook County state’s attorney. (Photos provided)Eileen O’Neill Burke and Clayton Harris III are running for the Democratic nomination in the race for Cook County state’s attorney. (Photos provided)

In 2017 and 2018, O’Neill Burke’s husband, John Burke, an attorney at the law firm of Ice Miller, made four contributions totaling $1,250 to two campaign committees controlled by Ed Burke, according to records filed with the Illinois State Board of Elections.

In 2019, John Burke contributed $2,675 to Toni Preckwinkle, who took over as the president of the Cook County Democratic Party in 2018. John Burke also contributed $750 to Preckwinkle in 2016, two years into her second term as the president of the Cook County Board of Commissioners, and the same year his wife joined the Illinois Appellate Court. Preckwinkle is backing Harris.

Ed Burke was ousted from his position as the head of the judicial slating committee in January 2019 after he was charged with attempting to extort two Texas businessmen who needed city permits to renovate a Burger King in Burke’s Southwest Side ward. At Burke’s direction, the businessmen contributed $10,000 to Preckwinkle’s campaign account, helping to decimate her 2019 bid for Chicago mayor.

O’Neill Burke’s campaign urged WTTW News to examine Harris’ ties to convicted former Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who was pardoned by former President Donald Trump, who faces four criminal trials even as he is poised to secure the Republican nomination for president.

Harris served as Blagojevich’s final chief of staff, joining his administration as it reeled from his arrest and indictment on a number of charges in 2008, including attempting to sell the appointment to the vacant U.S. Senate seat once held by former President Barack Obama.

“Clayton was proud to step in to manage our 60,000 employee state government in one of our state’s darkest moments,” said Alaina Hampton, Harris’ campaign manager. “Clayton is the only candidate in this race with experience managing a large staff – which makes him uniquely qualified to lead the thousand-employee State’s Attorney’s Office.”

Preckwinkle, and the Cook County Democratic Party, endorsed Harris to replace Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx, who declined to run for a third term. O’Neill Burke’s presentation in August to Democratic committeepeople was “disastrous,” Preckwinkle said Monday.

In that session, O’Neill Burke clashed with several committeepeople over her ties to Republicans and defended her decades-long record of voting in Democratic primaries.

O’Neill Burke stepped down as an appellate court judge to run to replace Foxx “because she believes the criminal justice system isn’t working for anyone right now,” according to her campaign spokesperson.

O’Neill Burke and her husband have contributed a combined $106,900 to her campaign for state’s attorney, lifting state-imposed limits on campaign contributions to all candidates in the race.

The law is designed to even the playing field between wealthy candidates and those who cannot self-fund their campaigns by allowing them to raise bigger amounts from contributors.

While the party’s endorsement was once certain to give a candidate a distinct financial advantage, O’Neill Burke has outraised Harris significantly, reporting contributions of approximately $1.9 million. The bulk of those contributions have come from members of Chicago’s financial services sector, who have frequently given to Republican candidates. By comparison, Harris has raised approximately $750,000, records show.

Many of the same contributors to O’Neill Burke’s campaign gave former Chicago Public Schools CEO Paul Vallas a significant financial advantage over then-Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson in the 2023 mayoral race. However, Johnson — boosted by the Chicago Teachers Union — defeated Vallas, a feat Harris, who has also been endorsed by the CTU, hopes to replicate.

Contact Heather Cherone: @HeatherCherone | (773) 569-1863 | [email protected]

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