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Kadner: ‘Burke Rebellion’ was no revolution

Kelly Burke

Kelly Burke

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Updated: December 2, 2012 2:07PM



People say you can’t beat Mike Madigan’s Democratic organization in Illinois.

It has too much money, they say. Too many troops to put in the field. Too much political clout.

No independent candidate, no Republican, stands a chance.

Well, two years ago, Kelly Burke, running as an independent Democrat for state representative in the 36th House District, defeated Madigan’s army.

But while the Evergreen Park mother of three pulled off the upset, it would be a stretch today to call her a maverick politician.

After giving her three opportunities to criticize the Illinois House speaker and state Democratic Party leader, the worst I could get her to say about Madigan is that “he has a lot of power.”

Burke, 46, a graduate of the University of Illinois and John Marshall Law School, is intelligent. She generally won’t give you simple answers to complicated state problems, which could either seem evasive (if you’re the type who wants a firm “yes” or “no” commitment) or thoughtful (if you realize that most government problems aren’t simple).

As someone who only followed Burke’s 2010 campaign through the news media, I got the impression she was going to be some sort of firebrand in Springfield who would shake things up.

Maybe I read too much into those reports because there are no actual statements from her indicating that she was going to be a catalyst for an anti-Madigan revolution.

It’s a testament to Burke’s popularity (or Madigan’s ability to accept defeat) that she was unopposed in the Democratic primary election in March.

More significantly, perhaps, when Madigan and his Democratic team crafted new political maps, targeting all of his foes, Burke’s district was hardly touched.

It includes Chicago’s 19th Ward, part of the 18th Ward and most of Evergreen Park, Oak Lawn, Chicago Ridge and Palos Hills. Parts of Palos Hills, Palos Park, Willow Springs and Worth are new to her district.

Burke points to a few key votes that demonstrate her independence in Springfield. She voted “no” to the ComEd smart grid system. She also voted “no” on a measure that would’ve forced local school districts to increase the amount of funding for charter schools.

Burke said she didn’t oppose more money for charter schools but felt that if it came out of school district budgets without being replaced by the state, there would be less money for traditional public schools.

Burke said she also worked behind the scenes to stop proposed legislation before it got to a vote on the floor, such as Cook County’s attempt to neuter hospital oversight laws so it could close Oak Forest Hospital.

And she opposed an attempt by legislative leaders to retain the local government distributive fund, which is a percentage of state income tax revenue that municipalities get each year for not imposing a local income tax.

“I believe my strength is working with people, Republicans and Democrats, and letting them get to know and trust me so that when I ask them to support legislation I’m sponsoring they know it’s worth considering,” Burke said.

That’s one of the reasons she asked for an appointment to the House Agriculture Committee, which has little impact on Southland issues.

“I wanted to get to know more about the rest of the state and understand the concerns of downstate legislators,” she said.

Asked if she had any startling revelations after her first term in office, Burke said she was surprised to learn that Springfield was more bipartisan than she expected.

“Republicans and Democrats have their differences, but there’s also more cooperation than I expected. I have friends who are Republicans,” she said.

Burke is opposed in the 36th House District race by Republican Bob Shelstrom, who did not run in the primary election. Shelstrom, an engineer, is a staunch critic of school spending and vehemently anti-tax.

Burke said she’s opposed to extending the temporary state income tax hike (which raised the state income tax from 3 percent to 5 percent). But she also claims to be an advocate for public schools.

Illinois cut the state education budget by about $200 million this year, even with getting an additional $7 billion from the state income tax hike.

And the state still faces a multibillion-dollar budget deficit. So if the income tax hike is repealed, where would the state get the money to continue to operate?

Burke said she has worked to cut the state’s budget and will continue to trim state spending in the future.

On pension reform, she said she doubted any real reform could get done without Republican votes.

And she was vague when I asked if she supported a shift in the funding of teacher pensions from the state to suburban school districts.

She indicated she could support something of that nature over an extended period of time (more than a decade), especially if there was some assurance that the state would increase education funding.

On a concealed-carry run law, Burke again avoided a “yes” or “no” — suggesting a two-tiered concealed-carry law that would exempt Cook County but allow downstate residents to carry, or possibly a law that would give county sheriffs more leeway to deny concealed-carry permits to applicants. She did demonstrate a keen knowledge of the way concealed-carry laws vary greatly in other states.

Burke is heavily favored to win re-election, and from everything I’ve heard she’s popular with voters in her district.

But I think it’s safe to say her victory over Madigan’s candidate in 2010 was not the start of a political revolution or even a rebellion against the Democratic Party organization.

Perhaps it was unrealistic to expect so much from one person. Still, I think voters might have expected something more in electing her in 2010.



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