Credit: Michael Boyd

Will Burns, a candidate for alderman in Chicago’s Fourth Ward, is not a flashy politician. Short and stocky, with a boyish face and a sharp wit, he dons conservative suits and shuttles between campaign events in a beat-up 2003 Impala. His voice is firm and brassy but not booming. If Burns, who’s 37, didn’t represent Illinois’s 26th house district, a job he’s held for three years, he might be running a social service agency or teaching grad students political theory.

In Hyde Park and Kenwood, that understated style is a selling point, not a liability. This is, after all, the ward that elected the sober and serious Toni Preckwinkle five times. Voters look for intelligence and independence from candidates, not bombast.

Burns is one of seven hopefuls for the seat Preckwinkle vacated to become Cook County Board president. The Fourth is one of 11 wards where there’s no incumbent in the aldermanic field.

With Mayor Daley departing and so many new aldermen to be elected, the new council could actually assert itself as a deliberative legislative body. And Burns, who has a strong grasp of legislative procedure, could be a leader from the start.

Public service runs in his family. Burns’s paternal grandmother was the first black woman to be elected ward committeeman in Cleveland. Burns remembers sitting on her porch as a small boy in the late 1970s, near where some of Cleveland’s worst race riots had taken place a decade earlier, and watching people stop by to thank her for registering voters and organizing community forums.

Her husband, an autoworker with General Motors, was active in his union local. “He would get Solidarity,” says Burns. “I could read at a pretty high level early on, and if you put a book or magazine in front of me, the odds are I was going to read it. We would talk about layoffs and factory closings.”

Burns’s mother’s parents were both heavily involved in their church as well as in Cleveland’s traditional black civil rights organizations. Straitlaced folks who didn’t drink and who made their own soap, they stressed the value of education and discipline, paying Will and his younger brother, J.T., quarters for memorizing Bible verses.

His father was a police officer who went to school at night and got his bachelor’s degree in political science at age 37. He died ten years ago. “He was straight from central casting: five-foot-ten, barrel-shaped, no neck, with the dark humor of a cop,” Burns says. “He was never at a loss for words.”

But it’s his mother who Burns takes after most. Introverted, bookish, and socially conscious, she attended Monmouth College in west-central Illinois—she was one of eight black students—and returned home to Cleveland to earn her master’s in social work at Case Western Reserve University. Throughout Burns’s childhood she impressed upon him the importance of self-worth and racial pride. Burns remembers celebrating Kwanzaa “before it was cool” and subscribing to Ebony Jr.!—”Highlights for black kids,” he jokes.

His mother made him navigate between disparate worlds at a young age. The family lived in Warrensville Heights, a predominantly black inner-ring suburb of Cleveland with stable middle-class families who’d recently migrated there from the city’s east side. His second home was Friendly Inn, Cleveland’s oldest settlement house, which his mother has run since 1978. Situated in a public housing complex, the center provides group therapy and service programs for some of Cleveland’s poorest residents. “I grew up there,” Burns says. “I went to summer day camps, I’d go to community meetings. She’d drag us to all of this stuff. I saw that opportunity is not equitably distributed in our society.”

The contrast between Friendly Inn and Hawken School, the suburban prep school Burns attended, was even more severe. At Hawken, kids played lacrosse and ate lunch in a cafeteria called the White House. Many graduates were admitted to the most selective colleges in the nation. Most of the students were white. Hawken was “your ticket, effectively, to the upper class,” Burns says.

He flourished there, acing advanced placement classes and captaining the speech and debate team. But “I knew who I was,” he says. “I was a black boy from the east side of Cleveland. My parents gave me a core of values and concerns that, despite being in fairly elite circles, I never let go of.”

Burns moved here in 1991 to attend the University of Chicago on scholarship. He was admitted into a selective interdisciplinary program focused on legal reasoning, political theory, and civil rights—essentially a four-year training program for policy wonks. He also participated in theater and the black student union.

His junior year Burns organized a rally in support of an African-American student who was taunted by a small group of white students during fraternity pledging. Christopher Thomas, a Kenwood real estate broker and one of Burns’s closest college friends, recalls how Burns interested reporters in the matter, thereby forcing a reluctant school administation to address it. Thomas says he realized then that Burns was “trying to play on a different level than most of these students.”

After graduating in 1995, Burns landed a job at the Blue Gargoyle, a literacy and tutoring nonprofit (since shuttered) anchored in Hyde Park. One day that September he swung by a campaign event for a neighbor named Barack Obama—he was launching his run for the state senate. For a young liberal African-American trying to make inroads in Chicago’s parochial political scene, particularly in the moribund climate that followed the collapse of Harold Washington’s coalition, Obama’s bottom-up approach to electoral politics was instantly appealing.

“That meeting was fortuitous,” says Thomas. “I think he realized he could make a difference on a much larger scale [than in service work], maybe than even he imagined initially.” Before he knew it, Burns was one of several young people circulating nominating petitions and knocking on doors for the future president.

The two stayed close after Obama’s victory the following year. When Burns returned to the University of Chicago for his master’s in social work, Obama hired him to work part-time in his district office. Two years later, when Burns couldn’t decide whether to stay in school and pursue a doctorate in political science, Obama urged him to take a break from academia and work on staff for state senator Emil Jones Jr., then the chamber’s minority leader. “It’s been almost 13 years now,” Burns says, “and I haven’t gone back.”

Burns flourished in Springfield. When he arrived in 1998, Republicans—led by president James “Pate” Philip—controlled the senate. Earlier in the decade, as a way to isolate house speaker Michael Madigan, the GOP had instituted a series of procedural rule changes centralizing power in the president’s office. If Philip didn’t like a Democratic proposal, he buried it in a committee chaired by a legislative ally. “Every bill I drafted got creamed,” Burns recalls.

Even so, Burns worked long hours and volunteered for extra projects. “If I didn’t do well, I would have been an embarrassment to Senator Obama, and he is not one to mince words with people who embarrass him,” Burns says.

As an African-American, Burns brought an uncommon perspective to the staff job. And his analytical skills, honed in graduate school, were more advanced than those of his peers. He gravitated toward issues that he’d been thinking about since the days in his grandparents’ living room, researching and drafting several prominent bills—racial-profiling protections, death penalty and ethics reforms—that Obama eventually carried when Democrats regained the majority in 2003 and Jones became senate president. Without those legislative accomplishments, it’s unlikely that Obama would have been able to survive a crowded U.S. Senate primary the following year.

“We called him the liberal conscience of our staff,” says David Gross, the executive director for governmental and public affairs at Southern Illinois University and a former top aide in Jones’s office.

Burns’s most important contribution to Obama’s rise might have come in 2000, during a period of about three years away from Springfield. He was hired as vice president of programs for the Chicago Urban League, which joined a coalition of civil rights organizations in redrawing the state’s legislative map.

Ten years earlier GOP legislators had concentrated the African-American vote in a few districts to make the surrounding districts more friendly to Republicans. The coalition’s map, which greatly influenced the map that the state adopted, spread that vote around. Obama’s own district now stretched further north along the lakefront and connected him with Gold Coast professionals, many of whom would provide early financial support for his U.S. senate and presidential campaigns.

After Obama was elected to the U.S. Senate in 2004, there was a scramble to fill his vacant state senate seat. Burns lobbied for the appointment, which a group of ten Democratic ward committeemen from the district would make, and the Tribune reported the morning of the selection interviews that he had “the inside track.” (Obama favored Burns too, according to Chicago magazine.) But it wasn’t to be. The ward bosses, including Preckwinkle, overwhelmingly supported Kwame Raoul, a lifelong Hyde Parker and City Colleges labor lawyer who’d demonstrated superior “ward organizational work”—as Fifth Ward alderman Leslie Hairston put it in the Sun-Times.

Burns went back to work behind the scenes in Springfield. During the next session, which ran from 2005 to 2007, he was on the staff of the senate rules committee (now called assignments), whose majority determines if and how bills should proceed through the legislature. “One of my jobs was to go through every bill that was introduced, at least the summary of it, to try to figure out where it was coming from,” Burns says. “I got to touch a lot of paper.” He became intimately familiar with the senate’s procedural rules, which few members take the time to study.

He also continued to absorb the political culture of the statehouse, an intangible asset to anyone interested in building coalitions across ideological lines. “Every legislative body has its own language, its own folkways and mores,” Burns says. “You learn what people respect and what they don’t respect.”

In 2008 Burns won a contested Democratic primary for a state house seat. Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr. supported Burns’s opponent, businessman Kenny Johnson, and got Obama to endorse him. Obama had just appointed Jackson national cochair of his presidential campaign. Burns told the University of Chicago’s newspaper, the Maroon, he understood Obama’s choice. “When a guy’s running for president, he’s running for president. He’s not trying to be a ward committeeman or some sort of ward heeler in Chicago.” Burns edged Johnson anyway, and coasted in the general election.

He excelled immediately in Springfield, spearheading efforts to bring green jobs, early education funding, and jobs for youth back to his district. He also became an effective proponent for a politically unpopular income tax increase.

“The general sense about Will [among lobbyists] is that he’s a very thoughtful person,” says Courtney Nottage, a lobbyist who was Burns’s colleague in the senate president’s office. His former colleague Gross adds, “He understands the legislative process, how to bring people together, and how to pass legislation. He also understands when to fight.”

Burns says that if Preckwinkle hadn’t left her aldermanic seat to run for Cook County Board president, he’d have stayed in the house. But he says he couldn’t pass up an opportunity to represent a quirky and diverse chunk of Chicago and “continue the progress [Preckwinkle] started.” The Fourth Ward, which stretches from the northern end of Hyde Park through Kenwood and Oakland, prides itself on its racial and economic diversity. But the area is changing. Luxury condos and townhomes have risen on vacant lots, and rents have gone up, but several mixed-income affordable housing projects and mixed-use developments stalled when the housing bubble popped, among them the Chicago Housing Authority’s Plan for Transformation, which was supposed to replace razed public housing units.

Discussions about redevelopment and displacement have dominated the race. One of Burns’s opponents, George Rumsey, a small business owner on leave as vice president of the Coalition for Equitable Community Development (CECD), has made “sustainable development” a linchpin of his campaign. Burns supports the Sweet Home Chicago ordinance, which would earmark 20 percent of the funds collected in the city’s tax increment financing districts to build or rehabilitate affordable housing. He says he’ll work to link former CHA residents with social services and jobs.

Burns has expressed qualified support for several ideas recently championed by progressive community groups and labor unions: a living wage ordinance, a moratorium on any new school closings or turnarounds “until a clear and fair process is instituted,” and the retirement of TIF districts in neighborhoods that can support private development without taxpayer subsidies.

He’s said he intends to join the City Council’s independent caucus, which Preckwinkle launched with aldermen Joe Moore (49th) and Rick Munoz (22nd) in 2007. The bloc could use Burns’s political acumen; while some members have tried to engage in more aggressive policy and procurement oversight, the caucus didn’t stop any of the Daley administration’s most controversial proposals, including its budgets and the lease of the city’s parking meters.

Burns has raised more money than his six competitors combined. He’s been endorsed by unions, business groups, the Tribune and the Sun-Times, and he’s the choice of Preckwinkle, the ward’s Democratic committeeman. “He’s a smart and talented young man,” she says.

At a recent candidates forum sponsored by the CECD, several of Burns’s opponents stressed their deep connections to the Fourth Ward, as if to suggest that young Burns has his eyes on higher office. Burns insists that’s not the case. “I remember Barack was always sort of antsy about the next step,” he says with a grin. “If you do the job you have [and] you do it well, the future takes care of itself.”