UnCommon Interview with Will Burns

This November, Barack Obama won’t be the only U of C candidate on the ballot. Will Burns, (A.B. ’95, A.M. ’98) is running for State Representative for the 26th District, which includes Hyde Park and runs along Lake Michigan from roughly East Division Street to 73rd Street..

By Nora Sorena Casey

This November, Barack Obama won’t be the only U of C candidate on the ballot. Will Burns, (A.B. ’95, A.M. ’98) is running for State Representative for the 26th District, which includes Hyde Park and runs along Lake Michigan from roughly East Division Street to 73rd Street. Burns has worked as a senior adviser to Illinois State President Emil Jones, Jr., and as a deputy campaign manager and consultant for Obama. Between community meetings, campaign stops, and family life in Hyde Park, Burns dropped by the Reynolds Club to discuss learning from Obama, shivering en route to B-J, and wading through Regenstein bureaucracy.

Chicago Maroon: There are a lot of things about the University that set it apart in this community. What in particular do you think it is that people don’t like about your affiliation?

Will Burns: It’s not my affiliation; I think it’s that the history of the University has not been to be a full and open partner with the community. Historically, the University has planned for the community, as opposed to planned with the community, and there’s a history of mistrust that goes back some 40, 50 years, with some people.… And I think the University has taken some steps to change their relationship with the community.… So there are lots of things the University’s done right, and every now and then, there some things that happen that are politic. I mean, the recent issues with land purchase in Washington Park sort of went off the rails, but I think they are trying to work with the community. So it’s about transparency, openness, and partnership.

CM: How has your education here influenced you later in life?

WB: It’s given me an extensive vocabulary. I think the importance of the U of C education is in rigor and breadth and depth. I mean, I was intellectually curious when I came to U of C; I’m intellectually curious after U of C. I think that what was important about U of C was that it was a place where you were with other young people who were intellectually curious as well so you didn’t stick out…. And I was certainly not the cool kid in high school, so coming to U of C was sort of like, a lot of people who were like me here and I can sort of fit in here and do my thing and maybe do something different than what I did in high school and feel comfortable with myself in doing that stuff. So I got the opportunity to do theater, to look into different issues, to explore different ideas. I think those were all things that were important and sort of a rigor in terms of reading and writing and being able to analyze large pieces of information and data. Those were all things I would attribute to the University of Chicago.

CM: What was your least favorite college experience?

WB: My least favorite college experience would have to be walking across the Midway in the dead of winter, either going back and forth to Burton-Judson or to SSA . It’s dark outside and it’s cold and it’s windy and it’s gray everyday and the gray matches the building and you’re like, “When is this quarter going to end? Why do midterms run from fourth week of the quarter through seventh week of the quarter?” You have like two weeks when it’s not bad and then all of a sudden you’re in midterms and you have to do your midterm paper and labs and you know, so, I think those would be the things I remember the most. And maybe having my registration restricted a couple times, and you needed to get something out of the Reg reserves and you couldn’t do it and you had to figure out a way to get the documents you needed.

CM: How has your relationship with Barack Obama developed and changed, especially since he chose not to endorse you?

WB: That didn’t affect the relationship at all. I mean politics is politics, and to me, Barack is always going to be a mentor and a friend, and in fact, I worked for the campaign from June until very recently as a consultant. So, you know, 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 healer in Chicago where he’s making state reps and state water reclamation district commissioners, or other down ballots or races. At the end of the day, the endorsement wasn’t important because I could show that I had a track record of working with him, learning from him, and I think that was important.

CM: Why do you think he chose not to endorse you?

WB: I don’t really know. You know, I never ask him the question. I would imagine with running for president of the United States, the importance of securing Iowa, working on New Hampshire, trying to maintain a broad coalition of support in Illinois, you maybe don’t want to get involved in controversial races. We never discussed it. I never took it personally. That would be my supposition if I had one about why he didn’t endorse me.

CM: Where do you see your career going from here?

WB: Springfield. Whenever I have tried to set a course for myself, you know, be one of those guys who has their 10-year plan, you know, by year five I’m doing this and…it just goes to hell in a hand-basket. What I want to do is be an effective legislator in Springfield, and I figure if I do a good job with that, do a good job legislating in my district, and come up with some innovative ideas for the issues the people in the state are facing, then the rest will sort itself out.

—Nora Casey