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Daley Thu Mar 04 2010

Here's the Story to Tell About the Mayor

Evan Osnos' long profile of Mayor Daley in the current New Yorker is a good example of Daleyology, the study of who exactly that man on the Fifth Floor is, and how he is so able to manage such an unruly city. The Kasses of the world like to insinuate an unholy relationship with the criminal underworld, bought-out ministers, and guys with thick necks (that's convenient to ignoring the plutocrats who actually run the show).

Is he "Mayor Rain Man" who knows every alleyway and micromanages dumpster cleanups and pothole filling? Or the urban CEO who manages a municipal organization by big picture fiat, as he was caricatured in Business Week?

Did he bring racial healing to a city blistered by a decade of conflict? Or is he the distilled expression of white revanchism against fleeting black empowerment in American cities? Did he save the schools? Or just juke the stats?

These are hard questions to answer, because Chicago is a tough city to figure. Are the schools better now than when the Mayor took office? Probably, yes. Did the Mayor bring racial healing to the city? Well, he has definitely brought a lot of the city's black leadership into his governing coalition. So that's something.

Osnos' piece follows the Mayor's line heading into his reelection and focuses on the "revolution" at the CPS as the cornerstone of his legacy. The Mayor is smart and knows where he has serious weaknesses--on infrastructure, on housing, on taxes, there's a point-counterpoint. On the schools the Mayor feels he has his flanks covered. That's where he's going to go. And, most likely, he will win his reelection handily.

Why does Mayor Daley, despite the scandals, the failing schools, the antiquated infrastructure and popular revulsion against the lack of democracy, hold onto power? This is the question self-appointed Daleyologists can never seem to answer. I don't know the answer; but I have a feeling there is a way to find out: write the story about the Chicago 2016 Bid Committee.

With big city economies cratering all around him, the Mayor was able to raise in the neighborhood of $70 million dollars to fund the Olympic Bid. At the same time he was able to get everybody that mattered--everybody--on board behind the push for the Olympics. Nobody, from the largest, most conservative institutions to the most active progressive advocacy group, was willing to step out against him on that issue. Part of this was probably because nobody thought it mattered very much: but the uniform unbroken silence, and the much-discussed order from the Fifth Floor--that the Mayor would never forget a betrayal on this issue--show that the Mayor was at least concerned about the possibility of pesky civic disruption.

Osnos quotes political scientist William Grinshaw as saying, "He can pick up a phone and raise more money for you with one call than you can raise in six months." Perhaps more importantly, he can turn the spigots off, too.

And this isn't just a power over political contributions, but a power over institutions to act, period. Where they direct their development and investment dollars.

Osnos' portrait of a superhumanly attentive bureaucrat who does what he has to do to deliver is a nice one, and a particularly Chicago-y one: we like our politicians to be blue-collar types who bring some street experience to the halls of power. The Mayor makes sure the city is livable, he takes on tough fights by strong-arming the special interests that most other elected officials kowtow too.

"Richie Daley's philosophy, I've always thought, is 'Beg for forgiveness, not permission,'" Osnos quotes New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg as saying. That's the type of decisiveness executives admire.
So, is it that decisiveness that keeps Chicagoans electing this guy?

Or, is it that whole 70 million dollars thing? I think it's the 70 million dollars thing.

The list of big donors to the Chicago 2016 bid committee is a comprehensive list of powerful Chicago institutions. I mean, it's exhaustive.

Chicago Givers

Economy be damned, when the Mayor called, they listened. Why? What did those conversations sound like? And do we believe that the Mayor is so powerful--or that their relationship with him is so close--that they must obey him? Or--more likely--is it a mutual back-scratching club with an incentive to protect the status quo? Chicago's political infrastructure isn't about the Democratic Party or "the Machine" or special interest groups or labor unions. Those are elements of varying importance. It's real power lives in the networks that tie that list together.

Really take some time with this list. You have there every major law firm in the city. Most of the important media organizations. Organized labor, charities, advocacy non-profits. Every important architecture firm, construction concern, insurer, logistics firm, financial institution, university, advertising company, energy company, manufacturer, real estate developer--basically, every large-scale employer or player in every area of economic activity in Chicago or the region. It's an almost terrifying list. Had these organizations contributed a little something to help nudge the bid forward, that'd be one thing. But these are just givers at the $100,000 and above level.

Ask yourself: was it civic pride that moved Hartmarx, teetering towards bankruptcy and ready to send their workers to the wolves to contribute tens of thousands of dollars? Or something else? Just what was that conversation like?

Of course, the Reader's Ben Joravsky covered this subject late last year:

Among the TIF recipients who wrote checks for the 2016 bid were Boeing, developer John Buck, CNA, Navteq, and United Airlines, who all received money from the city in the last year to help develop that blighted, impoverished community known as the Loop. There are also donations from contractors and vendors that have received money for legal services, construction, or other work on TIF-funded projects, among them F.H. Paschen and Walsh Construction.

You may have noted I bolded "developer John Buck". That would be because of this:

Lori Healey, formerly a top aide to Mayor Daley, one of the designers of the much-celebrated and adored late 90s early 00s TIF boom, and head of the Chicago 2016 Bid Committee that did so fantastically well, will "start next week as a principal at Chicago-based Buck, where she'll focus on building the firm's pipeline of public sector projects. Government work hasn't suffered as much in the recession as other commercial real estate market sectors.

Replace the man on the Fifth Floor--Bureaucracy Man, the superhero who keeps our alleys clear--and will these networks evaporate? Will they just disappear? How long would it take them to reorganize around the new personalities that moved in there?

Later in Joravsky's piece, a telling quote shows how the complete enmeshing of economic leaders and the political establishment has deleted the need for old-school Machine bullying:

More than one explained that they and others they know have given even though they don't think the games are going to be the boon for the city that the mayor keeps promising. But they tell me they feel all sorts of pressure to donate, some subtle, some not. Some describe an old boys' network of corporate leaders who succumbed to the arguments of 2016 CEO Patrick Ryan and other business and community leaders that it's their civic duty to help out. And there are the lawyers, accountants, architects, developers, builders, and contractors who figure the mayor, much like Santa, is watching to see who's been naughty and nice. They deny being afraid of old-school retribution, like being targeted by building inspectors if they don't give--they just express concern that they could be kept away from the trough if the games come to town.

"You have to realize there's going to be millions and millions of dollars of contracts that get doled out," one person explained.

So you think people feel they have to pay to play?

"I didn't say that."

The story of the Daley mayoralty and his ability to hold onto power and ask for forgiveness, not permission, can't be written as hagiography or jeremiad, or be explained away by his work ethic or political dynasty. As with most things, the story is much more boring, and began well before the official start and will end--well, maybe never.

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Dan / March 5, 2010 10:33 AM

Funny - I don't recall a single instance of Daley asking for permission or forgiveness.

IMO, it's all about the TIFs, and particularly so with a budget in shambles and everyone desperately scrambling for their piece of the pie. The parking meter lease was, in its purest form, a mechanism for Daley to retain unilateral control over TIFs. Control the TIF network, and you control the city council, and every business that is, was, or hopes to be the recipient of public subsidies. Again, that's a huge incentive to placate the administration in normal economic times, and even more so in a deep, punishing recession.

I would place a significant chunk of responsibility on the media as well. With the notable exception of the Reader, print and electronic journalism have been ambivalent at best in producing quality pieces of investigative journalism that resonate with readers. For the countless (and deserved) hit pieces about Todd Stroger, his reign, most certainly, was much less adversely impactful than Daley's 20-year run. And while I'm not dismissing the substantial good Daley has done, his recent tenure has been a string of costly failures.

Daley loves to wax poetic about the virtues of the private sector. A fundamental truth about managers in the private sector is the ability to effectively steer their business through trying times. Daley's record in this regard has been abysmal, and he has adamantly refused to adapt, unless and until it is politically advantageous. He is a master at outsourcing blame and accountability to a small cadre of loyal sycophants, all of which is accepted at face value by a public that has been anesthetized by a decades-long steady flow of cronyism, corruption, and corporate welfare.

The very fact that he permitted an interview with the New Yorker but refused a sit down, despite numerous attempts, with the Reader, is proof positive that he's a political fair-weather fan to the nth degree. I refuse to put my trust in anyone who behaves in such a manner.

A credible and well-funded challenger is needed in short order.

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