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The Mechanics
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Daley Thu May 05 2011

The Measure of a Mayor, The Legacy of a Man

Throughout 2002, Mayor Richard M. Daley waged a public and backroom battle with federal aviation officials to expand the no-fly zone around the city's central business districts. He was met with resistance by bureaucrats and the business users of Meigs Field, who argued that the restrictions would hamper the ability of pilots to use the typical approaches to Meigs and potentially make it more hazardous. The Mayor didn't let up, and pressed the issue; he was granted some temporary restrictions on flights around the CBD, but didn't get the scope he wanted.

The mayor pressed the issue, insisting the CBD was under threat and that Meigs essentially represented a security threat by its mere existence. He responded to the protests of Meigs Field users dismissively, characterizing them as millionaire vanity pilots whose selfish concerns were irrelevant to the average Chicagoan.

Friends of Meigs Field, an advocacy group composed primarily of the little airport's heaviest users, smelled a rat. Meigs was not a big money maker for the city, and Daley clearly had designs on the prime lakefront property. They lobbied furiously to keep the field open and operating, meeting rank indifference, to say the least, from the mayor.

At the same time, Daley was trying to get federal approval for the expansion of O'Hare Airport. His biggest stumbling block was the stubbornly independent junior senator from Illinois, Republican Peter Fitzgerald. Throughout 2002, Fitzgerald was considered a top-tier target for national Democrats, and his reelection chances were in jeopardy. Throughout the last few months of 2002 and the first months of 2003, rumors swirled that Fitzgerald would not run again. Fitzgerald stubbornly refused to permit expansion of O'Hare, and Governor George Ryan walked a compromise path that demanded that any expansion of O'Hare be conditioned on the continued operation of Meigs; Daley agreed to some nominal concessions the Friends of Meigs characterized as minor or hollow. Their saving grace was that they had friends in Governor Ryan and Senator Fitzgerald.

The Little Airport that Could, in other words, was proving to be a pain in the mayor's ass.

Then two things happened. First, a Chicago Democrat, a fellow you may have heard of named Rod Blagojevich, was elected governor in November of 2002. Then, by mid-March 2003, it became increasingly clear that Fitzgerald had little chance at re-election and rumors that he wouldn't be seeking re-election at all were swelling. The Friends of Meigs found themselves alone.

A camera on the Adler Planetarium had been providing live webcam footage of the field. Supporters watching that stream in the early morning hours of March 31st, 2003, suddenly saw the screen go white. That was because Mayor Daley had "an accomplice" shine a large spotlight at the camera, effectively blinding it.

Then backhoes were brought in, and the runway at Meigs was gouged with deep Xs, rendering it inoperable. Meigs was dead. That day, the mayor held a press conference where he triumphantly proclaimed that the city was now safer, as planes could no longer take off "just blocks" away from the city's skyline. With Meigs gone, it was no longer a bargaining chip. Fitzgerald would announce he wasn't running for reelection in May, and O'Hare expansion would get locked into law by the end of the summer.

When Daley was challenged on his actions, which evinced clear malice aforethought, he shrugged it off as the concern of the city's idle rich.

As when, five years later, he was challenged on his flaunting of the long-standing covenant that Grant Park should remain "forever free and clear" by encouraging the Children's Museum to build there, and he shrugged it off as the concern of millionaire North Loop racists who didn't want minority children in their front yard.

More than any other single event, the destruction of Meigs Field, while inconsequential to almost all Chicagoans (though Northerly Island sure is pretty now), represents the difficulty in measuring the man. No single decision was made in a vacuum; and few were assignable to a category "good" or "bad." To understand any one element of his reign is to sink deep into the labyrinthine politics required to manage such a great city in such a complicated nation at such a painful time in its history.

Did he destroy Meigs in defiance of the idle rich for the benefit of our security and leisure? Was its mere illegality sufficient to cancel out its benefits? Is it the process or the substance that we measure, in measuring the man?

What is Mayor Daley's legacy? Is Chicago better for his tenure, or worse? Was he good, great, awful, or a cipher for more powerful pressures?

What we have to figure out first, is, What is the measure of a mayor?

mayorrichardmdaley.jpgRichard M. Daley is a complex man. The managing of a city as diverse and troubled as Chicago is a complex job. There are things we know, and things we don't.

We know that Mayor Daley loves Chicago. We know that Chicagoans by and large love Mayor Daley. We know that when he thought something was the right thing to do, he would find a way to do it. We know that there is not another person in contemporary American history who has run a city with such vigor, ingenuity, tirelessness, and unswerving commitment to affecting change even in those areas that had grown sclerotic with personal and political antimony.

Is Richard M. Daley the greatest big-city American mayor in our lifetimes? I do not think there is any question that yes, he indeed is.

In what he was able to accomplish, he is great. In what he was able to avoid, he is great. In what he meant to the citizens that elected him, he is great. In his influence on other mayors not only in the U.S. but across the world, he is great, great, great. In his role in shaping the politics of his state and his nation, he is quite literally unparalleled.

But being great is not the same as being good. Being great is a measure of stature, not righteousness; it is a measure of impact, not propriety.

Isaac Deustcher, biographer of the Bolshevik Revolution, said of Josef Stalin, known by Russians as Vozhd or "the Boss," "He found Russia working with wooden plows, and left her with atomic piles."

That is one measure of the man -- what he finds and what he leaves. But in the case of the Boss, I'm sure we could think of others.

Like a Boss

Richard M. Daley's father Richard J. Daley took Anton Cermak's Chicago and, by the end of his mayoralty, had reoriented it. Cermak built the model big-city political machine, welding upstart unions with disenfranchised immigrant groups and the city's black population to unseat establishment man "Big Bill" Thompson. Thompson hadn't considered Cermak a threat, laughing at the idea of a "Bohunk" as a "World's Fair mayor." By the time Richard J. assumed control of the mighty Democratic Party organization created by Cermak and expanded by Ed Kelly, those powerless and penniless immigrants had moved up a step -- or a few -- on the social ladder. Organized labor had become institutionalized. By the time death forced him to relinquish control of the city, there was a new crop of penniless and powerless, the labor movement-cum-institutions had been undermined by a crippling recession, and big business happily stepped in as a partner. Daley had adopted portions of Cermak's machine and fused it with powerful interests.

The city Richard J. found had been reoriented almost 180 degrees; the ruling coalition went from a machine serving the wanting to one serving the having.

In 1983, Harold Washington played the Cermak role. Teaming with outspoken and furious black nationalists and Latino activists, organizations representing gays and women, and the "conscientious" Lakefront reformers, he unraveled Richard J.'s machine.
In 1989, death again forced a change. Within a few years of Harold's death, another Daley stepped up, and again, he absorbed parts of Washington's ruling coalition and fused it with powerful interests. Combining a willingness to work with the city's influential identity-focused organizations with enticement of big business that had chafed under Washington's insistence on shifting the city's priority from the central business district to "the neighborhoods."

So when he called opponents of the Children's Museum move racists, he could call on the support of black and Latino leaders to stand beside him. And when he ridiculed the idle rich for their support of Meigs, the city's business community let it pass with little more than a murmur.

If it was Mayor Daley's will, in other words, there was a way.

His Elective Majesty, as I nicknamed him back in 2003 (with credit to John Adams), has always characterized his style as collaborative rather than despotic. He preferred disagreements to happen behind closed doors, and for everyone to present a united front to the public. Of course, the powerful always characterize the bending of others' independence as mere collaboration.

Ask Charles G. Morrow, a state representative and child of the Harold Washington coalition, about that collaboration. Morrow crossed Daley one too many times and met the great man's wrath at the ballot box, succumbing to a huge effort instigated by Daley to rid himself of the errant member of the Chicago delegation to Springfield in 2004. Or ask former 47th Ward Committeeman Ed Kelly -- the list could go on and on. Refusal to "collaborate" was schismaticism, and that was heresy worth of electoral extermination.

The Measure

Did then-State's Attorney Daley turn a blind eye to torture of innocent black men to extract confessions to heinous crimes?

Did he conspire to destroy public housing with no effective plan to relocate its residents?

Did he curry favor with the city's leisure class to begin and accelerate the privatization of public education against the will of families and educators?

Has he ignored the cries of families in neighborhoods that suffer carnage and violence unparalleled almost anywhere else in the country, refusing to reallocate resources and content with superficial bandages? Has his ineptitude or neglect allowed organized street crime to flourish, making our city the national capital of gang crime?

Did he terrorize our elected officials at election time, forcing them to submit to his will on every major initiative he has sought both at the local and state level?

Did his tacit consent permit the on-going patronage hiring that has resulted in scores of convictions of his top lieutenants? Did he participate in the creation of organizations like the Hispanic Democratic Organization, fueled by scams like Hired Truck? If not, did he willfully ignore their practices while benefiting from them?

Did he succumb to base cowardice, auctioning off public assets in terror of the political cost of raising taxes on the haves?

There is a case to be made in the affirmative for each of these. And that is sufficient to condemn his mayoralty as far less than perfect, and in fact essentially cynical if not outright corrupt.

Do you remember the Chicago of the '80s and early '90s? A city with perhaps more "character" but certainly less safe, less beautiful, gray and even oppressive.

A child born on April 24, 1989, the first day of his mayoralty, would be 22 today, an adult and possibly a college graduate. She would know the city as verdant, with world-class cultural institutions available to everybody, beautiful and clean parks, generally safe streets, comparable affordable housing, tolerant of a gorgeous spectrum of cultures and lifestyles.

As he found it wanting and divided, Mayor Daley led the city and left it beautiful and warm and inviting, the gem of our nation's interior, and among the wealthiest cities on the planet -- greater in GDP than Paris.

Another child, born April 24, 1989, would be 22 today, and possibly unable to find work, or festering in prison, the city a small place defined by invisible but impermeable boundaries, able to hear dimly the groaning wealth of distant neighborhoods over the howling poverty of their block. Shunted through a school system ever-improving but never improved, waiting for the trickle-down of wealth redistributed to employers who never seem to create jobs, why did the Chicago Miracle pass him over in its blessing?

As he found it wanting and divided, have the powerless and penniless found expression and satiety? He led it and left it a by-word for corrupt politics appalling violence, a laboratory for the powerful to inflict their whimsy on a population with no means to resist, where civic participation is a distant memory, a generation of autocracy leaving people cynical and alienated from the processes that determine their lives.

I was born in Edgewater in 1981. I lived as a kid in West Rogers Park, went to church in East Rogers Park. I remember, dimly, Harold Washington dying, my dad watching the funeral procession with a grim look. I remember Mayor Daley becoming mayor five months before my eighth birthday. For basically my entire conscious life, Richard M. Daley has been "Mayor Daley" -- just like that: first name Mayor, last name Daley. He has had more of an effect on my life than any other person outside of my immediate family and closest friends. When I look out my window, when I take the bus, when I pay my rent, when I ride my bike on the Lakefront, when I go to the library, or play basketball at the park, I move in grooves carved by the great man, grooves that at a remove form his very image. I learned politics essentially at his knee, came into manhood understanding the world through his glass, at times darkly, at times rosily.

When His Elective Majesty had his first grandchild, he joked with the press that he encouraged her to call him "Mayor" instead of Grandpa. Since at least 1999, his campaign signs usually read "Mayor Daley." He strove not to be a man who was mayor, he strove to be The Mayor in the form of a man. He poured his being into his role as our city's chief executive, and so took opposition to his mayoralty as a personal attack on his being.

Mayor Daley suffused his entire self, the sole self he has for his brief time on this Earth, with the city he loved. For all the happiness he created, so he created misery. After everything, then, The mayor was a mere man, and no hagiography and no Phillipic can prove him otherwise.

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Jordan / May 8, 2011 11:39 AM

Now THAT's a critique of a mayoralty. Well done.

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