Skip to: Content
Skip to: Site Navigation
Skip to: Search

The über-mayor: what's behind Daley's longevity

By Anne E. SteinSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / February 28, 2003


He is a shy, private man, intensely loyal to family. Though born to a political dynasty, Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley is no slick, golden boy. He frequently mangles his grammar, betrays his emotions to reporters, and makes no effort to tame a thick Chicago accent.

Skip to next paragraph

Yet for all his unassuming attributes, Mr. Daley this week reaffirmed his position as America's unofficial über-mayor. By resoundingly winning a fifth term, he currently stands as the longest-serving big-city chief executive in the nation - and bestrides Chicago like a colossus.

Make that a colossus with a windbreaker and a spade. For all of his accumulated power, two of Daley's biggest passions are biking, which he does for more than 150 miles a week in Chicago's hospitable months, and flowers, which he plants around the city as if it were a giant arboretum.

"Mayor Richard M. Daley makes Johnny Appleseed look like a polluter," says Paul Green, a political scientist at Chicago's Roosevelt University. "He's put plants and flowers all over the city by sheer will. He's literally reshaped how this city looks."

Daley's longevity inevitably poses comparisons to his father, the late Richard J. Daley, who governed the city for 21 years. Like his father, Daley is a committed church-goer, deeply rooted in his Irish ethnicity. Like his father, he grew up in the Bridgeport section of Chicago, the formerly all-white neighborhood on the south side. Both could get a pothole filled, quickly.

Yet there are as many differences as similarities. In many respects, both reflect the city of their day. As much as Daley senior was a product of the white, working-class neighborhood he never left, his son, who moved out of Bridgeport 10 years ago, embodies modern Chicago: hardworking, more tolerant, a member of the global community, culturally aware.

Daley senior was imperial, overseeing one of the most extensive political machines in the nation. He doled out patronage jobs to friends and family.

Daley junior's political success lies in part in the relationships he has built with the very groups that once distrusted the family name. The Democrat's top administrators are an ethnic and religious rainbow, armed with advanced degrees rather than family ties. He recently appointed the first openly gay alderman to the City Council. "Chicago politics is ethnic and racial, and if you're going to be successful, you have to build coalitions and make accommodation among all the interests," says Kent Redfield, a political scientist at University of Illinois, Springfield.

The coalition-building is due in part to changes in the Democratic Machine his father once ruled. "You don't slate candidates the way you used to," says Mr. Redfield. "The father was in a position to dictate. The son doesn't have that overarching political power."

Neighborhood touch

Instead, Daley has skillfully networked with African-Americans and Hispanics, adopting a more flexible style. One example is his early appointment of Charles Bowen to the post of executive assistant to the mayor. As Daley's liaison to black churches, he meets weekly with ministers from different denominations.

Three times a year, Daley meets with "Concerned Clergy for a Better Chicago," a group of 20 powerful black ministers. "The preachers are talking to more people at 11 a.m. on Sunday than anybody. And when you can get your message to them, they act as your conduit to the entire community," says Mr. Bowen.

Ed Smith is an African-American alderman who's represented the West Side for 20 years. "It was a divided constituency when [the younger] Daley came in," says Mr. Smith. "He had to really work, especially since Harold [the late former mayor Washington] was so well-loved, so gregarious. This mayor was a little subdued."