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

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

Recommended: Heroes and scoundrels: What do you know about New York mayors? Take our quiz.

"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."

But Daley ventured into neighborhoods with his regular-guy demeanor, listening to activists, pulling out his notebook, and noting streetlights that were out.

Several years ago, Smith accompanied Daley on a tour of Garfield Park Conservatory. "He noticed a vacant lot and we talked about turning it into a demonstration garden for the staff - and now it's being developed. He's really into green space," says Smith. "You can go directly to him with your problems and he'll listen and put people on it."

In addition, Daley has carpeted the city with flowers, trees, small parks, and bike paths. From Lake Shore Drive to Michigan Avenue, on major boulevards throughout downtown, swaths of flowers and huge stone planters overflow each spring.

While image is important, he's had other successes. Daley took control of the city's schools in 1995 and test scores have climbed. He's revitalized downtown development, and he's worked to take better control of public housing.

Still, Daley isn't without his problems. In a recent survey by the Chicago Tribune, six of 10 voters gave Daley a negative rating in efforts "to prevent favoritism and cronyism in the granting of city business." And Chicago leads the US in homicides among large cities.

Daley appointed a federal prosecutor to tackle the problem and is moving police officers from low crime to higher crime areas. Another sore spot is Soldier Field, home of the Chicago Bears, whose renovation has become an architectural monstrosity under attack.

Despite these issues, however, it is widely assumed that Daley - now in office for 14 years - will govern until he chooses to leave. He has already won 14 out of 15 elections over the past 23 years. Since his loss to Washington in the 1983 Democratic mayoral primary, he has triumphed in 12 straight elections.

"There's just not much of a sense in Chicagoans that they want someone else to be mayor," says Marty Oberman, a former alderman who often butted heads with Daley's father. "I think he's doing quite a good job."

The business community supports Daley as well. "He's been very good at a bricks and mortar approach to economic development, with projects like Navy Pier and McCormick Place," says Mr. Redfield.

Nor, for now, do any serious challengers appear on the horizon. The African-American and Hispanic communities haven't united to produce a candidate to topple him, and Chicago lacks a Republican party.

As evidence, Daley won this week's election with 79 percent of the vote, beating three other candidates. By and large, says Mr. Green, "most Chicagoans, given the ups and downs, are still with this mayor. Chicago's a stable place to live and do business. As long as they believe that, he'll keep getting reelected."

Mystery novels and bike rides

Daley, for his part, sounds modest on the emperor's chair. "We're not a perfect city," he said on election night. "But we're proud of the progress."

He also seems content to wield power in his own way - with less bravado and limelight than his father. A night on the town for the former prosecutor and state senator remains a quiet meal at one of Chicago's restaurants with his wife, Maggie. His idea of fun is reading a book - mysteries are a favorite - or going for one of his trademark bike rides.

Yet he can erupt when the family comes under fire. When mayoral challenger Paul Jakes recently accused the Daleys of having too much power, the mayor exploded, his voice cracking as he referred to his son, Kevin, who died in 1981.

"What is he talking about? I have a son who is in the financial markets, going to school. Why is he criticizing my sons? One died and one is alive today, and I am very proud of them. In no way does my family have any power."

Share this story:

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.

Loading...

Loading...

Loading...