Why Chicago sticks with its Daleys

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Reelection turned out to be much easier for Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley than anyone sizing up his prospects a year ago would have thought.

With his administration dogged by corruption scandals, the five-term mayor had been expected by some to face the political fight of his life. Instead, he cruised to a victory Tuesday in an election that barely registered on most Chicagoans' calendars, after a campaign in which he didn't debate, took Sunday off, and barely acknowledged his two opponents.

Election to a sixth term puts Mayor Daley on track to beat his father's record of 21 years at the city's helm, and continues a dynasty unmatched in any other city.

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Since the first Daley, Richard J., was elected mayor in 1955, Chicago has had a Daley in charge about 75 percent of the time – a fact with which most Chicagoans seem perfectly at ease.

"Yes, people in Chicago are upset about corruption. But there's a tremendous amount of respect for the mayor," says Paul Green, a political scientist at Chicago's Roosevelt University. Daley not only won the election with 71 percent of the vote, but he also carried every ward, a singular achievement given how polarized Chicago was 25 years ago, Professor Green notes. "Just like his dad, he never tricked anybody. He's not a Houdini. People voted for him knowing who he is and what he is, and the alternatives paled in comparison."

Daley was helped not just by the smoothly running city and spiffier, greener streets, but also by the Chicago Bears' run for the Super Bowl, which distracted many residents until late in the election campaign.

Opponents with low name recognition didn't hurt, either. The two opponents who would have been the toughest to beat – US Reps. Jesse Jackson Jr. and Luis Gutierrez – said in November they wouldn't run. That left Cook County Circuit Court Clerk Dorothy Brown, who garnered 20 percent of the vote, and William "Dock" Walls, a one-time aide to former Mayor Harold Washington, who got just 9 percent. Both candidates are black but failed to energize the African-American community, which largely supported Daley.

Ms. Brown raised less than $200,000 in comparison to Daley's $6 million. Mr. Walls raised less than $10,000.

Notably, labor did not back Daley this time. Unions are unhappy about his veto last year of a measure that required big-box stores to pay a higher minimum wage, and they put their energies into trying to oust City Council members who had voted against the bill and electing labor-friendly aldermen, with some success.

Three incumbents lost their seats Tuesday, and another 11 face a runoff election in April because they failed to win a majority of the votes. Among the newcomers is Sandi Jackson, wife of Representative Jackson and a Daley foe, who ousted incumbent alderman Darcel Beavers.

The results led some to suggest Daley will face a more independent City Council than the one he's had for most of his tenure. "The independent block in the City Council will double," says Dick Simpson, a former Chicago alderman and a political scientist at the University of Illinois here. "If they can find an organizer, they'll be an effective force. They'll be pushing a living-wage ordinance and affordable housing."

The term is expected to be Daley's last. He's on track to become the city's longest-serving mayor on Dec. 26, 2010, breaking his father's record, though Daley has said repeatedly he is unconcerned with that feat. Most observers expect him to focus on his legacy: the schools, the economy, and his efforts to bring the 2016 Olympics to Chicago.

Daley is likely to be remembered favorably for helping to overcome Chicago's racial divide and for bringing smart development to the city, says Don Rose, a Chicago political consultant. But Mr. Rose doesn't expect him to make serious efforts to take on the corruption and hiring scandals that are increasingly identified with city government.

"He's been the beneficiary of this corruption," says Rose. "Is he going to become a reform-minded mayor in the next four years? We don't see that happening anywhere."

But if Daley was helped by low turnout and weak opponents, he's also genuinely loved by most Chicagoans. He's an awkward orator – his acceptance speech was typically short – but a politician with whom many residents can identify: He has no ambition but his current job, wears his heart on his sleeve, and adores this city.

"He's made the city look beautiful," says Harry Walter, a radiologist who has lived near the lakefront for 20 years. He voted – in an election that only about one-third of Chicagoans turned out for – because he likes the mayor and "wanted to put in my two cents." In Mr. Walter's ward, in which the race for alderman was uncontested, he was only the 75th voter to show up at his polling station as of 5 p.m. Tuesday.

Pam Baumgartner, an art teacher who was on her way to vote, says concerns about corruption, in the end, didn't much factor into her decision to support Daley, who she likes and who she says has improved the city. "I'm born and raised in Chicago," she says. "We become really, really jaded. I think they're all somewhat corrupt."

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