Daley: last of old-time mayors. Chicago machine survives in weaker form, as Harold Washington struggles to hold on

He still carries clout in Chicago. He ruled for 21 years, controlling the last of the great urban political machines. A decade after his passing on Dec. 20, two facts are evident about the late Mayor Richard J. Daley. He is remembered and respected for the stamp he put on this city, but powerful forces are eroding his imprint.

``His legacy to the city of Chicago ... is truly under attack,'' says Paul Green, political science professor at Governors State University and co-editor of a forthcoming book on the city's mayors. And the outlines of Chicago's post-Daley era are coming into focus.

At his height, Mayor Daley mirrored Chicago. Ethnic. Confident. ``The City that Works,'' as it was called. And under Daley it did work. By combining the power of the mayor with the chairmanship of the county Democratic organization, he brought a factionalized political machine under his supreme control soon after his election in 1955.

``Daley was in modern times the last of the old-time bosses and, in a sense, the first of the modern big-city managers,'' says Chicago Tribune columnist Mike Royko. ``He combined both.''

``He was certainly a strong mayor,'' says John McDermott, former publisher of a newsletter on racial issues. ``Some of the things he did were very heavy-handed. But he couldn't have done them without a great deal of support.''

It was during his reign that some of the city's most important structures were built: the Sears Tower (the world's tallest building), the nation's largest concentration of low-income housing, the expressways, a city branch of the University of Illinois. Not everything that happened in Chicago was Daley's doing alone. But ``nothing happened that Daley didn't want to happen,'' says Thomas F. Roeser, president of the City Club of Chicago.

Mitchell Kobelinski remembers only too well when Daley got involved in his plans for a community center on the city's Northwest Side. ``He kind of turned a cold shoulder,'' Mr. Kobelinski, a Republican, recalls, and a senior-citizen facility was built in its place.

Despite this considerable power, even Daley could not halt the powerful social and economic forces that were transforming Chicago and other major cities in the United States. The civil rights movement, the transformation of urban poor into a seemingly permanent underclass, the rise of public-employee unions, and the economic decline of inner cities were all trends that Daley either ignored or didn't understand, political analysts say.

``He was sailing ahead as if the ship was staying the same as in the '50s, while the crew was changing and the storms were raging,'' says Mr. McDermott, who is director of urban affairs at Illinois Bell.

Urban whites fled to the suburbs in the '50s and '60s, shrinking the city's population and changing its ethnic makeup. Blacks, who made up 23 percent of the population in 1960, represented, by 1970, 33 percent. As Daley's tenure came to an end, he found it increasingly difficult to control the black vote.

``The Democratic machine was never a powerful organization in some wards,'' says veteran political observer Victor deGrazia. ``It was Daley's great skills as a dramatist that provided the image of the machine as a monolithic force.''

The machine survived Daley, but in substantially weaker form. Its appointed mayoral candidate, Michael Bilandic, was booted out of office in 1979 by Jane Byrne, who was kicked out herself after one term. It was her successor, Harold Washington, who marked a turning point in the city's politics, analysts agree. Exactly 50 years after Irish-Americans took over the reins of city government, Chicago had elected its first black mayor. Mr. Washington is also the first mayor since Daley with the potential power to put his own stamp on Chicago, several political analysts say.

Financial woes and tough political opposition have kept Washington from making more than a few substantial changes. For example, while Daley ran a closed government, Washington's administration is widely considered open and accessible; Daley concentrated on revitalizing the Loop, while Washington wants to develop the neighborhoods. Substantial political power has been transferred to the black community.

Various remnants of the Democratic machine have battled the mayor at every step, first in the City Council and now in the run for mayor in 1987. Currently, Chicagoans are being treated to a dizzying array of strategies and counterstrategies as new candidates vie for ways to defeat Washington. When one Democrat, Cook County assessor Thomas Hynes announced unexpectedly his run for mayor last week, it shocked and reshuffled the already crowded field of Democratic hopefuls, including local party leader alderman Edward Vrdolyak. In the latest bizarre move, Mr. Vrdolyak plans to quit the Democratic banner and run on a third-party ticket instead.

Such open dissension among regular Democrats was unheard of during Daley's day. But Washington's presence is pushing the city farther away from the one-man rule under Daley toward decentralization of power, these observers add.

One factor, however, threatens to turn Chicago's new democracy into chaos. The city's divisiveness, along racial, ethnic, and class lines, has become increasingly visible during the Washington years. In fact, his biggest challenge may well be to broaden his political base, just as Daley did in less financially strenuous times.

``Washington has to maintain a multiethnic city,'' Professor Green says. ``I argue he has to do that through the party. Party can transcend race. Reform can't.''

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.