Path to Chicago City Hall strewn with ... flowers?

In the rough-and-tumble politics of this burly and blowy Midwestern metropolis, Mayor Richard M. Daley has become almost unstoppably popular - in part with a strategy that might shock his legendarily tough father, whose cops clubbed hippie protesters at the 1968 Democratic Convention.

You might call the mayor's strategy Flower Power.

He has led an unrivaled beautification campaign, lavishing city streets and parks with millions of flowers and some 135,000 trees.

It's tulips galore in the spring. It's pink petunias and purple butterfly bushes in the summer. At city schools alone, he plans to spend $50 million over the next five years to plant trees.

Some call him the Martha Stewart of mayors.

Call him what you like, but apparently it works: Heading into this Wednesday's mayoral election, Daley leads his challenger, US Rep. - and former Black Panther - Bobby Rush,by 52 points, according to a Chicago Tribune poll.

With his emphasis on quality-of-life issues, Daley has taken the political strategy of filling potholes to new heights. And he's not alone. "He's a prime example of the new breed of pragmatic mayors," says Tom Kingsley of The Urban Institute in Washington.

Not that he's only done flowers: His beautification campaign also includes installing miles of elegant wrought-iron fences and lighting up dark alleys and landmarks, such as churches. And he hasn't just been beautifying. Most recently he's gotten accolades for starting to turn around the city's once-decrepit schools.

But not everyone's happy: Mr. Rush is one of many who charge that while the mayor is busy gardening, whole sections of the city are decaying.

Many Chicagoans know Rush as a former Black Panther. But this three-term congressman, who represents the city's poorer South side, is known in Washington for his ability to work well with all sides. And as he points out, he was a Boy Scout before he was a Panther.

In his long-shot campaign, Rush tells a Dickensian tale of two Chicagos: one with prosperous people living on flower-lined, pothole-free streets, and one with poor people living with spotty mass-transit service, bad schools, and not enough jobs.

Indeed, the city's mass-transit system has made some controversial cuts that many say hurt the city's poor. To make substantial, equitable change, the city needs to shift its emphasis to the "totally unglamorous infrastructure" - everything from train tracks to sewers, says Jacqueline Leavy, executive director of the Neighborhood Capital Budget Group, a nonprofit advocacy organization.

Most people agree the city has much to do to fix long-entrenched inequities. But the consensus is that "despite his flaws, who's going to do a better job than Daley?" says Don Rose, a long-time political consultant and observer.

Take schools. In 1995, Daley fought for and won control over city schools. Since then he has pumped in money and pushed reform. For the first time in many years, test scores are starting to rise. And in his State of the Union address, President Clinton praised Chicago as a model for its plan to abolish social promotion.

The schools crisis is far from over, yet Daley has made hard-won progress. Besides schools, Daley's strong reputation is largely built on a mass of small initiatives. Daley - who is an avid mountain biker - has constructed an image as a can-do administrator who seizes on good ideas and gets them done.

He has also been adroit at reaching out to - some say co-opting - blacks. He's sold scores of vacant lots to black churches for $1. And he has kept in place many of the reforms of Chicago's first black mayor, Harold Washington, including affirmative action. So when it comes time to vote, many blacks figure "We're not going to go with a losing black candidate" - Bobby Rush - "when we can already get spoils from a winning white candidate," says Dick Simpson, a former alderman.

But Daley is perhaps best-known for his can-do pragmatism. Others - from New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani to Ed Rendell in Philadelphia and even President Clinton - are also popular because of this pragmatic approach. To be sure, many have also benefited from the hot economy and falling crime rates.

But the philosophy is different, too. "It's not just conservative or liberal any more," says Mr. Kingsley at the Urban Institute. "They've moved away from thinking government has to do everything. They've recognized they have to tighten up management and be efficient at what they choose to do."

Daley is perhaps unique in his passion for flora. "Most places in the world, 'urban' means concrete, steel, dirt, and no life," he says in an interview. "When you put a tree in, it helps the environment, but it also puts pride in people. It makes a city more livable."

On Wednesday, voters will signal whether they agree.

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