The Economist recently dubbed his rule a "benign dictatorship," and he's been nicknamed Richard II. And if Richard M. Daley is reelected for a sixth term as Chicago's mayor in February – highly probable, with his top two potential opponents officially dropping out of the race recently – he'll be on track to beat his father's mayoral record of 21 years.
It's a dynasty matched nowhere else, and despite enduring his most turbulent term yet, Mayor Daley is still the most powerful person in America's second city.
"Since [Richard J.] Daley was elected in 1955, something like 75 percent of the time, the mayor of Chicago has been a Daley," says Paul Green, a political scientist at Chicago's Roosevelt University. If you add them together, "only Queen Elizabeth has had a longer reign," he laughs.
Daley has yet to officially announce his candidacy for the Feb. 27, 2007, election. And the ongoing investigation into corruption in his administration – conducted by powerful US Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald – has had many wondering if he could finally be vulnerable.
But after rumblings of challenges and a tough race, his most formidable opponents – US Congressmen Jesse Jackson Jr. and Luis Gutierrez – both recently announced they wouldn't run. Just over three months before the election, that leaves Dorothy Brown, the Cook County Circuit Court Clerk, and Bill "Dock" Walls, once an aide to former Mayor Harold Washington, who most Chicagoans would be hard-pressed to identify.
"Dorothy Brown will be a better candidate than any of the ones who have run in recent years," says Dick Simpson, a former alderman and political science professor at the University of Illinois in Chicago. "But without a strong Latino [candidate] and white candidate [to split the vote], Daley will probably win."
This despite an investigation that has brought down, among others, Robert Sorich, the No. 2 person in the Office of Intergovernmental Affairs. Mr. Sorich was convicted this summer of mail fraud in a city hiring scandal. He was the most prominent in a series of city hall officials forced to resign.
But most Chicagoans seem willing to overlook the scandals – which have not implicated Daley directly – as long as the city looks good, the garbage is collected on time, and snow doesn't stay on the streets. His approval ratings, while lower than the sky-high numbers he once enjoyed, still hover around 65 percent. And many residents simply view something like rigged hiring as politics as usual.
"There's low expectations – Chicago voters, by and large, don't expect some idealized version of politics," says Jay Stewart, executive director of the Better Government Association, a nonpartisan watchdog group that began in the 1920s to counter mobster Al Capone's influence. Still, he says, "For every cynical Chicago voter, there's a point where it'll be a bridge too far. The mayor's getting close to that point, but from the polling I've seen so far, the majority of the public is willing to say they'll still vote for him."
Mr. Stewart and others agree it would take an allegation that directly implicated Daley in corruption to make any real difference in the election, but Stewart believes that the mayor bears some responsibility for the culture.
"No one else has been mayor for the past 17 years," Stewart says. "Robert Sorich wasn't some flunky 15 levels down in the organization box."
Daley's iron grip on the city government is wavering slightly – this past year the city council defied him over measures like a ban on foie gras and a minimum wage for big-box stores, causing Daley's first-ever veto. But he still wields tremendous power at a time when many cities are enacting term limits for mayors and decentralizing authority.
"Chicago and Daley are a little bit of a throwback," says Richard Flanagan, a political scientist at the College of Staten Island in New York and author of "Mayors and the Challenge of Urban Leadership." "He's created a new-style political machine, and that's increasingly difficult to pull off in big cities. The coalitions don't tend to endure as long.... Daley's perfected the art like few others."
But it's a different brand of power than his father wielded, observers say, despite the frequent comparisons between the two. The traditional Democratic machine and patronage system have largely disappeared, though the current mayor has created his own version. He's survived as long as he has in part by diminishing racial tensions, and he's a business-friendly Democrat. He's fond of big projects: building the multimillion-dollar Millennium Park and transforming the city's schools and public housing.
"He doesn't bleed Democratic blue, whereas for his father, being a Democrat was really part of who he was," says Professor Green.
But like his father, he's never aspired to anything other than being mayor of Chicago.
"Part of the reason Chicago is what it is and is such a dominant city is that its elected people are rough and tough. And people in Chicago like that – they like their politicians tough," says Green. "In no city in America does the mayor play a more important role. [For Chicagoans], he's more important than the governor, and in many ways more important than the president."