If Richard M. Daley died of a heart attack today, who would be the next mayor of Chicago? Traditionally, the City Council replaces a dead mayor with one of its own. But when you look over the 50 members of that docile Politburo -- many appointed by Daley himself -- it’s hard to think of anyone with the stature to run a great American city. Maybe Toni Preckwinkle, but she’s already gotten a promotion.
I ask this because Daley’s speech to the City Club on Tuesday gave every indication he’s going to run for a seventh term (I had to count on my fingers) as mayor. Despite the speech's acknowledgement of the city's tough times, it was basically a love letter to businessmen. Consider the nut of Daly's speech:
Day by day, we have an obligation to our taxpayers to make government more efficient, and to do more with less ... I will not propose an increase in property taxes in next year's budget ... it frustrates me that some elected leaders across the nation seem to turn as a first resort to tax increases. I believe there's a better way. It's better managed government. It's government that raise's taxes and cuts services only as a last resort.
Words like that would reassure any investor. But the longer Daley serves, the closer he gets to his actuarial limit. And that’s a disservice to the city he loves.
Richard J. Daley and Harold Washington, the city’s last two larger-than-life mayors, both died in office, bequeathing political chaos to Chicago. Daley was succeeded by Michael Bilandic, a bland alderman who was supposed to keep the seat warm until Richie came of age, but was so inept at plowing the streets that he lost to Jane Byrne after just two years in office. The Council meetings to choose Washington’s successor deepened the city’s racial divide, as white aldermen anointed a black mayor who was labeled an Uncle Tom and run out of office by his own community.
Daley is only 68, and takes better care of himself than his overweight father, who wore out at age 74. But Daley has inherited his father’s belief in the Mayor For Life principle. In his City Club address, he talked about long-term plans for Chicago, including shoring up a pension system set to run out of money in 2030.
“Things have to be done,” as Mike Royko put it in Boss, his biography of Richard J. Daley. “If he doesn’t do them, who will?”
The “inter-Daley” period was a disaster for Chicago. Why trust someone outside the family to run things? Daley is an inescapable feature of Chicago as the long winters. Everyone complains about the cold, but the only way to escape it is to leave town. Same with Mayor Daley.
The only difference between Chicago and North Korea is that in North Korea, they know which member of the Kim family is coming next. We’re not going to get another Daley, but the longer this one stays, and discourages the next generation of political talent, the less likely he’ll leave Chicago in good hands.