Chicago is the youngest of the world’s great cities, having been founded in 1837, but it’s still astonishing to realize that for a quarter of our history, a man named Daley has been mayor.
It’s not just a political dynasty unparalleled in the history of American cities. Individually, each Daley held office longer than the longest-serving mayors of New York, Los Angeles, Detroit, Philadelphia, Cleveland, San Francisco or Boston.
Between them, the Daleys amassed far more power than the city’s founders ever intended a mayor to hold. Before the Daleys, the aldermen actually wrote the budget. When the Daleys were in power, they barely got a chance to examine the budget before approving it unanimously. Demographics could never defeat the Daleys. Their ascendance began when Chicago was a city dominated by white ethnics still close to their roots in Ireland, Italy and Poland; it ends in a city divided among blacks, Latinos and whites. The younger Daley responded by building the Hispanic Democratic Organization, a formidable Latino political machines.
Changes in the rules of Chicago politics couldn’t stop them, either. The elder Daley reigned over a political machine in which every city and county was expected to turn out votes for the Democratic Party. Political hiring was banned by the Shakman Decree in 1972, but the younger Daley didn’t pay that much mind. His Streets and Sanitation chief, Al Sanchez, was recently convicted of handing out jobs in exchange for political work.
We’re unlikely to see another Mayor Daley -- the current mayor’s only son, Patrick, has shown no interest in politics. But let’s hope we never see another dynasty, or even another 20-year mayorality. Some historians call the years between 1976 and 1989 the “inter-Daley” period, and remember them as a time of political chaos, when Chicago threatened to collapse into the same cycle of Rust Belt decline as Detroit, St. Louis and Cleveland. Then the son arrived to save us.
Chicago is a big city. We can learn to live without a boss. Term limits would be a good place to start restricting the next mayor’s power. Twelve years is as long as anyone should hold an executive position. At 69, Danny Davis is seen as being too old to become mayor. He’s only too old to become mayor-for-life. After Daley, his age may be a selling point. One reason the College of Cardinals elected Pope Benedict was that he couldn’t duplicate Pope John Paul II’s 27-year-reign.
Now that the Daleys are finished, Chicago finally has a chance to become a Democracy. Let’s not blow it.
Buy this book! Ward Room blogger Edward McClelland's book, Young Mr. Obama: Chicago and the Making of a Black President , is available Amazon. Young Mr. Obama includes reporting on President Obama's earliest days in the Windy City, covering how a presumptuous young man transformed himself into presidential material. Buy it now!