Ward Room
Covering Chicago's nine political influencers

Mayor Daley's Legacy Isn't Crystal Clear

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    NEWSLETTERS

    Richard M. Daley helmed the city of Chicago for 21 years with a mostly iron fist and an eye to the future. (Published Wednesday, Sep 8, 2010)

    Richard M. Daley helmed the city of Chicago for 21 years with a mostly iron fist and an eye to the future.

    Here he was king.

    Few stood against Daley during his historic tenure as the city's CEO. In that respect Daley mirrored his father, Richard J. Daley, one of the last city bosses. Father and son ran slick political machines that could twist the arms of city councilmen with nothing more than a furtive glance.

    Daley, however, seemed eager to shake the legacy of his father’s political machine and write one of his own. He reached for the stars during a pitch for the 2016 Olympic games, but came up short.

    Winning the games would have given Daley the opportunity to retire with a victory by positioning Chicago as a world-class destination instead of a second banana to New York and Los Angeles.

    Now, however, historians will be left to sift through a record of political ham fisting, suspect deals and professional-level corruption.

    Daley’s Mayoral aspirations became apparent in 1983 when he ran unsuccessfully against Jane Byrne and Harold Washington. Washington handily beat Daley, who had been working as the Cook County Prosecutor since leaving the state senate in 1980.

    But the loss was but a minor hiccup, and Daley won the office in 1989 after Washington died of a heart attack.  He never let go.

    Along the way Daley was linked to a number of scandals. In 2004 he Daley’s office was implicated in the Hired Truck Program, which involved private contractors with mob ties receiving money for work the didn't do.  

    Soon after his office was investigate by Federal authorities over patronage hiring. The investigation led to the arrest and conviction of Daley’s patronage chief Robert Sorich. A federal judge ordered an inspector to oversee all city hiring after that.

    In 2003, Daley exercised his authority when, just after winning reelection, he sent a fleet of bulldozers to Meigs Field, a small airport on the lakefront, and instructed them to carve Xs into the runway. He was fined by the FAA, but never apologized.

    Daley's also the man who privatized the world. He cut deals on everything from toll roads to city services and even considered selling the city's water. Recently, Daley invited the scorn of residents when he leased Chicago’s parking meters to a private firm for what some call a cut-rate.

    It wasn’t all bad during his 21 years. Daley helped foster much prosperity for the city.

    Daley managed to turn Chicago into a tourist destination with the reinvention of Navy Pier and the creation of Millennium Park.  He won control of the Chicago Public School system in 1995 and helped improve struggling districts with the appointment of Paul Vallas as schools CEO.

    He led the modernization of the Chicago Transit Authority, and strived to turn Chicago into one of the ‘greenest cities’ in the country by supporting environmental projects and green roofs.

    There is no doubt that Daley should be considered one of the greatest Chicago mayors in history, but his legacy comes with caveats that some Chicagoans may never forget.