A long time ago, a coffee shop owner told me that it was impossible to understand Chicago’s affection for Mayor Richard J. Daley “unless you actually grew up in Chicago: not the suburbs, but actually in Chicago.”
I didn’t grow up in Chicago, but I’ve lived here for 17 years. Now that the Daleys are gone, I’m starting to understand why they won 12 mayoral elections and controlled City Hall for 43 of 56 years. Simply put, Chicago runs more smoothly when there’s a Daley in charge. It may not be as democratic, it may not be as ethically honest, but there’s less conflict, and more stuff gets done.
The 13 years between Richard J.’s death and Richard M.’s election are known as “the inter-Daley period,” a chaotic time for Chicago. The city had five mayors (if you include David Orr’s one-week tenure). Michael Bilandic couldn’t dig the city out of a snowstorm. Jane Byrne couldn’t make peace with exiled Daley loyalists, or reopen Wisconsin Steel. Harold Washington’s term was dominated by Council Wars -- racial conflict in City Hall. Eugene Sawyer couldn’t win the support of his fellow blacks.
Richard M. ended race as the dominant issue in Chicago politics, an achievement the Tribune called his “crowning glory.” He also completed Chicago’s transition from a provincial, industrial city to a global financial and cultural center. As the rest of the Midwest rusted, Chicago thrived, luring away the most talented young people from the declining cities of the region.
No one would ever say the Daleys were book smart. Trying to complete a sentence was an adventure for both father and son. Richard M. failed the bar exam twice. And he allowed Wall Street bankers to hustle him out of $10 billion in the parking meter deal. But the Daleys had a genius for exercising power. They knew exactly how much to give every constituency -- enough to keep them happy, but not enough to make them powerful enough to threaten City Hall. There was never a teachers’ strike when Daley was in office.
Emanuel doesn’t have that touch. He tries to pretend his autocracy is based on principles and that, therefore, anyone who opposes his will opposes what’s good for the children of Chicago. I suspect the Daleys would not have made the politically clumsy move of canceling the teachers’ guaranteed 4 percent raise before beginning negotiations. They were practical, consensus politicians who bullied with one hand and offered a treat with the other.
The family is grooming Metropolitan Water Reclamation District Commissioner Patrick Daley Thompson for the mayor’s office. He even lives in the family bungalow on South Lowe Avenue. Will Chicago yearn for another Mayor Daley?
This month, Ward Room blogger Edward McClelland’s Young Mr. Obama: Chicago and the Making of a Black President will be available on Kindle for $1.99. Tracing Obama’s career in Chicago from his arrival as a community organizer to his election to the U.S. Senate, Young Mr. Obama tells the story of how a callow, presumptuous young man became a master politician, and of why only Chicago could have produced our first black president.