Chicago’s Richard Daley: 1997 Municipal Leader of the Year
It was November 1996. The Democrats were going through the motions necessary for the re-anointing of Bill Clinton as their presidential candidate. With no serious challenge presented, the Democratic National Convention had all the drama of a baby shower.
Attention, thus, was turned to other things, particularly to the site of the convention itself. So Chicago, which had spent 28 years living down the 1968 Democratic convention, now found itself the center of media scrutiny that would humble lesser cities.
Chicago never blinked. The stormy, husky, brawling city of the big shoulders stood as proud as it ever had that fall, drawing nationwide plaudits for lessons learned and ghosts exorcised.
When it was all over, Chicago Mayor Richard Daley called a press conference. At one point, tears in his eyes, Daley looked heavenward. “You could just tell that he was saying, ‘Dad, I did it right,'” says one journalist who was covering the press conference.
Dad, of course, was Richard J. Daley – the son is Richard M. – longtime Chicago mayor and one of the most powerful men in the country in his heyday. Richard J. Daley, “Boss” to friends and foes alike, owned the city and operated it pretty much as his personal fiefdom.
Richard M., however, is not the elder Daley’s double. For one thing, times have changed. No longer is absolute power concentrated in City Hall. For another, Richard M.’s personality is not suited to exercising that kind of control. Years of political ups and downs have convinced him that flexibility is the key to making a city the size of Chicago work.
That, he has done in spades. Chicago is currently in the middle of a building and revitalization boom that is the envy of the nation’s big cities. Its schools are getting better, its neighborhoods safer, its residents happier. And while credit for all that can be spread freely, it is Richard M., the son once derided as a rider of coattails and leader by accident of birth, who is managing it.
His efforts have reintroduced the nation to one of its most vibrant cities. But more importantly, they have made those who call Chicago home prouder. They have also made him American City & County’s 1997 Municipal Leader of the Year.
A Political Life As the oldest son of a wildly popular mayor, Daley’s career in politics may have seemed pre-ordained. In fact, the Daley household was remarkably free of politics. “We never really discussed politics at all,” says Daley’s brother, John, who is chairman of the Cook County Finance Committee. “I know it’s hard to believe, but politics never really entered our home.”
Indeed, Daley’s political career did not even begin until, in 1970 at the age of 28, he was elected to the Illinois Constitutional Convention, which was charged with re-writing the state’s constitution. Two years later, he was elected to the state senate, where he remained until 1980 when he won the race for State’s Attorney of Cook County.
Ironically, it was as State’s Attorney that Daley became the first Cook County official to sign the court-ordered Shakman decree, which eliminated the poli tically motivated hiring and firing that had been a hallmark of his father’s administration.
In 1983, Daley set his sights on the mayor’s office but lost in a primary that ran strictly along racial lines when he and Jane Byrne split the white vote. With overwhelming black support, Harold Washington was elected.
Daley remained in the State’s Attorney’s office until 1989, leaving to run again for mayor after Harold Washington’s sudden death. Daley rode his popularity with the city’s working class southwest and northwest sides to City Hall in the racially charged slugfest that followed Washington’s death. In the two elections since then, his popularity has spread, and the genial, no-frills Daley is now embraced both by the city’s affluent lakefront and its business community. Indeed, many of his critics have been won over by his self-effacing, “regular guy” manner.
“He’s not the most articulate guy in the world,” says Fran Spielman, the Chicago Sun-Times City Hall reporter who has covered that beat off and on for 13 years. “He’s a ‘dem,’ ‘dese,’ ‘dose,'” kinda guy. He is not a modern-day slickster politician. He’s just the kind of guy who goes on tours of neighborhoods and sees a streetlight out and demands to know why the damn streetlight is out. He’s a nuts-and-bolts guy in a city that values that.”
Still, it is exactly that attention to detail that is causing raised eyebrows around the city since a series of Sun-Times articles blasted Daley’s boyhood pal and City Council floor leader Patrick Huels for ethical lapses that included a shady $1.25 million loan deal and failure to pay two years’ worth of city head taxes. (Huels resigned from the council after a pressured Daley threatened to strip him of his positions as floor leader and chairman of the Local Transportation Committee.) That and other potential conflict of interest problems have tarnished the mayor’s reputation, although the damage, according to Spielman, is probably not fatal. “This is the first major scandal to touch his administration,” she says. “The question is what he knew and when he knew it. Is it going to affect future elections? Probably not.”
Since 1991, Daley has never drawn less than 60 percent of the vote in a general election. He has never drawn less than 63 percent in a primary in a city where, because of the strength of the Harold Washington Party, primaries are never foregone conclusions.
He is successful primarily because the city’s residents see him as a guy who cares about their potholes.
Sweating the small stuff It wasn’t always that way. The first few years of Daley’s mayoralty were marked by a focus on flashy projects – a push for a third airport and a $2 billion land-based casino – that flopped like the Cubs in summer.
His last four years, however, have been marked by an attention to detail that Spielman calls “remarkable for a big city mayor.
“He has helped spur a tremendous rebuilding of the city from the ground up,” she says. “He’s repaved two-thirds of the streets in Chicago since he’s been mayor. He’s reclaiming green space. He’s planted zillions of trees. He’s building new police stations, new schools. It’s not the super-glamorous stuff, not the stuff of legacy. But it is the stuff that matters to the city.””I like to manage the operation of city government,” Dale y says. “If you don’t do that well, the taxpayers don’t think they are getting the services they need. I’m a good manager, but I don’t micromanage.”
Nowhere is Daley’s managerial prowess so apparent as in the city’s schools. After repeated requests, the state’s Republican-dominated legislature finally turned control of the Chicago school system, which former Secretary of Education William Bennett had called “the worst in the nation,” to the mayor’s office; skeptics believe the legislators were sure he would fail miserably.
It was probably a good bet. As of June 1995, the city’s schools were expected to run up a four-year budget deficit of $1.5 billion. Test scores were abysmal, and teachers had struck nine times between 1972 and 1995.
As Daley says, “The state’s education budget regulations were a bureaucrat’s dream,” with school funding coming from seven different local rate levies and 27 state grants.
Daley immediately put his budget director, Paul Vallas, in charge of the system and installed his former chief of staff, Gery Chico, as president of the Board of Education. The new management team immediately discovered nearly $1 million worth of spoiled food in one school warehouse and found more than $4,250,000 worth of furniture, school supplies, construction material and tools in others. It then worked out a four-year budget that included a long-term labor agreement with the system’s teachers.
Results were immediate. The system received its first investment grade bond rating since 1979, a rating that has been upgraded twice since. More importantly, the school board adopted a back-to-basics approach that ended social promotions and requires summer school for students performing below their peers.
“Math and reading scores are going up,” Daley says. “Housing is going in around the schools. It used to be people would say to me, ‘Mr. Mayor, I love what you’re doing, but I’m about to have a child, so I’m moving to the suburbs.’ No one would jeopardize a child’s future for a dream or a promise. I knew I had to have some responsibility for education, because if the middle class won’t put its kids in the city’s schools, then we lose the middle class.”
Armed with little more than that realization and a commitment from the city’s business community, Daley has pumped millions of dollars into school renovation and expansion. Current plans call for another $1.2 billion, some $800 million of it local money, to finance new construction and additional remodeling and expansion.
“The mayor has emotionally dedicated himself to coming up with the necessary revenue to build and rehabilitate the public schools,” says John Stroger, president of the Cook County Board of Commissioners. “There is massive work being done on old school buildings. The mayor has given the school board the political muscle it needs to go to the legislature to get the tools it needs.”
Local efforts, national attention But it isn’t just the schools that have benefited from Daley’s tenure. The city has added 1,600 police officers and pursued an aggressive anti-gang campaign that has resulted in the indictments of more than 300 gang members.
Additionally, business taxes have been trimmed, and the city has created a business assistance program to support local companies attempting to navigate through its licensing and regulatory processes.
Chicago’s neighborhoods, however, are commanding the bulk of Daley’s attention – and stand to reap enormous gains. In April of this year, Daley announced the Neighborhoods Alive program, which focuses the efforts of virtually every city department on improving and strengthening its communities. The Chicago Park District, for example, is undertaking the most ambitious capital improvement program in its history, spending $229 million to upgrade and build field houses, playgrounds, ballfields and pools in the city’s neighborhoods. And the Chicago Transit Authority will pump more than $40 million into renovations of the city’s elevated train stations and bus stops.
Neighborhoods Alive will mean massive street resurfacing, creation of green space, replacement, lining and cleaning of sewers and construction of new water mains and libraries. But if “Neighborhoods, Schools, Neighborhoods, Schools” is Daley’s mantra, he still must occasionally turn his attention eastward. As mayor of the country’s third largest city and a past president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, Daley is frequently called upon to give the cities’ side of the story to those he disdainfully refers to as “those bureaucrats in Washington.” It is in these settings that his “Everyman” persona shines.
“We were in Washington, him as president of the USCM and me as president of the National League of Cities, meeting with the vice president to talk about the new clean air standards,” says Oklahoma City, Okla., Councilman Mark Schwartz, laughing. “I guess everybody thought that because I’m a Democrat, Daley’s a Democrat and the vice president is a Democrat, everything was going to be smooth sailing. He read them the riot act. He said, ‘What would you like me to do? I can’t shut down the interstate highways?’ I think several people in the room were a little unnerved. In terms of politics, it was a Kodak Moment.”
“They’re sitting back in Washington in their offices,” scoffs Daley. “And when they get ready to go home, they drive to the suburbs. They have this “Holier Than Thou” attitude. They’re on the top of the mountain. If you disagree with them, then you want dirty air or dirty water. What I was saying was, ‘Let’s sit down and discuss this.'”
Daley’s grassroots management style and his refusal to brownnose the talking heads in D.C. have won him the respect of his peers. “He’s a very dedicated, hard-working municipal official,” Schwartz says. “He’s very competent. A lot of times, big city mayors seem like they’re in a different world. But he’s as down-to-earth as you can get.”
“When I decided to go into politics, my father said, ‘This is your decision. I never want to see you on my doorstep complaining about your decision,'” Daley says. “I have learned a lot of things along the way, and I think I’ve become more flexible. And I can honestly say, I have never regretted that decision.”