A Daley has run Chicago for forty-two of the past fifty-five years—a reign that will end next year with Richard Michael having served one year longer than his father, Richard Joseph. What’s the legacy of that royal act, and who can follow it? More important, is there a progressive vision of a post-Daley era?
The son rules a schizophrenic town—part city on a hill, part cesspool of corruption. He reflects both aspects. A muscularly beautiful city in a gorgeous setting, Chicago is world-class in the arts and academia, a business and finance dynamo, but its schools are a scandal, despite all the flackery about "reform" after a mayoral takeover of the system in the 1990s. Its once indomitable political machine is battered and balkanized but not kaput. The racist politics of "Beirut on the Lake" during the too-brief 1980s tenure of the late Harold Washington are fading, in part thanks to the younger Daley’s inclusiveness. But though Chicago boasts a thriving black and Latino middle class, it’s a totally segregated town where hundreds of thousands of minorities suffer under high unemployment and gang warfare.
The son, elected in 1989, personifies the split between the corrupt machine politics he was born into and his green, technocratic agenda, which beautified the city, built schools and libraries, expanded cultural programs, promoted business development and reduced racial tensions. His masterwork, Millennium Park, built over unsightly rail tracks on the central lakefront, is an international cultural gem.
Yet bribe-taking pols by the dozen are perp-walked to the slammer while smart ones in $2,000 suits make millions dancing the snaky line that separates criminal conflict of interest from legitimate lobbying. Tax increment financing, created to aid blighted communities, mostly aids the rich and shortchanges the poor. Badly managed privatization, intended to ameliorate severe budget deficits, failed that goal, bringing only short-lived relief.
Daley’s initial popularity was manifest because he stood for the white homeowner against the burgeoning African-American population that elected Harold Washington in 1983—the only progressive ever to hold the office, but who died in 1987. Later, Daley’s efforts to beautify the city, hold the line on taxes and dole out a modicum of cash and favors to the neighborhoods while continuing to build the downtown won the support of black and white alike. Eventually, however, the stench of corruption, a sinking economy and major administrative failures—including the loss of the 2016 Olympics—took a toll, and his favorability rating dropped into the mid-thirties. City officials close to him were convicted of bribery, illegal patronage schemes and other federal crimes, leaving him embarrassed but personally unscathed. His retirement, however, has more to do with his wife’s failing health. Daley could have been re-elected next year, though it would have been a tougher fight than usual.
Long touted as a wonderful manager, Daley ran hundreds of millions of dollars in deficits for much of this decade. He made up some shortfalls by privatizing a city toll road and the parking meter system through long-term leases. Problem is, the funds they generated are almost depleted, largely because he didn’t get the best deals. Daley’s $6 billion municipal budget for 2011 will fall short by $655 million. He will leave the city in the same financial shape as George W. Bush left the nation, calling to mind the time Jane Byrne was elected to succeed Daley’s father in 1979 and discovered the school system was broke.