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The Long Goodbye as Mayor Richard M. Daley Ends an Era

Daniel J. Kelley 12 May 2011 One Comment

The rope line stretched from the Washington Street entrance to City Hall, wound its way past the City Clerk’s office and continued to the bank of elevators servicing the fifth floor. Surprisingly, the expected overflow crowd never fully materialized. There was a modestly respectable afternoon turnout that inched forward at a leisurely pace, but not much more. A private reception for invited guests had occurred earlier in the day. Mayor Richard M. Daley welcomed visitors to his office, shaking hands and posing for photographs one last time yesterday. Some of the mayor’s morning guests were even entertained by the Shannon Rovers.

I wonder how “Viva La Vida” sounds when played on Irish bagpipes?

Like many Chicagoans, my feelings about the end of the second Daley Era are decidedly mixed. I liked the mayor on some levels while, as a long time city resident, I have also chafed at some of his policies. I particularly dislike the parking meter sell out and the obscenely high taxes.

Notwithstanding the praise being trumpeted about now, assessing Richard M. Daley’s proper place in Chicago history in an objective manner is going to be extremely difficult. How future generations view Daley may well depend upon how quickly Chicago recovers from its current economic woes, if it does so at all.

Daley’s successor, Rahm Emanuel, faces the unenviable task of cleaning up after a bacchanalia of spending and mismanagement that might rival the hangovers experienced by Chicagoans who attended the notorious “First Ward Balls” hosted by Aldermen “Bathhouse” John Coughlin and Michael “Hinky Dink” Kenna. If Emanuel’s behavior as mayor is similar to his service as the White House Chief of Staff, will Emanuel eventually blame his predecessor for causing him to inherit every misfortune and woe said to have plagued the Biblical character Job? One wonders if assuming the mayoralty may ultimately prove to be a Pyrrhic victory of sorts for Emanuel?

The outgoing mayor, himself, has indicated that his father, Richard J. Daley, still ranks as the Chicago’s best mayor. Although the son’s political career followed that of his father in some respects (both men served in the General Assembly and held countywide elected office prior to serving as mayor), Richard M. Daley’s nearly decade long tenure as the Cook County State’s Attorney cannot necessarily be neatly separated from his mayoralty. It definitely complicated matters. As a county prosecutor, Daley often seemed woefully out of his depth. He functioned as a figurehead who delegated the running of the office to his top assistants while he was busy planning how to best use the post as a stepping stone to the mayoralty. Achieving that goal took six years longer than he anticipated.

Under Daley, the office of the state’s attorney appeared to have sometimes condoned police misconduct to secure convictions, but, after attaining the mayoralty, Daley has been criticized for having turned his back on the Police Department entirely. He would have done better to have followed his father’s example and run for a less controversial county position. Richard J. Daley served as County Clerk before ousting Martin H. Kennelly and becoming mayor.

I am inclined to agree with John Kass that had Richard M. Daley retired in 2003, he might be ranked as one of Chicago’s greatest mayors without any doubts, qualifications or reservations being expressed. Regrettably, he sought re-election two more times and the final eight years added several layers of tarnish to his historical reputation. Most, but not all of the major blemishes on Daley’s record occurred subsequent to the 2003 municipal election. Every accolade that Daley rightfully deserves seems to be counterbalanced by a possible demerit.

For sheer arrogance bordering upon craven stupidity, the manner in which Daley ordered the closing of Meigs Field seemed to mirror Alderman Bernard Stone’s foolish decision to erect a dividing wall on Howard Street to separate Chicago from Evanston when he was angered by the opening of a shopping center in the neighboring suburb (the Howard Street partition was eventually removed). Daley’s failed bid to place a children’s museum in Grant Park violated a cherished and longstanding legal precedent that the lakefront should forever be open space. Thankfully, that effort was recently abandoned.

Undeniably, Richard M. Daley achieved the mayoral longevity record (he eclipsed his father’s former record tenure last December) and it seems highly unlikely that any successor will ever come close to equaling that mark. Nevertheless, the past eight years been an ordeal. The wildly unpopular privatization of the city’s parking meters is currently being litigated. In hindsight, the losing bid to host the 2016 Olympic Games seems like a desperate gamble to score some big bucks to keep the old regime in power. It lacked enthusiastic public support throughout Chicago and failed so miserably that both the mayor and the president were embarrassed on an international stage. Had Chicago been chosen for the Olympiad, it is difficult to imagine that Daley would not have filed for another term.

Daley’s greatest accomplishments probably relate to his efforts to beautify the parks and boulevards and to promote Chicago as a destination city. A former friend of mine, who traveled frequently to the city on business, would routinely praise Chicago for its lakefront. I gently reminded her that the window of her hotel room provided a magnificent view of Michigan Avenue and Grant Park, which park district laborers have correctly nicknamed “the front yard.” There are many less attractive areas in the city. How many tourists venture to Barack Obama’s former state senate district?

This conversation reminded me of a scene in a vintage Humphrey Bogart film, which takes place in a railroad terminal outside of Philadelphia. Bogart made a mild rhetorical wisecrack by asking a reporter “Is this the City of Brotherly Love?” The newshound’s snappy rejoinder was “That’s what New Yorkers call it. They don’t have to live here.” While the central city has flourished under Daley‘s watch, but, apart from pockets of prosperity in selected neighborhoods, many outlying residential districts are hurting and we have to live here.

Certainly, lawyers specializing in vehicle collision cases are grateful to Daley for placing concrete flower boxes in the middle of busy intersections, so that motorists cannot see oncoming traffic as they attempt to merge into traffic or make turns. Red light cameras and aggressive street sweeping operations seem less designed to promote the public health, safety and welfare than to fill the empty city treasury with revenue from fines. The cost overruns at Millennium Park were so significant that I imagined that the contractors shredded hundred dollar bills as landfill when building the park’s foundation. The ubiquitous faux wrought iron fences that so enriched Bridgeport developer Michael Tadin and other insiders are rusting away as you read this. Perhaps, Mayor-elect Emanuel can someday create a summer jobs program for youths interested in becoming journeymen painters. The manifold scandals in the Water Department, including the costly “Hired Trucks” scam involved some of the same people. The list goes on, but you have already caught the drift.

One of Richard M. Daley’s final public appearances will be to deliver the commencement address to the 2011 graduates of all seven campuses of the City Colleges of Chicago. Ironically, the current chancellor of the college system has embarked upon an ambitious and controversial plan to improve the struggling colleges that suffered and stagnated under the commencement speaker’s benign neglect. Under Daley, an incompetent and thoroughly divisive chancellor was permitted to hold office for a full decade despite an overwhelming vote of “no confidence“ by the tenured faculty. Politics trumped academics and the students suffered as a result.

The Chicago Public Library is already constructing a new branch library which will be named after Mayor Richard M. Daley. The library will be on Kedzie Avenue, quite close to Kells Park, which honors, George D. Kells, a former member of the Chicago City Council, who had represented the 28th Ward for nearly two decades. Interestingly enough, Kells also retired from public life suddenly, citing his wife’s “poor health” as a reason for his abrupt decision to move to Florida. Some have similarly attributed the mayor’s imminent retirement to Maggie Daley’s medical concerns.

More cynical observers speculated that the truth was that Tony Accardo was intent upon muscling in on the lucrative policy rackets operating in the West Side ward. Since Kells had been too closely identified with the rival gamblers that the Syndicate wanted replaced by any means necessary, the Big Tuna wanted the incumbent alderman gone as well. While I expect that Daley could have been reelected this year, I think that it would have been a much closer race than before. Many people have been more openly critical of the mayor than ever before and simply wanted him gone as well.

Sic transit gloria. . .

Daniel J. Kelley is a contributor to “The Chicago Daily Observer.”

One Comment »

  • Finn Kacy said:

    There are many front porches in the city. The one the mayor liked to talk about is the lake front. The other ones that he neglected for most of his term are the thousands of porches in the neighborhoods of the city. Those porches became the targets of drive by shooters. Those porches encased behind iron fences more closely resembled prison cells than the welcoming entrances to homes.

    I drive up and down Cicero Avenue to get to and from work. 20 miles each way every day. I pass neighborhoods that look like they were lifted from the disaster stricken city of New Orleans or the deserted streets of Detroit rather than the image he and his allies want us to believe that our “World Class City” looks like. Sort of reminds me of the image created in the silent film “Metropolis”.

    I did not vote for Rahm but I do not envy him or the mess he has inherited.

    I agree that he will be missed but by who?

    Good luck Rahm, goodbye MR. Daley.

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