For most of my life, there’s been a Mayor Daley running Chicago. I remember that as a little kid, I didn’t even realize that “Mayor” was a title.
When Mayor Richard J. Dailey died in 1976, there was a succession of short-term mayors, including Michael Bilandic (appointed by the city council), Jane Byrne (an insider who ran as an outsider after Bilandic fired her), Harold Washington (Chicago’s first black mayor, who died in office), David Orr (by succession, for about a week), Eugene Sawyer (appointed by the city council), until 1989, when Richard M. Daley, son of the first Mayor Daley, finally took the Chicago throne. After the first few re-elections, people started joking that his proper title was “Mayor-For-Life,” but in just a few weeks he’s about to retire.
The Chicago Tribune‘s Leon Kass has a personal look back at Daley’s career. Everyone’s heard of the Great Chicago Fire, but how many people outside of this town remember the Great Chicago Flood? That’s when Kass began to sour on Daley:
Opening Day for the White Sox is a day of South Side obligation, and the mayor and yours truly were obligated to attend services at Sox Park. But our plans changed when an underground tunnel ruptured along the Chicago River. Most Chicagoans didn’t even know the tunnels were there, but they sure learned about them when the Loop was flooded and the entire central city was shut down.
A furious mayor wanted political heads on a pike.
One reluctant head belonged to Jim McTigue, a low-ranking North Side city worker, a Cubs fan and tunnel inspector. Daley held a news conference to rip on McTigue, saying McTigue didn’t warn his superiors of the breach in the tunnel that led to the flood. It turned out that Daley was wrong, that McTigue had indeed warned his bosses, and they had ignored him.
“I don’t want to become the Mrs. O’Leary’s cow of the flood,” McTigue told me.
Yeah, a lot of people think the cow was a frame-up too. It’s the Chicago way.
It also turned out that Daley’s friends were making a fortune off the flood.
Yup, that’s also the Chicago way. I remember one hot summer when a large chunk of one of the city’s older residential areas was out of power for days because the substation feeding the area pretty much blew up. Daley was on television ranting about Commonwealth Edison’s incompetence. They probably deserved it too, but Daley was also ranting about how they needed to start over and do things right by bringing in consultants to fix the problem. I’m sure that he had a specific list of consultants in mind.
This is the sort of thing that happens when you have a powerful political machine like Chicago’s. Instead of the rule of law, you get rule by the arbitrary whims of the man in power.
There were many Jim McTigues in the city. Not just fall guys, but business owners, taxpayers, regular folks who were terrified that they’d run afoul of City Hall and get stepped on.
…by the mid-1990s, Daley’s hatchet men had rigged employment tests to build vast patronage armies, allowing him to control all of Cook County and become the dominant political silverback male in Illinois.
Kass discusses another big scandal or two, but then comes to an interesting conclusion about when Daley’s invincible political machine started to falter:
But then he destroyed Meigs Field, the little airport on the lake. He sent his bulldozers out in the middle of the night and slashed the runways with giant X’s. He ruined Meigs because he wanted to, because he could.
“There are three Daleys,” said a prominent political figure who supports the mayor, at least publicly. “There’s the Daley who got elected, the one you liked. Then there’s the Daley who cut all those deals. And there’s the Daley who destroyed Meigs Field. And once he did that, he lost his way.”
I never understood Daley’s problem with Meigs Field, or why he’d been fighting a legal battle to close it. He claimed he wanted to use the land as a nice park for all the city’s residents, instead of a perq for the rich fatcats with private planes — an unbelievable claim for a deal-maker like Daley. After 9/11, the story changed to one of concern about terrorism and having an airport so close to the skyscrapers downtown, as if a small plane could do any more damage than a hijacked truck, or that a hijacked jet from nearby O’Hare Airport couldn’t reach the city center in about three minutes.
(Even if you don’t know Chicago, you may recognize Meigs Field from Microsoft Flight Simulator. It was the airport you started at by default.)
Anyway, one night a crew of workers used bulldozers to carve those giant X’s in the runways, rendering the airport unusable. It was an obscene thing to do to a working airport, and Daley did it with no warning to airport staff, no warning to the people whose planes were now stranded, and no warning to the FAA. For anyone else, sabotaging an airport like this would be an act of terrorism, but in Chicago under Daley, the city just had to pay a fine.
After Meigs, things were different between Chicago and Daley. Chicago had seen the other side of his face. Things went downhill from there. His friends got rich but Chicago floated in red ink. He failed to win the Olympics. Taxes kept rising. He sold off the skyway, the parking meters.
Geoff Dougherty at Chicago Current has a different take on the start of Daley’s decline:
I think the turning point came a bit later for Daley, when the Hired Truck scandal got cranking.
That was a classic Chicago scam. The city was hiring private trucks to do hauling for construction projects, and one day an enterprising reporter noticed that dump trucks were sitting at city construction projects and just waiting for days, doing nothing except transfering city money to the trucking contractor. A few instances of this could be explained by the uncertainties of construction, but this was happening a lot. Millions of dollars a year were were changing hands while the the trucks sat idle.
(I remember that some Teamsters union rep was a little unclear on the concept, because he thought the big scandal was that the do-nothing truck drivers should have been union do-nothing truck drivers.)
I don’t exactly have my finger on the pulse of the city, so I have no idea whether John Kass or Geoff Dougherty has correctly identified when thing started turning sour for Daley, but I’m pretty sure it was ultimately the parking meters that sealed his fate.
When you do a deal to turn over metered parking operations to a private company, and that company raises prices, increases the number of hours of paid parking per week, and switches to a payment system that is less convenient, you irritate every single driver in Chicago. That can’t do anything good for your re-ection chances.