Monday, May 16, 2011

40/20 – It’s the key to comprehending Daley and his two-decade mayoral legacy

It is a fact that has been stated often in many contexts throughout the years. Yet I believe it is one that cannot be underestimated in comprehending how Richard M. Daley managed to serve as mayor of our home city for just over two decades.

The fact relates to Daley’s ability to make appointments to fill municipal vacancies; including seats on the City Council when they become open.

THAT IS WHERE the “40” and “20” come in. During his 22 years as mayor, Daley got to hand-pick almost 40 individuals to serve as aldermen. Of the current City Council (the one that ceases to exist Monday as the newly-elected aldermen take over), Daley put just over 20 of them in those posts.

The point of those facts is that the council consists of people who owe their political existence to Richard M. Daley. Many of them may well have managed to get themselves re-elected. But they had the advantage of incumbency because of Daley’s gift.

They owed him, and they repaid him by being a virtual rubber stamp. It’s so much different than the days of the mid-1980s, when the racial hang-ups caused 29 (of 50) aldermen to openly revolt.

It’s easy to govern when you don’t have the City Council behaving as an independent government chamber. If it had ever truly behaved like the legislative branch of government (to Daley’s executive branch), we would have had a significantly different past two decades in Chicago.

I DON’T KNOW whether that would have been better or worse for our city. It is what it is. Just like it will be an advantage for Daley’s replacement, Rahm Emanuel, that 13 of the 50 aldermen in the new City Council will be newcomers with no ties to the past.

But what I will remember from the years of Daley the younger is the degree to which things didn’t go smoothly whenever Hizzoner Junior had to deal with someone outside of the city proper.

Daley couldn’t appoint the individuals who served on the International Olympic Committee and who used their power to knock Chicago out of the running early on – thereby clearing up the chances that the 2016 summer games that Daley wanted held in Chicago instead will be played in Rio de Janeiro.

Daley also had a governor for about one-third of his term in office whom some might think was openly hostile. It was the constant rejections that Jim Edgar imposed on so many desires of the mayor that got Edgar the nickname, “Governor No.”

IT WASN’T SO much that Edgar hated Chicago as much as he was a parochial creation of Illinois state government; just as narrow-minded as Daley was capable of being about municipal government.

During “the Edgar years” that dominated the 1990s, Daley was the guy who couldn’t get anything – even though his basic approach to the job was the same as it was in later years when he had more sympathetic governors to cope with.

No casino on the lakefront. No park near the South Loop at Meigs Field. And he had to keep coping with talk of building a new Chicago-area airport (which everybody agreed was needed) somewhere outside of Chicago proper.

That was something Daley didn’t desire. Yet when he had to deal with government entities that he couldn’t hand-pick, he couldn’t influence them. If anything, his very Chicago Sout’ Side persona was what motivated many to openly go against him.

AS THINGS STAND, if Chicago ever does get that new airport, it is going to be way out in Will County, past the point that even the Metra trains go to. Daley didn’t want that, and his talk of putting a new airport near Lake Calumet never went anywhere in the Illinois Legislature – despite how some of us want to believe he was an all-powerful political control freak.

It’s also not like Daley was getting anywhere in his mid-1990s dream of turning Northerly Island on the lakefront from a small airstrip named Meigs Field into a public park that could be  a jewel of the city and combine with Grant Park to create a truly unique urban open space.

Let’s be honest. The Legislature had dumped all over Daley. The courts were more than willing to back the state.

The only reason that Meigs Field no longer exists today is because Daley pulled a hard-hearted act when he ordered the air strip’s midnight destruction one night about a decade ago.

EVEN THOUGH I personally sided with Daley back in those days and thought he and the city had the right to let the Meigs Field lease lapse without renewal so that the land could be turned into a park, it’s hard for me to see anything noble or politically skillful about Daley’s handling of the incident.

He behaved like the equivalent of a spoiled child who had just lost a game of Monopoly – he kicked the game table over, scattering the board and game pieces all over the room.

So for all the people who are writing commentaries these days telling about Daley the great statesman with a vision for the city who helped beautify Chicago immensely, what I see is someone who needed the “game” rigged in his favor in order to succeed. Which makes me wish it could be possible for Mel Brooks to play the part of Daley, should they ever try to make a movie about the mayor’s life.

Brooks, after all, was the guy who in “History of the World, Part I” gave us (among many characters) a King Louis XVI who arrogantly repeated throughout his portion of the film, “It’s good to be the king.”


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