Turning Over a New Leaf? The Chicago Mayoral Election and the Daley Legacy

Friday, 04 February 2011 08:35 By Yana Kunichoff, t r u t h o u t | Report | name.

Turning Over a New Leaf? The Chicago Mayoral Election and the Daley Legacy
Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley. (Photo: Kate Gardiner / Flickr)

Can the candidates escape the long shadow of the current mayor? 

Whether you fly, drive or walk into Chicago, you are likely to come across the same sign meeting you at its gates: Welcome to Chicago - Richard M. Daley, Mayor.

A few eyebrows were raised when Rahm Emanuel quit his position as chief of staff to President Barack Obama to run for the mayor of Chicago, but not many realize how powerful a position the mayor of Chicago is.

The current mayor makes many major appointments in a city that dominates the politics of the state, has virtually individual control over a tax increment financing shadow budget of $1.2 billion and no term limits.

Along with Emanuel, now firmly on the ballot after a dispute about his residency, the other individuals running for Chicago's most infamous office are: Miguel del Valle, Chicago city clerk and former senator; Carol Moseley Braun, the first African-American female senator; and Gery Chico, board chairman of the Chicago City Colleges.

The Machine

The mayoral seat has earned a measure of infamy in Chicago. The current mayor, Richard M. Daley, held the seat for nearly 22 years before he announced in September 2010 that he would not be running for re-election. His father, Richard J. Daley, held the mayoral seat from 1955 to 1976. Both father and son have wielded the power of the Democratic "machine," Chicago-speak for an extensive network of patronage in city government, for 43 years combined.

For the first Daley, this meant using the "machine" to help bring John F. Kennedy a narrow 8,000 vote victory in Illinois in 1960, giving a shoot-to-kill order to city police after rioting erupted in the city's poorest neighborhood and razing a thriving Italian-American neighborhood to build the University of Illinois Chicago campus with little political backlash. Only in the machine could Daley have been consistently re-elected for 21 years until he suffered a heart attack and died.

He was immortalized in Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Mike Royko's nonfiction account of Daley's tightly run "machine," "Boss." As the Chicago journalistic legend Studs Terkel writes of Daley's portrayal in "Boss": "It has not been the 'astuteness' or 'shrewdness' of Richard J. Daley that has elected him four times. It is the 'pistol' in the hand of the precinct captain, who works among the dispossessed. It is the threat direct: loss of job, loss of welfare check, eviction from wretched project flat. The Mayor's network of informers and spies, concerning party loyalty, is the most powerful in the land ... The way of the Machine is the way of Fear." 

Whether the second Daley ruled Chicago any differently is questionable. Forty-seven members of his administration were convicted of corruption by federal officials, he oversaw a secret privatization of the city's nearly 40,000 parking meters and in 2003 he ordered bulldozers to carve X's into a city airstrip in the middle of the night when the federal government refused to close it

The Tie That Binds 

Daley's popularity has been waning - in the last poll, before he announced his retirement, only 37 percent of his constituents approved of his performance - but his decision to leave has cast a tinge of nostalgia over his time as mayor.

An editorial in the Chicago Sun-Times recently described Daley as "one hell of a mayor."

"Though his dictatorial style at times offended us," the editorial said, "Chicago flourished during his two decades at the helm."

Daley can be recognized for building the beautiful Millennium Park in Chicago's downtown, and unlike many other major mid-Western cities, Chicago has continued to grow in population. On the other hand, he will leave the next mayor a city $654 million in the red, and his blustering personality has led him to make jokes about shooting a reporter to prove that his gun ban works.

In a BBC episode of "Extremes," focusing on extreme corruption in Chicago, Steve Edwards, host of Chicago Public Radio's "848" newsmagazine noted that Chicagoans "like our crooks, our fast Eddies and we find them entertaining."

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For the new mayor, walking the line between appearing capable to deal with a major city budget crisis, grabbing the attention of Chicagoans who are used to extreme mayoral antics and distancing oneself from a history of extreme corruption will be difficult to balance.

Yana Kunichoff

Yana Kunichoff is an assistant editor at Truthout.

Last modified on Friday, 04 February 2011 12:48