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Mondale’s landslide loss to Ronald Reagan didn’t impede Daley’s trajectory. Robert Helman, who had recently become chairman of the Chicago law firm Mayer, Brown & Platt (now Mayer, Brown, Rowe & Maw), took a call from a former partner who was a friend of the Daleys: “‘Bill is thinking about what he will do,’” Helman says, remembering the conversation, “‘and is probably interested in talking to one of the leading law firms in Chicago, not necessarily yours.’” By December 1984, Daley had an offer of a partnership from Mayer, Brown and a way, says Alderman Edward Burke, “to leverage the relationships that he had developed.”
He was hired to help build the lobbying practice at the firm (euphemistically called “government relations”), although colleagues say that Daley’s potential didn’t involve his mayoral ties—his father was dead; his brother had yet to be elected mayor—but rather his close friendship with the House Committee on Ways and Means chairman, Dan Rostenkowski. “Bill did represent clients before Rostenkowski and other members of the Congress,” says John Schmidt, who later served as chief of staff to Rich Daley and is currently a partner at Mayer, Brown.
Wayne Whalen, who was a partner at the firm until 1984, says that his friend Bill Daley was “extremely good at looking at the list of Mayer, Brown clients and figuring out how his contacts could be helpful.” Helman calls Daley “a very quick study—you never have to tell him something twice—and a man of excellent judgment. Clients liked the idea they would have the benefit of his judgment.”
“Bill is obviously not a lawyer whose strength is in drafting complex documents and arguing nuanced cases in appellate courts,” says John Schmidt. “But the kind of work he was doing in representing companies that dealt with Rostenkowski requires a level of precision and intelligence. It’s rare—the ability to know the difference between a conference committee amendment that was going to sail through and one that was going to trigger a reaction from some representative.”
Before long, Bill Daley was moving at the top of Mayer, Brown’s practice, counseling boards of directors and chief executive officers. “Most of my partners have gone to the best schools,” says Tyrone Fahner, a former Illinois attorney general and the current chairman of Mayer, Brown, “but only a handful step back and give boards of directors strategic advice.”
In 1987, U.S. senator Joe Biden, a Delaware Democrat, decided that he wanted to be President and he wanted Bill Daley to help get him there. The prospects looked promising—the young senator seemed like “a star” and “could give a hell of a speech,” recalls Daley. Then a Michael Dukakis campaign aide leaked the news that Biden had lifted inspirational remarks about his supposedly hardscrabble childhood from a speech by the British Labour Party leader Neil Kinnock. The charges, backed up by a videotape, came as the young senator, then the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, was running Supreme Court confirmation hearings for Judge Robert Bork. Convinced that Biden was “too unframed and undefined” to withstand the ridicule he was taking in the press, Daley advised his friend to quit the race and focus instead on derailing the Bork nomination. It was good advice. Biden became celebrated for denying Bork a seat on the high court. Mark Gitenstein, then the chief counsel to the Judiciary Committee, calls Daley the best crisis manager imaginable. “‘Grace under pressure’ is the best way to describe him.”
In 1989, when a special election was called to complete the term of the late Mayor Washington, the Sun-Times columnist Steve Neal reported that Bill was ready to run and had even hired a consultant. He dropped the plans when Rich made it clear that he wanted to assume their father’s office. After Rich’s election, Bill was elevated anyway; reporters began referring to him as the co-mayor—the implication being that the smoother, smarter younger brother was pulling the strings. Bill calls the suggestion “a joke” and insists today, “We don’t talk about city stuff. We talk about the Kerry race or personal stuff. But I don’t get into his business.”
Other observers began calling Bill the “smart Daley,” when what they meant was that he was the “articulate Daley.” As one reporter puts it, “His sentences have a beginning, middle, and end.”
Perhaps feeling a sting of sibling rivalry, Bill decided after his brother was elected mayor that he wanted to show he had the stuff to run a business. He took the job as the vice chairman, and later president, of the Amalgamated Bank, a Mayer, Brown client. Amalgamated, with its roots in the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers’ Union, was known as a bank hospitable to politicians and unions, and it has long carried, fairly or not, an air of unsavoriness. The bank’s chairman, Eugene Heytow, who did not respond to requests to be interviewed for this article, is considered to be a potent political player.
Daley had been at Amalgamated for two years when Bill Clinton stopped by his office and shared his plans to run for President. He needed the Daley family’s help—as it turned out, more than he could have imagined. The Gennifer Flowers scandal and draft dodging charges hit before the New Hampshire primary. Bill Daley was among the advisers who helped turn a potential disaster into a second-place finish in New Hampshire and make Clinton the “Comeback Kid.” With the Daleys’ help, Clinton won the Illinois primary. In the general election, Bill was the chairman of Clinton-Gore in Illinois. “He was very helpful in our efforts to win Illinois,” says Al Gore.
Daley was finding politics far more engaging than banking, and when Heytow rebuffed his second-in-command’s attempt to clarify the succession and to be given an ownership interest, Daley decided to leave. His friend Jim Johnson endorsed the idea. “I just believed from the beginning that he had the potential [to go to] senior levels of American government, business,” Johnson says. “I felt that [Amalgamated] was just much too small.”
Daley thought he had his next big job lined up. Both major Chicago newspapers reported that Clinton was poised to make Daley his Transportation Secretary; Daley’s daughter Maura called to tell him that he had the job—Tom Brokaw had said so on the evening news. (Daley says he called Brokaw to ask, “Tom, do you know something that I don’t know?”) One friend joked publicly that Daley already had a real-estate agent working for him in Washington. All that remained in December 1992 was the call from the President.
It never came. Transportation went to Federico Peña, the former mayor of Denver. Although there were rumors that Daley’s job at Amalgamated had raised red flags among the vetters, the standard story was that Clinton realized he needed a Hispanic Cabinet member if he was to keep his promise to make his administration look like America.
Today, Daley attributes the humiliating rejection to a “screwed-up” Clinton transition. “There are 14 Cabinet spots, and God only knows how many hundreds of people want them,” he says. “They needed a Hispanic.”
Rich Daley was furious and soon blasted Clinton for not keeping his promises to help big cities. Bill knew it was wiser to keep his anger to himself. He was “really a trouper,” says Tony Coelho, “and that’s why when another spot came open he was asked.”
President Clinton quickly invited Daley to Washington to play golf and to bestow on him a lovely consolation prize, a seat on the Fannie Mae board—Jim Johnson was then chairman—from which Daley profited handsomely: In addition to a salary and fees, he received stocks and stock options, a package that climbed in value to an estimated $215,000 to $500,000 by the time he left the board in 1997. Daley also successfully approached executives at the government-financed mortgage giant about sending some of its securities work to Mayer, Brown, where he had returned early in 1993 as a partner.
The return to LaSalle Street was brief. Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, whom Daley had first met on the Mondale campaign, called to ask, “If President Clinton asks you to lead the charge for NAFTA, will you say yes?” Organized labor opposed the trade agreement for fear that the United States would lose low-wage manufacturing jobs to Mexico. As Mickey Kantor, another friend from the Mondale campaign and then Clinton’s United States trade representative, points out, Daley was the perfect fit. “You needed someone who could work with Democrats particularly, because [they] were the biggest problem,” Kantor says. Daley’s friendship with Dan Rostenkowski, alone among the Democratic leadership in supporting the agreement, was also a plus. Still, even Rostenkowski thought NAFTA looked like a loser. “Why the hell you doing this for?” Rostenkowski asked Daley.
John Daley remembers asking his brother, “Does the President really like you?”
Daley attacked the project with his full organizational skills. He regularly gave Clinton lists of names of congressmen to call, each accompanied by information on their districts, notes on what their problems were, and how the Administration could help. “We would get back the sheets the next morning,” Daley recalls. “‘Talked to this senator, that senator, that congressman.’” The battle invigorated the President, and Daley finally had to tell him that he was calling too much. “People were like, ‘Tell him to stop calling, to stop inviting me down to the White House. Just leave me alone; get the focus off of me.’”
“They called me the czar,” Daley says, smiling at the memory.
They also called him the dealmaker. “We had it won until the last week and a half,” says David Bonior, who claims the Administration passed out some $20 billion in goodies for the districts of legislators on the fence. Don Rose, the Chicago writer and political strategist, says that Daley won NAFTA because of his “ability to find everybody’s price.”