Carol Felsenthal
On politics

Bloomberg Vilified, Daley Praised: What a Mayor’s Send-Off Says About His Legacy

New York’s ex-mayor took it on the chin as he left office. It wasn’t like that in Chicago—but nobody misses Daley now.

Photo: Terrence Antonio James/Chicago Tribune

Billionaire Mayor Mike Bloomberg, who opened his bulging wallet to fund programs in New York and other cities, including Chicago, braved the cold at Bill de Blasio’s New Year’s Day inauguration. The three-termer sat glum-faced in a front-row seat as de Blasio’s invited speakers and other newly elected officials cast the former mayor as a plutocrat/villain. 

Both de Blasio and Bill Clinton, who administered the oath of office to the incoming mayor, had some positive, if brief, words of praise for Bloomberg. Bill de Blasio noted Bloomberg’s  “passion on issues such  as environmental protection and public health,” calling that work a “noble legacy.”

Still, writing in the Washington Post, Melinda Henneberger exaggerated only slightly when she described the ceremony as “a 90-minute pummeling of…Bloomberg.” The New York Times, which endorsed de Blasio in the general election, although not in the primary, editorialized that these speakers “marr[ed] the event with backward-looking-speeches both graceless and smug,” not to mention “pointless and tacky…” Here are some examples:

  • During his invocation, Brooklyn Community Church’s senior pastor, the Rev. Fred A. Lucas, Jr.—the chaplain for New York’s Department of Sanitation—referred to “the plantation called New York City.”
  • During his introduction of de Blasio, singer/activist Harry Belafonte called the city “Dickensian” and its justice system “deeply Dickensian.”
  • Letitia James, the newly elected public advocate, which was de Blasio’s job until becoming mayor, denounced New York’s wide income gaps: “We live in a gilded age of inequality,” she said, finding common cause with de Blasio’s “Tale of Two Cities” campaign theme. The new mayor, she added, obviously aiming her barb at the old one, must show that he “cares more about a child going hungry than a new stadium or a new tax credit for a luxury development.”
  • New York’s just elected comptroller, Scott Stringer, blasted the city’s stop-and-frisk policing, and, wrote Henneberger,  “spoke angrily of  ’squalid shelters where 22,000 of  this city’s children will sleep tonight.’”
  • The city’s 2014 Youth Poet Laureate, Ramya Ramana, read aloud her poem titled “New York City” and dedicated it to Bill de Blasio:  “We will no longer stay silent to this classism.  No more brownstones and brown skin playing tug-of-war with a pregnant  air hovering over them like an aura of lost children. No more colored boy robbed of their innocence.”

From childhood on I’ve visited New York frequently, and I’m not alone in noticing that the city seemed to thrive under Bloomberg’s direction and largesse. Yet  “thanks for nothing” seemed the mantra of many New Yorkers who expressed unabashed eagerness to be rid of Bloomberg—a man portrayed as caring only for his Park Avenue peers and giving the back of his hand to multitudes suffering from failing schools, closing hospitals, wretched housing, and racist policing. 

When Rahm Emanuel took the gavel from six-termer Rich Daley—on May 16, 2011, at the Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park—the ceremony resonated with appreciation for Daley.  It was a simpler, more straightforward affair; no celebrity speakers or public poets. 

There were plenty of big political names in attendance, like Joe Biden, but he didn’t have a speaking part. Neither did Dick Durbin, Tim Geithner, Ray LaHood, the Rev. Jesse Jackson.  Through speeches punctuated by a poetry reading and music by the likes of the Chicago Children’s Choir, there was only praise for Daley, who also took the podium, called the session to order,  and handed the gavel to Emanuel, exchanging a warm handshake. In his speech, Rahm spoke expansively of Daley’s accomplishments, including the building of Millennium Park, and paid tribute to Daley for loving the city with all his heart and giving everything to it in his years as mayor.  The outgoing mayor, his wife, Maggie, and the Daley brothers sat up-close to the podium and smiled and applauded Rahm as he spoke.

Bloomberg’s critics didn’t wait until he left office to launch a downward reassessment. For Daley, there was no reassessment, only kudos and regret that he was retiring. In the months, weeks, and days before he left office, Daley was repeatedly celebrated as the best thing to happen to Chicago since the preservation of our breathtakingly spectacular lakefront. Shortly before he handed the gavel to Rahm, Daley basked in praise as he undertook his “neighborhood appreciation tour” that took him to all 50 wards. 

The Sun-Times celebrated Rich Daley in a May 12, 2011 editorial for “achievements” that “far outweighed in failures … We have found that new sense of purpose, that larger vision … We grew up together, Rich Daley and the City of Chicago. The man shaped the city and the city shaped the man.”

Writing in rhyme in her Chicago Tribune farewell-to-Rich-Daley column, Mary Schmich catalogued Rich’s failures—“his cronies … hauled off to jails,” “rot in the [City] Hall,” “poor is still poor in Chicago’s new gilt,”  “the parking-box mess,” “the budget’s a wreck.”

“And yet,  in the end,” Schmich wrote,

“Richard Daley was great
A leader, a thinker
Who guided our fate….
For all he did wrong,
He did good with his clout….
But in this last moment
Let’s make a brief stop
To say we were lucky
With Daley on top.”

Within hours of De Blasio taking the oath of office, regrets that Bloomberg would no longer be in charge kicked in. George Will predicted the Sunday after de Blasio’s inauguration that the city would come to rue its choice of de Blasio, widely seen as the anti-Bloomberg.

Although some Chicagoans, especially in the African-American community, seem bitterly disappointed with Rahm’s performance and question his adherence to his campaign promises, if there is any expression of regret that Rich Daley is no longer at the city’s helm, I’ve missed it. Since leaving office to make serious money in the private sector, Daley has become, in some quarters, a symbol of irresponsible, selfish, and frivolous municipal governing. When Daley made his surprise announcement that he would not run for a seventh term, I heard many city dwellers regret his leaving office and wonder how any one could replace him. 

Today there’s no apparent Daley nostalgia; no sense at all that people miss him. In the meantime, I’d wager that Bloomberg nostalgia is forming as I write.

Postscript: Politico reports today that Bloomberg has just given $2.5 million to the Senate Majority PAC, a super PAC run by former aides to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid,   “aimed at helping Senate Democrats maintain their majority…” It would be hard to imagine a mayor who has a bigger stake than Bill de Blasio in the Democrats keeping control of the Senate.

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