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Daley vs. Daley

For much of the past half century, a mayor named Daley has towered over Chicago. We compare the reigns of father and son, assessing their triumphs and failures, their impact on the city—and what their enduring dominance at the polls says about us

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Mike Royko titled his 1971 biography of Richard J. Daley Boss, and the term perfectly fit the man and the times. When Chicago was still a lunchpail town, Daley I epitomized the hard-nosed, hard-driving chief of a gritty, rusting enterprise. Four decades later, in an era dominated by Wall Street, real estate, and the service economy, his son likes to describe himself as the CEO of the city, and that term also makes a nice fit, with its white-collar, corner-office connotations, its suggestion of efficiencies and eager MBAs.

Both terms come from the world of business, and at their best they express worthy styles of leadership. But the words also suggest a troubling contradiction when applied to a mayor: As any business executive would readily admit, a company is not run as a democracy. The unchecked power of both father and son has led to the most unfortunate aspects of their mayoralties—the autocratic tone, the lack of accountability on ethics, the fear of retaliation for opposing the Daley way.

Still, for many Chicagoans, it doesn’t seem to matter. Democracy isn’t part of the electorate’s Faustian bargain with the Daleys. The father steered Chicago through hard and dislocating times while most other Rust Belt cities were sinking into misery. The son surfed the national urban boom to boost Chicago to new heights of attractiveness and world prominence. In both cases, the city got order, stability, and results in exchange for a benevolent dictator. Roosevelt’s Paul Green suggests that voters are aware of the deal they’ve made and are happy with it, believing that “every time the city has gone down the drain is when the city council is in charge.” The ballot-box results speak for themselves. Daley I never won less than 55 percent of the vote (his lowest, in 1955), and on four occasions, he exceeded 70 percent. Daley II racked up 72 percent of the vote in winning his last election in 2007.  

Not long before I finished writing this article, my next-door neighbor brought over a pint of ice cream from Bobtail Soda Fountain in Lake View. I mention this only because of the flavor she picked out—the so-called Daley Addiction (vanilla ice cream with swirls of rich buttery fudge). As my wife and I gobbled the treat, I kept thinking the name was apt, as far as it went. Chicagoans are hooked on the Daleys. For many people, a mayor named Daley is almost all they have known. And to large numbers of citizens, the Daleys are the local equivalent of royalty, in the same vein as the Kennedys, yet with the common touch. Speaking of Daley II, the Reader’s Ben Joravsky says, “There’s a mindset in this town where people link whatever they like about Chicago to Mayor Daley.” That was arguably even more true with Daley I.

Dick Devine points out the risk with this line of thinking: “At some point in time when a Daley isn’t running the city, we’ll say, ‘Oh, my God, it can’t work anymore.’ Obviously, the city has to be bigger than that.”

But the addiction metaphor doesn’t quite describe the relationship of the voters with the Daleys. “Co-dependency” is probably more like it. Just as the city craves the Daleys, the Daleys need Chicago. Daley I called being mayor of Chicago the “greatest honor that I could have.” It’s not surprising that he died in office. In the same way, Daley II often wears his love for the city on his sleeve. “I’ve said many times before that I believe I have the best job in the world,” the mayor says. The lawyer Newton Minow, who has known a huge array of politicians in his long career, says of the father and son: “They have a mad love affair with this city.”

This co-dependent relationship has its quirks and its costs. It excludes some people and overrewards others. It mixes pleasure with pain and makes both parties vulnerable. In the end, though—well, somehow it works.

Photograph: Chicago Tribune photo by Chris Walker


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