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In March 2003, Richard M. ordered the Meigs Field runway destroyed in the middle of the night.
Northerly Island, the 91-acre peninsula just east of Soldier Field, was eerily quiet one day last winter, the only sounds the crying of gulls and the tranquil Lake Michigan surf. From the narrow strip of lakefront park, the downtown skyline seems a world away. “You can sometimes see coyotes out here,” a park district worker told me as I wandered the island.
What’s unseen, hidden under eight inches of grassy turf, is the former Meigs Field runway, bulldozed with six gigantic X marks on March 30, 2003, by Daley II’s order. For years the mayor had wanted to close the tiny private airport and turn it into a park, but was thwarted by the governor at the time, Jim Edgar. When Daley II finally acted, he did so stealthily at night, and without prior approval from the city council, the state legislature, or even the Federal Aviation Administration. The destruction of Meigs was denounced as an illegal land grab, but the mayor said he acted to protect downtown Chicago from a possible terrorist attack.
The move was vintage Daley II: one-man rule, a governing style taken right out of the Daley family catechism.
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Although you’d hardly know it from most of the last half century, Chicago’s charter—in effect, the municipal government’s constitution—actually gives the city council vast power over vital city functions. Daley I altered the balance, and his son has followed suit.
Shortly after his election, Daley I wielded the clout behind his double role as mayor and party chairman to undo the civil-service reforms enacted by his predecessor, Martin Kennelly. He wrested control of the budget from the city council, stripping aldermen of their most important function. He also limited the ability of council members to grant routine favors—often in exchange for bribes—such as doling out driveway permits and zoning variances. Bob Crawford, the retired political editor at the news radio station WBBM-AM, says Daley I was simply doing what any good in-charge leader does. He recalls the mayor as once proclaiming, “Show me a mayor who has no power and I’ll show you a mayor who doesn’t get anything done.”
Wearing his two crowns, Daley I had near absolute rule over the city and county governments, the Chicago-area state legislators, and even the judiciary. Inside the Washington Beltway, he was considered a political kingmaker. “Dick Daley is the ballgame,” as Robert F. Kennedy famously put it.
Daley I wielded his power untouched by guilt. He thought of himself as a different breed of “Boss": personally honest and civic-minded, unlike the crooked pols of Chicago’s past. “My decisions are not what is good for Daley, but what is good for the city,” he once told a reporter, and he probably believed it.
In 21-plus years in office, Daley I never lost a vote in the city council. He and his floor leader, the wily 31st Ward alderman Tom Keane, would cut backroom deals and then present them to the full council to rubber-stamp. As the old warhorse Edward Burke, who has served in the council since 1969, once described the role of aldermen in those days: “We were useful to fill chairs and vote the way we were told to vote. That was the extent of it.”
Early on, the mayor faced occasional opposition—11 Republicans served on the council in 1955. By the mayor’s final term, there was one. (Today, there’s still just one: Brian Doherty, of the 41st Ward, on the far Northwest Side.) By the 1970s, 37 of the 50 aldermen had been handpicked by Daley I and afforded him unquestioning obedience. Leon Despres, from Hyde Park, who served 20 years in the council from 1955 to 1975, remained the mayor’s most persistent critic. Sometimes Daley I would grow irritated and cut off Despres’s microphone in mid-speech. In 1965, the mayor even ordered the council’s sergeant-at-arms to force Despres to stop arguing and sit down. As Mike Royko observed: “Until that time the mayor never had an alderman defy him when he said, ‘Sit.’ In fact most of them not only sit, they bark and roll over.” Dick Simpson, a thoughtful critic of both Daleys, says of the father: “The longer he stayed in, the more iron-fisted he became and the more rubber-stamp the council became. That’s somewhat true, but not quite the same, with Richard M. Daley.”
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On taking office, Daley II quickly tamed the council that had paralyzed Harold Washington. By his second term, the mayor had near lockstep loyalty. A 1978 state law allows the mayor to fill aldermanic vacancies in the council, and since 1989, Daley II has appointed 31 aldermen, including 16 of the current 50. Even with such a solid base of seat-fillers, Daley II, like his father, leaves little to chance. Ed Burke (20th), the council’s finance chair, and Patrick O’Connor (40th), Daley II’s unofficial floor leader, carry the mayor’s water in the council. The former 23rd Ward alderman and city clerk James Laski says Daley II also has city hall enforcers to twist the arms of aldermen to ensure loyalty. “You need a job, you need extra trees cut down in your ward, you need some more money for streets and alleys, or getting funding for a library or a senior center, all those things,” says Laski, who recently finished an 11-month prison stint for accepting $48,000 in bribes. “They hold those little carrots in front of you, saying, ‘You want dis, you want dat, you want dis—we need dis, dis, and dis.’”
Though Daley II denied it, such horse-trading reportedly took place before the council’s recent 33-to-16 vote approving the mayor’s controversial plan to build a new children’s museum in Grant Park. Afterwards, several aldermen privately told reporters that top city officials had promised them perks and favors in exchange for supporting the mayor.
In the last few years, as corruption scandals have weakened Daley II politically, more aldermen have shown a willingness to confront him, and he has even lost a few votes. The experience seems to have pushed him to wield as heavy a gavel as his father once did. At a council meeting last February, for example, Daley II unleashed a tirade against 2nd Ward alderman Robert Fioretti, who had voted against the mayor’s plan to raise the real-estate transfer tax to aid the CTA. (The tax increase passed 41 to 6.) With his fists clenched, Daley II laid into Fioretti: “If Alderman Fioretti believes they don’t need the CTA in his ward, then stand and say, ‘CTA, bypass my people.’… You’ll last about half a day…. They’ll have to send 911—police and fire—to protect you and your families.” (A video clip of this incident has drawn more than 13,000 views on YouTube. To watch it, search for the terms “Daley” and “rant.")
Bill Daley says that when he saw his brother on the news, he did a double take—thinking for a split second that he was watching his father: “This is déjà vu,” he recalls thinking. “He even looked like him, sounded like him. It was almost scary.”
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Photograph: Chicago Tribune photo by David Klobucar