Mayor Daley’s Bucket List: Ten Suggestions for How to Use the Remainder of His Term

EDITOR’S NOTE: On September 7th, Mayor Richard Daley announced in a brief news conference at City Hall that he will not seek re-election in 2011. The story below appears in our current issue.

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Mayor DaleyLast fall, after Chicago’s bid to host the 2016 Olympics went south (all the way to Rio), reporters asked Mayor Richard M. Daley if he would seek a seventh term. “I don’t know why you already put me in the grave,” he replied.

Winning an election is never a foregone conclusion, not even if your name is Daley, and the mayor’s current approval ratings—his lowest ever—don’t promise a cakewalk.

He is expected to announce his intentions soon (the primary is February 22nd). There are a few whispers that he won’t run—that he is content to eclipse his father’s record tenure of 21 years as Chicago mayor, a milestone he’ll reach in December, and that he worries about his wife, Maggie, whose health has suffered since she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2002.

But if Daley runs and wins in 2011—and the odds are he’ll do both—it would likely be his last term (he’d be 73 at the end of it, in 2015). If so, he could indulge in that rarest of political gifts: the freedom to make difficult, even unpopular, decisions for the long-term good of the city, without concern for how he’d weather the political fallout.


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With that in mind, we have compiled a mayoral to-do list that would impress even Daniel “Make No Little Plans” Burnham. In it we have incorporated ideas from politicians, pundits, civic leaders, and academics. The dozen or so we spoke to all think Daley will run, and some doubt he will exit the stage even in 2015. Should Daley bow out (as his brother Bill recently speculated), our list offers a plan of action for Chicago’s new chief executive.

Can the mayor, a child of patronage, actually reduce the size of city government and make Chicago more efficient? Can he muster an Olympic-size effort to combat poverty and violence? Will he finally gamble on a casino? Everyone has an opinion, though it’s a testament to Daley’s hold on power that many chose not to share theirs publicly.

You’ll no doubt have your own list, and we invite you to submit ideas and vote for your favorite here.

Our list is by no means comprehensive. Some items require money—and lots of it—a commodity already in short supply. A few ideas would burnish the mayor’s already considerable legacy, while others would nudge him beyond his comfort zone. One or two may simply be pie in the sky.

But as Burnham once said, “Aim high in hope and work, remembering that a noble, logical diagram once recorded will never die. . . . Think big.” (Actually, no one knows if Burnham really said that. But it’s a bit more positive than the old Chicago ward committeeman’s gem: “We don’t want nobody nobody sent.”)

So please don’t take this the wrong way, Mr. Mayor. We give you your Bucket List: ten big things to do for Chicago before you leave office. No actual bucket kicking implied.


1. Enough with the patronage already

We might as well start here. Clout and cronyism are part of Mayor Daley’s genetic code. But that may also make him the only person who can actually change the way Chicago works. Or in this case, doesn’t work.

Michael Shakman, an attorney whose name is synonymous with the 40-plus-year struggle to end patronage, thinks the city is making progress, with a federal monitor to watch over hiring and an inspector general with real power to investigate corruption.

What remain are a few patronage loopholes big enough to drive a hired truck through. For example, the mayor should extend the city’s do-not-rehire list, which bans city workers fired for wrongdoing from future employment, so that it applies to sister agencies, including the public schools, the Chicago Park District, and the Chicago Transit Authority, where far too many banished city workers have been sent to live out their golden years.

The city council needs to adopt the do-not-rehire list as well, and Daley should demand that aldermen reconsider the decision to create their own watered-down inspector general’s office. Shakman and Noelle C. Brennan, the federal monitor, oppose a separate council inspector general, citing patronage abuses that overlap the executive and legislative branches.

But the hardest part for Daley will be convincing Chicagoans that he truly is committed to ending patronage, not just federal oversight. “He needs to be an enthusiastic supporter of this, but he’s not,” Shakman says. “The city’s middle managers [still] assume that patronage was how they advanced, and they haven’t gotten a strong sense from the mayor that it should be any other way.”

Here’s his chance to send a signal.


2. Reduce the size of government

Ending patronage and cronyism isn’t just about politics or even ethics. It’s about reality: Patronage no longer pays. We simply can’t afford it. City government can operate with fewer people, not by eliminating the men and women who actually do the work—police, firefighters, inspectors, and the like—but by reducing the number of supervisors, deputy commissioners, and assistant whatevers who have long puffed up the city’s payroll and pension obligations and who got there because of clout. (Eleven years ago, the Chicago Tribune documented 68 members of the Daley clan on various public payrolls.)

Daley prides himself on being a modern urban executive, but the city still operates with an outmoded, inefficient, top-heavy management style. Excluding the police and fire departments and the city council, City Hall employs about one manager for every eight workers, and many of those positions are where patronage lives. Managers’ salaries total about $175 million a year; reducing that payroll to a more contemporary private-sector ratio of one manager for every ten or twelve workers could save up to $50 million in annual salaries and millions more in pension payments.

In June, Daley proposed outsourcing some of the city’s hiring practices to remove the taint of patronage. Here’s a better idea: Bring in an outside expert to eliminate some of the waste and overlap in Cook County’s nearly 500 units of government. Do we really need a city and a county election board or two health departments? Public officials never want to give up their fiefdoms, but Daley, unburdened by such parochial considerations, could lead by his willingness to give something up—and in the process save millions that could be spent on vital services.


Illustration: Chris Lyons



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