These are the moments a City Hall reporter lives for: My girlfriend and I were having dinner at a downtown restaurant recently, and we couldn't help but overhear the couples in the next booth kvetching about Chicago's parking meter lease deal.
"Boy, the city really blew that one," said one of the guys.
"They really did," said one of the women. "And it's all on Mayor Daley."
While the private company now running the meter system has jacked up rates to maximize its profits, she went on, the city has already spent most of the $1.2 billion it received in the deal—money that was supposed to last for the next 74 years.
"I never thought I'd see the day when Daley was vulnerable," she concluded. "But he is."
And she's not the only one who sees it.
Despite the myths propagated by his administration—and received as fact by many news outlets, including, most recently, the New Yorker—Daley is not overseeing a smoothly running, contented city. (See Ben Joravsky's column in this issue for more on that.) Every day I hear CTA riders bitching about the decline of rapid transit, which Daley appointees have overseen for the last two decades. At community policing meetings people talk about daily gunfire down the block from their homes; cops, meanwhile, quietly rage about how the police department has cut hundreds of officers from its ranks in the last couple years. Aldermen have been fretting aloud about the vacant homes and empty storefronts pockmarking their neighborhoods, and they say they're inundated with calls from constituents wanting to know why the city isn't doing more to get rid of squatters and drug dealers. Then there are all the complaints about potholes, poorly maintained parks, and struggling schools. Community activists wonder why the city has doled out hundreds of millions of dollars in corporate subsidies when it can't find the money to maintain basic city services. And scores of people around town are, like my fellow diners, irked that the city sold its street parking system to an investment bank.
Voter anger waxes and wanes, but in Chicago this time around Mayor Daley is a primary target. Last fall a Tribune poll found that just 35 percent of Chicagoans approved of his performance—his lowest rating since he was elected in 1989. And the poll was conducted before Chicago lost its bid for the 2016 Olympics, before Daley decided we'd use the parking meter "rainy day fund" to plug holes in the 2010 budget, before one of his chief City Council allies, Isaac Carothers, pleaded guilty to bribery and tax evasion, and before one of his erstwhile critics, Toni Preckwinkle, won the Democratic primary for county board president by promising reform (though she was wily enough to seek his endorsement).
With just a year before the next municipal election, Daley seems to be in trouble—so much so that some have predicted he won't even run. Many observers have speculated that what may push him off the fence is the health of his wife, Maggie, who has been battling cancer.
There's no doubt his stock has fallen. But Daley isn't just any politician. I predict his poll numbers and popularity on the street will have little bearing on whether he runs again—and even less on whether he can win.
For starters, he's not the type who would give up his throne to live out his days on the golf course. And it's not as though he hasn't dealt with PR nightmares before—he's waded through scandals that would eat other pols alive, over things like his friendships with contractors who won millions of dollars in city business by fraudulently claiming their firms were led by minorities and women; the millions of taxpayer dollars paid to trucking companies that bribed their way into contracts and then did no work; and illegal patronage hiring by some of his top aides. By now Daley knows what to do: find a fall guy, rant about him on camera, give him the ax, declare the problem solved, and return to his aggressive downtown flower-planting campaign.
Nobody wants bad press, but Daley seems to like a fight. More to the point, he likes a win, as much as Michael Jordan ever did. And he's not interested in eking one out—he likes to win big. He gets annoyed when even a handful of aldermen vote against something he's pushing. He likes to be dismissed as inarticulate, provincial, or weak—and then to outmaneuver his critics again so he can gloat a bit. In 2006, when Daley was preoccupied with that federal investigation into patronage hiring in his administration, mayoral irritant Joe Moore got the City Council to pass a ban on foie gras. Two years later the mayor refused to let Moore speak (and the alderman's mike conveniently cut out) as mayoral allies used a parliamentary trick to overturn the ban without a moment's debate. Afterward the mayor paraded around City Hall wearing the smug smile of a 14-year-old bully. Who can imagine that guy delivering a "You won't have Richie to kick around any more" speech?
So far Daley has offered only the vaguest answers to questions about his plans. "I don't know why you already put me in the grave," he told reporters last fall when someone dared to ask if he would run for reelection.
Most took his response to mean that he shouldn't be counted out. I took it to mean he'll quit when he's dead.
The way I see it, Daley is more Ahab than Nixon. He's operating on his own logic, and he's not going to change his course for anybody, even if it takes the ship down.
Maybe I've got it wrong. But I've talked about Daley's future with dozens of elected officials, campaign manager types, and other political insiders—some loyal to the mayor and others seething with resentment toward him. Every one of them has told me the same thing, often down to the word: "All indications are that he's going to run again."
The question, then, is whether anyone who can conceivably win is going to run against him. [See Mick Dumke's companion piece, Mayoral Material? Ten to watch, even as they demur.]
No one can beat Daley if no one tries to. It's obvious, but in this town the obvious needs to be stated. Daley hasn't had a serious challenge since warding off Roland Burris in 1995, and even supporters acknowledge that this hasn't been good for the city. There's little reason to expect any change from Daley if he keeps getting more than 70 percent of the vote.
When Daley first took office, the city was racially divided after years of coordinated white opposition to the first black mayor, Harold Washington. But Washington died on the job in 1987, and in the special election two years later Daley campaigned as a healer, locked up the white vote, and slipped past his African-American opponents, beating interim mayor Eugene Sawyer in the primary and Alderman Tim Evans in the general. (Municipal elections were divided into a primary and general election then—the primary was eliminated in 1995.) Daley won 54 percent of the vote in both contests.
That's his worst performance to date. Even his most formidable foes got it worse—Daley beat county commissioner (and future congressman) Danny Davis 63 to 31 percent in the 1991 primary and Congressman Bobby Rush 69 to 27 percent in 1999.
If black opponents have faltered against him, white and Latino opponents have stayed away altogether. Other than a few fringe candidates in the 1990s, Daley hasn't faced a white challenger since former mayor Jane Byrne ran against him in the 1991 primary. He's never faced a Latino.
In those elections, though, the conditions favored the incumbent. The local economy was thriving: the city was raking in the tax dollars, and the mayor had plenty of resources to spread around. Favored contractors got rich as new police stations and libraries were built in black and Latino areas that had once vehemently opposed Daley. Churches got city support for social services and affordable housing construction, and pretty foliage was planted in street medians. Even as neighborhoods that used to rely on manufacturing and mill jobs continued to crumble, the Loop was bright, prosperous, and full of energy. Progressive types didn't want to admit it, but lots of people thought Daley did a fine job of shepherding the city into the postindustrial era.
But the mayor had sticks as well as carrots—namely the armies of old-school patronage workers at his disposal. Anyone who stood in his way—or in his allies' way—had to face the prospect of being mowed down at election time. In 2003 incumbent 12th Ward alderman Ray Frias dropped his reelection bid after concluding he couldn't beat a challenger backed by the Hispanic Democratic Organization, a force of hundreds of city workers commanded by top Daley allies.
Daley's margins soared as he consolidated power. But at the same time, voter participation plummeted. In 1989, 934,049 people voted in the first round of balloting for mayor; in 2007 just 456,765 did. Daley got 324,519 of those votes, or 71 percent. In 1989 he'd received 486,586 votes to constitute his winning 54 percent.
To remain in power, Daley didn't have to be popular. He just had to be less uninspiring than his foes.
Still, the last election could've been different. In the middle of the night on March 31, 2003, without notifying the FAA or any pilots or aircraft owners, Daley unilaterally ordered crews to bulldoze the runway at Meigs Field, the small airport on Northerly Island. He claimed this sudden move would diminish the threat of an airborne terrorist attack, though many remembered that in 1994 he'd unsuccessfully tried to turn the space into a park. Critics called him a tyrant; legal fees and fines levied by the federal government cost the city about $500,000. The mayor shrugged it off, and for the most part the public followed suit. By the following September Northerly Island was a park.
The next rounds of scrutiny weren't as easy to dismiss. Starting in 2004 U.S. attorney Patrick Fitzgerald zeroed in on the Hired Truck program and then on illegal patronage hiring, the hallowed tradition of trading jobs for campaign support that created armies like the HDO. Before the feds were done, dozens of people had been convicted on fraud and other charges—among them Robert Sorich, the mayor's patronage chief and family friend from the Bridgeport neighborhood, where they both grew up. Federal investigators interviewed Daley—in the presence of his private attorney—but he was never charged with wrongdoing.
The mayor looked vulnerable, and Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr. took note. Junior began issuing statements, giving speeches, and granting interviews blasting City Hall corruption. He traveled around the city meeting people and speaking to neighborhood groups, raised some money, and even set up a campaign organization—then abruptly opted out of a mayoral challenge, saying the Democrats' new majority in the U.S. House meant he could do more good in Washington. People close to his campaign also said he was discouraged by the results of polls he'd conducted showing he probably wouldn't win.
He was probably right. The supposedly weakened Daley raised $6.4 million in the eight months leading up to the election, spent $4.7 million of it, and went on to crush two lackluster opponents, circuit court clerk Dorothy Brown and political activist William "Dock" Walls.
I for one don't think Jackson should be condemned for not wanting to be a political martyr. Yet I'm not sure he realized how much he might have changed the dynamics of the Daley era, even in losing.