On Political Books

July/ August 2013 The Life of the Mayor-for-Life

Richard M. Daley may not have been the smartest guy in the room. But he knew how to run Chicago.

By Alan Ehrenhalt

When scandals emerged in the Chicago Housing Authority, resulting in the temporary transfer of the city’s housing programs to the federal government, Daley responded with the “Plan for Transformation,” which featured the privatization of all housing management as well as the demolition of fifty dysfunctional public housing towers and the construction of new low-rise mixed-income developments to replace them. By the early years of the new century, nearly all the infamous towers were down, although many of the new projects remained to be built.

Koeneman makes a distinction between the mayor’s widely praised early terms and the later ones, in which he was more autocratic, more impulsive, and less attuned to management detail. Whatever one thinks of this thesis, it is undeniable that the last few years served to tarnish at least a little bit of Daley’s legacy.

For one thing, there were clear signs that the old tradition of shady political dealings had not faded away completely. Patronage ran up to and beyond the level of cronyism. The most egregious example was the Hired Truck Program scandal, in which it was disclosed that the city, as Koeneman tells it, “spent $40 million a year to pay private trucking companies to do little or no work.” Some of these companies were run by close political allies of Daley’s, as was the program itself. “I am embarrassed,” Daley said when the scandal broke. “I’m angry, and I’m disappointed because I feel I’ve let the people down.”

Beyond the evidence of graft that came uncomfortably close to him, Daley suffered serious public policy setbacks in the closing years. An expensive and broadly supported bid to bring the 2016 Olympics to Chicago was shot down in embarrassing fashion by the International Olympic Committee. City finances gradually deteriorated, in part a result of the Great Recession but also a consequence, as Koeneman points out, of a still-bloated city workforce and extravagant public pension commitments. By 2009, Chicago was running a large deficit.

Perhaps worst of all, in the public’s mind, was Daley’s last big privatization venture, the decision to lease the city’s 36,000 parking meters to a private company for seventy-five years in return for $1.2 billion. It was an effort to help with the financial problems, but it led to a dramatic increase in parking charges. An inspector general brought in to assess the situation concluded that Daley should have asked for at least a billion dollars more in payments, or else the city should have held on to the meters, raised rates, and kept all the money for itself.

Chronicling the series of late-career setbacks Daley suffered, Koeneman writes that the mayor “appeared more and more like a prize fighter past his prime, a once-great champion who had stayed in the ring for one fight too many.” But when it comes to measuring the entire twenty-two years, Koeneman ends up, albeit a little nervously, on the positive side. “The passage of time,” he says, “would likely lead to history’s judgment that Daley’s achievements had outweighed his mistakes.” The volume as a whole bears that judgment out.

Buy this book from Amazon and support Washington Monthly: First Son: The Biography of Richard M. Daley

Alan Ehrenhalt is a contributing editor at Governing magazine.


  • Garry on July 13, 2013 12:37 AM:

    You have got to be kidding about Daley.
    He was a total disaster for Chicago!
    All he cared about was Downtown & left the neighborhoods [where I live] a wreck.
    He left the CTA rail service close to collapsing! He let it rot because he never, ever rode it & didn't care about the people who have to use it.
    He sold out the black community by giving the corrupt black ministers on the South & West Sides a piece of the action in contracts in exchange for them supporting his reelection every four years.
    As for the parking meter contract, Daley took a bribe from William Blair & Co. Except it's a delayed bribe. Blair recommended that the city take the deal for $1.2 billion from the JP Morgan/Qatar combine. As soon as he left office, Blair hired him for $350,000 a year. That's a bribe!
    He has a city/state pension of at least $100,000 a year & several other contracts.
    Yet he's getting not only police bodyguards, but even has a city car at his disposal. He can buy his own damn car.
    He also was in the background when his nephew, RJ Vanecko, killed another man, David Koschman, with a punch on the street, yet his nephew wasn't charged until the Chicago Sun-Times made it a crusade to get justice for Koschman!
    In 2002, he refused to takes sides in the Democratic gubernatorial primary between Blagojevich & Paul Vallas, the former Chicago Public School head. By doing that, he signaled to the Machine to vote for Blago, because Daley was furious with Vallas for getting so much good PR when running the schools.
    So Blago won & immediately turned around & screwed Daley & Chicago by vetoing laws & funding that would help the city.
    So Daley's support of a totally unqualified crook backfired on him & the city as a whole.
    Every single thing Daley did was driven by corruption, everything!