What Mayor Daley Left Behind

Surveying the state of Chicago


It's been said that no man is a hero to his valet. Continuous, up-close exposure can eventually render anyone stale. After nearly 22 years as mayor, Richard M. Daley has definitely worn out much of his appeal to Chicagoans.

He's won six straight elections, the last two with more than 70 percent of the vote. Yet in the last poll before he announced his retirement Tuesday, only 37 percent of his constituents approved of his performance.

Daley is a man with a rich trove of personal flaws and policy mistakes, which have not become less irritating with time. But for many years, his achievements, real and illusory, were enough to make voters overlook his shortcomings.

They had reason to indulge him. When I arrived here in 1981, Chicago looked as though it was following in the path of Cleveland and Detroit: old industrial cities irreparably battered by the decline of manufacturing and the rise of the Sun Belt.

That year, The Chicago Tribune ran a series entitled "City on the Brink," in which reporter R.C. Longworth sketched a sad future: "Chicago's basic problem is that it is losing industries, stores and jobs. Because of this, it is losing tax money. Because of this, it won't be able to support itself, to pay for the service of a going city. And because of this, it will lose more industries, stores, jobs and taxes." An array of experts told him "there is no reason to think it will ever turn around."

But turn around it did, in a big way. While other places have stagnated, Chicago has thrived. While others have lost masses of people, Chicago has been stable in population. The searing racial polarization of the 1980s has eased so much that it's almost forgotten.

Says Longworth, now a fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and author of a book on the heartland economy, "Everyone in other Midwestern cities would trade places with us."

In an age of media-tested politicians who are better at sound bites than substance, Daley is an anomaly: an inarticulate politician with a homely countenance, a prickly disposition, and an appetite for important but mundane tasks. Yet he has reigned like a monarch, largely unchallenged and unchallengeable.

His political success is due partly to his skill in accommodating a variety of interest groups, notably corporations and unions. He took great care to defuse opposition among African-Americans to make sure they didn't mobilize behind a black mayoral candidate—as they did in electing Harold Washington (and rejecting Daley) in 1983.

His tangible achievements owed much to his ability to ride the rising economic tide of the 1990s, making Chicago an appealing place to live, shop, play, and do business. But they also owed a lot to his willingness to mortgage the future in pursuit of his vision.

He kept the Bears here with a deal to renovate Soldier Field at a cost of more than $400 million in tax dollars, producing an expensive eyesore. He created a major downtown attraction in Millennium Park—which cost three times what it was supposed to. In his effort to get the 2016 Summer Olympics, he was willing to put local taxpayers on the hook for $500 million.

But his habits have caught up with Chicago. City pensions are grossly underfunded, leaving taxpayers with billions in obligations. Spending has risen far faster than inflation, which Daley accomplished by piling up debt.

Sales taxes here rose to 10.25 percent, the highest of any major city in America—before voter anger forced a rollback that left locals grateful to be paying only the second-highest rate.

The pleasure of living beyond your means can only go on so long before the party comes to a bitter end. With a big city budget deficit and a future of diminishing help from the state and federal governments, Daley is leaving before the truly painful decisions have to be made.

Plenty of contenders are scrambling to replace him, which suggests they do not understand what they face. The situation brings to mind what former New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller said when Hugh Carey was elected to his old job in 1974: "He thinks it's going to be fun being governor. It's only fun being governor of New York if you have money to spend, and I spent it all."


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  1. I read the article, and I must say it contradicts everything I learned about Chicago on the Travel Channel.

  2. Is this guy responsible for those nasty-ass sorry excuses for pizza they sell in the windy city.

    Last time I was in Chicago I ordered a pizza pie, but received a giant round piece of bread stuffed with 14 anchorbabies and topped with catsup and pasteurized american cheese product.

    1. Were you sexually abused by a deep-dish pizza as a child, like Episiarch?

      1. Were you sexually abused by a deep-dish pizza abomination as a child, like Episiarch?

        There, I fixed it, and the answer to your question is no.

        1. Kick ass thin crust is available in almost every neighborhood as well you know if you have a more ….. delicate appetite.

          1. I prefer to drown my anchorbabies in a bathtub, not in catsup.

            1. What the fuck is catsup?

              Why is it so difficult to say “I don’t like ____, but other people might”? Isn’t that what being a libertarian is all about?

              1. Zeb,

                This is one of those secret old-timer Hit & Run commenter thingees.

                1. Yes, I know. I am just trying to become a more tolerant and patient person, as I don’t see much hope in fixing the world the way I like it. Silly, I know.

              2. Being a libertarian is all about saying “I don’t like ____, but other people might”?

                News to me.

                The attitude might be libertarian – to each his own – but I see nothing wrong with stating one’s opinion unapologetically.

                NY-style for me, all the way. Hard to find really good NY/NJ-style pizza made by real Italians here “tha RVA”, but just last year, I happily discovered a little Sicilian family-run Italian grill place that makes absolutely fantastic NY/NJ-style pizza. It totally kicks Papa John’s and Dominos butts – which pretty much are the only other options around here. Unfortunately they don’t deliver, but it’s only about a 2 minute drive.

                1. There is a difference between stating your opinion of something and declaring that everything you don’t happen to enjoy is crap that shouldn’t exist.

                  1. Except that in this case, he’s right. Deep dish is a fucking abomination. If I could get behind the use of government force, I’d say ban that nasty shit in a heartbeat.

              3. For zeb;

                All of your catsup questions answered.

            2. I stand by my description of the Chicago based abomination as a thick pastry with a sweet tomato glaze.

              Zeb, libertarianism is live and let live in how you run or ruin your life; however, that has nothing to do with whether or not you’ll get mocked for the choices you make or don’t make.

              1. Abomination? You’re the abomination, heretic. I’m going to issue a press release–my church is going to burn hundreds of flat-chested pizzas.

                1. A flatwa, if you will.

              2. This is true. Take “Freedom of Speech,” for example. Any idiot has an absolute right to stand on a soapbox and wax stupidity…

                …and so does the heckler.

              3. I guess what I am getting at is that it is pretty dumb to mock people on things that are purely a matter of taste.

                1. For zeb;

                  All of your catsup questions answered.

      2. He doesn’t have the same degree of anger.

      3. I am confused, I thought that Epi liked tehdeepdish!…Oh well.

        Fuck you anyways, Episiarch, you moran!

        1. No, you’re right. Episiarch adores deep-dish pizza. In fact, I’d say that he lusts for it.

          1. Tomato sauce, cheese and sausage casserole.

            1. Flavored cardboard.

              1. The fact that New York would even take pride in such a pathetic excuse for pizza just shows how moronic New Yorkers really are. Burnt cardboard loaded with grease and toppings that run off as soon as you pick up a slice? No thank you.

                Anyways, I’ll take a gyro anyday.

                1. You forgot to say “But it’s just my personal taste, other people might like NY pizza more than gyros”. Cuz that’s what being a libertarian is all about nstuff.

      4. Integrate what you believe in every single area of your life. Take your heart to work and ask the most and best of everybody else, too.

  3. I think Daley was popular for a time because he gave everyone everything they wanted and put it all on the city’s credit card. He’s like the bon vivant whose is the life of the party but then ducks out before the check arrives. Daley got cocky and forgot the grifter’s first rule: Always know when its time to bail on the scam.

    Chicago is in bad shape. Its police force has nearly collapsed and crime is spiraling out of control. Other city services have the same problems for the same reasons.

    Chicagoans don’t have long to turn things around. The city could easily turn into another Cleveland.

    1. I don’t know, Chicago has got a lot of things going for it. Selling off city assets, like O’Hare, Midway, the parking spaces to go along with the meters would be nice. Also, Apple is still considering buying the Red Line Station at Noth & Clyborne (The place is a dump right now – a complete run down little shack in a nice neighborhood with Borders, Trader Joes and a Crate & Barrel nearby) The same should go for all of the El Stations, sell off all of them.

      The question is can the city sell off all of its assets and then be able to meet all of its obligations? That will have to be a question only Rahn can answer, I suppose.

  4. “But turn around it did, in a big way. While other places have stagnated, Chicago has thrived. While others have lost masses of people, Chicago has been stable in population. The searing racial polarization of the 1980s has eased so much that it’s almost forgotten.

    Says Longworth, now a fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and author of a book on the heartland economy, “Everyone in other Midwestern cities would trade places with us.””

    I’m guessing that Daley II will be remembered more fondly than Steve Chapman wants us to believe. If renovating Soldier Field is the worst thing Daley ever did (and surely it isn’t), his record is pretty goddamn clean.

    1. “Everyone in other Midwestern cities would trade places with us.” That is so god damn stupid it would be funny if said in jest. Daley is a scumbag asshole just like his pappa.

    2. I’m guessing that Daley II will be remembered more fondly than Steve Chapman wants us to believe.

      Actually I think Steve would agree. Daley’s quitting so it’ll be “Things ran pretty good back when Daley ran them.” The new mayor will be the one blamed for letting the shit hit the fan.

  5. AV …. please.
    Ripping up Miegs Field, putting ‘traffic calming’ impediments wherever possible, screwing up the sale of the Skyway and the parking meters. The list can go on and on.
    Then there’s the TIF issue which rarely ‘plays’ outside Chi-town.…
    He somehow slipped away from his complicity in the Jon Burge torture case. History will not be kind to this tyrant.
    Good riddance.

    1. It’s all yours, Jesse. Good luck!

    2. In my by-no-means-popular opinion, selling off the parking meters was one of the GOOD things he’s done.

      1. I’ll agree that the boxes are better, taking plastic and all. But, the city could have gotten sooo much more, we damn near gave this away.

      2. Selling off the parking meters is a good idea if you get what they are worth in return and you don’t use the lump sum you receive to make up for a single year budget short fall instead of making sure the money will last the length of the lease. Good ideas can quickly turn sour when incorrectly implemented.

    3. He’s not done yet. Earlier this week the City Council approved $98 million in infrastructure improvements to the old US Steel South Works area. That’s so a private developer can spend $4 billion to create a minature city along the lakefront. So why can’t the developer pay for the improvements?

      That’s on top of the $1 billion Chicago will borrow to help build three new runways at O’Hare. The billion dollars is needed to help convince United Airlines and American to help fund those runways plus a new terminal. If that capacity is needed, why not have the airlines pay for it?

      One of Daley’s main problems was that he would skip the things that needed to be done to fund the things that would be nice to do. So there’s rampant crime on the South Side, CPS cannot educate students and infrastructure in the places tourists don’t go is crumbling? Well, uh, we have Millinium Park, so it’s all good, right?

      Good riddance indeed, but what of his replacement?

      1. King Daley’s replacement will be an incredibly incompetent leach that won’t last a more than one term.


  6. We be killing each other at a record pace. Thanks, Great Society. Now, where be my daddy???

    1. Prison…where he belongs!

      1. Or the cemetary.

        1. No, the Hospitals are broke, but they have some of the most experienced surgeons for repairing gunshot wounds.

          1. Gunshot wounds? Can’t be, gun are outlawed in Chicago!

  7. caption?

    “Boobless motorboating”

    1. Invisible motorboat.

  8. who has the shittier/stupider voters: New Orleans or Chicago?

    1. Trick question: the answer is Detroit.

      1. I’ll see your Detroit, and raise you Washington, D.C.

        1. Well, the whole country put Obama in office. Just sayin’

        2. I’ll see your Washington D.C. and raise you a San Francisco

  9. With a big city budget deficit and a future of diminishing help from the state and federal governments, Daley is leaving before the truly painful decisions have to be made.

    Almost certainly true, but I have to point out it’s the same prediction made in 1981.

    1. Just like his Dad who died to skip town. Anything to avoid responsibility.

  10. Some of Chicagos success has been in shipping out wholesale the poor and uneducated to Eastern Iowa where I live. While our communities are now facing higher crime and the usual detritus of the products of several generations of poverty and social mismanagement, local governments have used these people as a boon to bring in more welfare revenue and justify an increase in protectionists jobs. Any minor victory for Chicago has become a loss for the smaller communities picking up the riff raff to the east.

    1. The same goes for formerly nice suburbs south of Chicago.

    2. I’ve been hearing that as well. Where the American Pharaoh effectively segregated the city, his son forced out all the unwanted through gentrification.


      1. Not “all the unwanted” there is still tons of shit in Chicago.

    3. It was kind of eerie reading that, it was like you were talking about the communities to the east of San Francisco/Oakland, but with Bizzaro names…

      My one-horse town recently threw up a massive section 8 development behind my housing tract, most of the homes in which had already been rented to liar loan recipients prior to 2008 (and these are BIG homes!). It used to be a very quiet, sleepy neighborhood. Now hoodlums mosey up and down the street until 4AM, the cops regularly have to be called to deal with rediculously loud bass lines, and cars are constantly being broken into along with the occasional home.

      But not to worry; all the city council members live on the other side of town.

      Anyone know of any good places to live in AZ?

    4. What’s really sad about this is that a lot of those people are too poor to afford cars and know basically no one in their old towns, so have less of a chance of making it out of poverty or keeping a job than they did living in Chicago. I knew a lot of people with relatives and friends who had to move when their housing projects closed and could only find housing way, way out of the city.

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  12. “The searing racial polarization of the 1980s has eased so much that it’s almost forgotten.”


    Dissimilarity indicies used to calculate racial segregation show that Chicago is amongst the most segregated cities in the U.S. Several studies show Chicago to be THE most segregated city in the U.S.…..ated-city/

    Are you a bald-faced liar or do you just feel unencumbered to provide evidence for your broad claims? Irrespective, you do not deserve any serious forum.

    1. No you fail Stephen.

      Do you the recall “Epton before it’s too late” or the Council Wars after Washington’s election? That is searing racial polarization.

      Chicago staying segregated is part grumbling under the breath racism and part inertia

      But if you actually cared to look you would see the segregation in Chicago has been falling faster than almost every other slow growing rust belt city.

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