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.”
This column previously appeared at Reason.com.
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