Analysis - The City Under Daley: Much of the Official Story Line Might Not Stand Up to Scrutiny

May 1, 2011

Chicago Mayor Richard Daley
Credit WUIS/Illinois Issues
He saved the city from ending up like Detroit.

He runs City Hall as if he were the CEO of a private corporation.
He is the “greenest” mayor in the country.
He turned around what were the worst schools in the nation.
He is not a machine boss like his father.
He is the greatest mayor the city has ever had.
He is the best mayor in America.

All of those statements, and other similarly sweeping pronouncements, form the narrative that Chicago’s longest-serving mayor and his allies cultivated carefully during his 22 years in office. His admirers in the city and far beyond its limits are certain to repeat all those plaudits in some form as Daley turns over his gavel on May 16 to Rahm Emanuel.

But the end of Mayor Richard II’s virtually undisputed tenure comes amid increasing signs that so much of the official hagiography might not stand up to being scrootened (to borrow a word he invented in the heat of a news conference). How many of the hallelujahs will history confirm? And how many will seem like little more than the fawning praise of contemporaries who gained from lauding him — or who could have lost everything if they had questioned the decisions of a mayor with little patience for those who challenged his authority?

Recently returned from a two-year stint as a senior White House aide, longtime Daley adviser David Axelrod made the case for the retiring mayor “as one of the great mayors in the history, not just of this city but the country.” 

“You can see evidence of Daley’s genius and his vision all over the city, but perhaps the greatest achievement that he should feel really good about and we should celebrate is what he did to put the city back together in 1989,” Axelrod said on April 7 at an event organized by the City Club of Chicago and the Chicago News Cooperative. “Rich Daley is a unique character. Obviously, he eats and lives and breathes Chicago, and he came to the office that way. He never had any other aspirations, looking to be governor or senator or anything else, and he had this innate understanding. … He grew up with this stuff, and he understood this city at a very, very kind of granular level. He understood every block of this city, he understood the neighborhoods, and he has and had a genius for cities, generally.” 

On Michigan Avenue, a couple of blocks from the Daley-built Millennium Park, Pakistani immigrant Arshad “Sony” Javid says Chicago had become a magnet for the tourists who account for most of the clientele at his Café Descartes, one of nine upscale coffee shops that Javid owns. “Nobody can compare to Mayor Daley,” he says. 

Downtown may be gleaming like never before, but the story of Daley’s Chicago beyond the core “is not a good situation, not at all,” says Thomas Balanoff, president of the Service Employees International Union’s State Council. The labor group invested millions of dollars in recent elections for City Council candidates who would be less willing to bend to Daley’s will. “I think the mayor’s legacy is mixed, obviously,” Balanoff says. “If you just view the city from North Avenue to Roosevelt Road to Ashland, you say, ‘Wow, it’s a beautiful city.’ That will obviously be part of his legacy.

“On the other hand, they took over the schools 15 years ago — certainly, the Chicago Public Schools are in worse shape than they were. The reality is, as you get outside of the downtown here and get into the neighborhoods … the statistics are not very good. Half the families are at or below a sustainable wage. … It leaves our city as a tale of two cities, really. In the end, Mayor Daley has to carry a lot of that responsibility.”

Even in the best of times under Daley the Younger, some observers of Chicago politics espoused an alternative plot line: The booming economy had made the mayor’s judgment seem wiser than it actually was. 

While city revenues flowed at record high levels, Daley built scores of libraries, fire houses, police stations and schools all across the city. City Council members rarely second-guessed him, much less voted against his agenda, as each received a pot of “aldermanic menu” funding worth more than $1 million a year for new sidewalks, street lights, “blue light” police cameras, repaved alleys and other infrastructure improvements in their wards. In anticipation of a Chicago Olympics in 2016, unionized city workers received long-term contracts that promised pay raises and good benefits for a decade. 

After the recession hit, however, the city was left in the same dismal state as so many other cities across the country. With the Daley administration’s spending outstripping its resources by hundreds of millions of dollars every year, it became obvious that hewing to the narrative cost much more than the city could afford.

Daley shirked blame, and it seemed no potentially strong challenger could emerge who would threaten to unseat him. Still, Daley surprisingly passed on the chance to seek a seventh term and publicly professed neutrality in the succession battle. The candidates to replace him declined to criticize him directly, but the tenor of the campaign for the open mayor’s office made clear they understood how few voters were happy with the state of the city. 

Emanuel, who worked on Daley’s first successful run for mayor in 1989, promised that he would radically reconfigure government as Chicago has known it for decades. In his election-night victory speech in February, Emanuel thanked Daley for his service. Yet, Emanuel said the next day, “The status quo, across the waterfront of issues, is unacceptable.”

The status quo and Daley’s record are inseparable, given that Daley has served longer than any Chicago mayor and because he had near-total power. In crucial areas, from city finances to environmental policy, the facts suggest a vast discrepancy between Daley’s authorized biography and the reality on the ground on the eve of the historic turnover of City Hall power.


Daley insisted that at least his city was not as bad off as the state and federal governments or other big cities. In truth, the seeds of Chicago’s fiscal problems were sown while the economy was still hot, and the city’s outlook is grimmer than that of New York or Los Angeles, according to bond rating agencies. Wall Street analysts, who recently downgraded the city’s credit rating and gave Chicago a negative financial outlook, have noted that Daley began drawing on the city’s reserves as early as 2006, before the recession began.

The administration relied heavily on economically sensitive revenue streams, especially the real estate sales tax, which rose and fell with the general health of the economy. While the going was good, Chicago did not save (unlike New York, which generated surpluses and banked them during the boom years). Instead, the Daley administration spent like so many American families, as if the good times would roll forever. Year after year, the Daley administration burned up almost all that it reaped from the record-high revenue stream. Rather than rein in costs, city officials put aside tiny surpluses, much smaller than what government finance experts recommend.

Although revenues plummeted in recent years, the costs of city government continued to grow. Even after the recession hit, the city’s budget continued to increase, to a total of more than $6 billion a year. Factoring in underfunded city employee pensions, the city’s real annual deficit exceeds $1 billion.

“You simply cannot maintain Mayor Daley’s vision with the current sources of revenue,” former mayoral budget director Bill Abolt told the Chicago News Cooperative. “The money is not there for the services and the capital projects that the mayor was delivering. It just doesn’t add up.”

Perhaps nothing damaged Daley’s approval rating as much as the 2008 privatization of the city’s parking meter system. Emanuel now faces the same budget woes, or worse, and he will not have almost all of the $1.2 billion in proceeds from the 75-year meter deal because Daley and the council spent most of the windfall within a couple of years to balance budgets.

Emanuel’s options are further restricted by Daley’s 2007 agreement with labor unions representing thousands of city workers. Motivated by his unsuccessful quest to land the 2016 Summer Olympics, Daley entered into a 10-year deal that the city could not fully abide by for very long. To avoid threatened layoffs, unions have agreed to forgo wage increases and take furlough days that amount to a pay cut of 9.3 percent. The concessions agreement with labor that Daley forged expires at the end of June, just a few weeks after Emanuel takes office.


The over-arching fiscal crisis also threatens whatever gains the mayor can claim in public education in Chicago. Apart from the city’s deficit, Chicago Public Schools faces a shortfall that officials pegged at $720 million this year in a budget of $6.4 billion.

Daley often has said his proudest accomplishment in public life was taking over control of the school system. But the success of Daley’s school reform efforts is debatable. 

To be sure, some of the magnet high schools created under Daley’s watch rank among the best in the Illinois. At the same time, dropout rates remain very high. Almost half of students never finish high school. And a 2006 study found that only 6.5 percent eventually graduated from a four-year college.

The specter of lengthy teachers’ union strikes vanished under Daley, but that does not mean that the power of organized labor in the public schools does not still frustrate the mayor. Emanuel, like Daley before him, is pledging to extend the school day, which is the shortest of any major city in the country because of union rules.

Emanuel also appears to share Daley’s affection for charter schools, which expanded dramatically under Daley.


Chicago has more rooftop gardens, or green roofs, than any other city in the country. Yet, on perhaps the single most important environmental issue that the city can directly control — recycling by the city’s homes and businesses — Daley took a different tack than almost all of the rest of the nation and failed dramatically.

Under Daley’s unique Blue Bag residential recycling program, the city claimed that about one-third of residents put recyclables in blue bags that were tossed into garbage bins with other waste, diverting more than 25 percent of refuse from landfills. A Chicago Tribune investigation in 2005 found that those claims were vastly exaggerated. The city’s own participation study showed that only 13 percent of households were recycling with blue bags. And the true recycling rate was only about 8 percent. 

After staunchly defending the Blue Bag initiative for years, Daley finally promised to switch the entire city to the curbside blue carts used virtually everywhere beyond the city limits. The expansion of the program soon was suspended, citing budget woes. In vast swaths of the city, residents served by Streets and Sanitation have no option but to haul paper, plastic, cans and other recyclables to what were supposed to be temporary bins set up in parks.

In the final months of his tenure, Daley sought bids from private companies that finally would provide recycling to homes across Chicago.


Nothing inspires derision from Daley as much as suggestions that he is the boss of a political machine, as his father was.

The mirage of merit trumping clout dissolved in a 2005 midnight raid of Daley’s office by federal agents. The feds unearthed computerized lists with the names of thousands of city job seekers and their political sponsors. They showed that who you knew did indeed continue to matter at City Hall, at least in trying to land the most lucrative blue-collar city jobs. 

Daley had indeed largely dismantled the Cook County Democratic machine of his father’s day, in that most patronage no longer was dispensed through Democratic ward organizations. Daley’s aides instead created a new machine. While a handful of ward organizations still could promise jobs and promotions to loyal campaign workers, it quickly became clear to the city’s political foot soldiers that the best way to get ahead in the Daley administration was to work for new organizations that took election-season orders from the mayor’s top aides. Those new groups, including the Hispanic Democratic Organization, were organized along racial lines rather than ward boundaries, and they were deployed to the city’s precincts to reward Daley’s political allies and punish critics.

Federal authorities won the conviction of the mayor’s patronage chief, Robert Sorich, and openly suggested that other, higher-ranking officials would be prosecuted. That never came to pass because none of the Daley aides who were convicted in the “massive fraud” in hiring cooperated with investigators, choosing to go to prison rather than help authorities build cases against bigger fish.


Daley allies who acknowledge the administration's shortcomings argue that the mayor nevertheless deserves praise for his role in ostensibly preventing Chicago from withering like so many other Rust Belt cities. Many in the city and beyond hold up Daley as an example of what a mayor should be because Chicago has attracted more than its share of what urban experts call “the creative class,” believed to be critical to reinvigorating cities.

The influx of young professionals, as well as deep-pocketed empty-nesters, could not match the continued departures of middle-class Chicagoans. During the 1990s, Chicago’s population grew for the first time in five decades, by 4 percent. But the 2010 U.S. census data show that the gains of the 1990s were erased in the last decade, when the overall population fell by more than 200,000, or almost 7 percent. That made Chicago the only one of the country’s 10 largest cities that contracted between 2000 and 2010. 

While white residents flooded into affluent, condo-boom neighborhoods in and near the Loop, Chicago’s black population dropped sharply, and growth in the Hispanic population slowed dramatically. Sixty of 77 neighborhoods registered a loss of population in the latest census. 

Those numbers suggest that the retiring mayor helped mold a new sort of American city, although Daley’s kind of Chicago was not necessarily a better version, able to provide the public safety and educational opportunities that would retain the middle class and at last offset the decades-long flight of residents to the suburbs.

Dan Mihalopoulos is City Hall bureau chief for the Chicago News Cooperative (, which produces the Chicago section for the New York Times.

Illinois Issues, May 2011