Sunday, August 20, 2006

Scandals have slid off Daley (until now)

Scandals have slid off Daley (until now)
By Lois Wille
a former Tribune editorial page editor
Copyright © 2006, Chicago Tribune
Published August 20, 2006

Ronald Reagan was known as the Teflon president because he could brush away scandals with the sunshine of his smile.

He said he never knew the details of his administration's illegal weapons sales to Iran, didn't know it was illegally shifting the profits to anti-Marxist rebels in Nicaragua.

He seemed blissfully unaware of the mounting AIDS crisis, the soaring deficits and the corrupt activities of senior aides. And he got away with it.

Will Richard Daley turn out to be Chicago's Teflon mayor? It won't be easy for him.

For the first time since he took office in 1989, he's vulnerable. The political organization he built has been battered by federal investigations and convictions. He's bashed regularly by the news media, racing to be first with the next big scandal. And questions about his passive reaction to reports of torture by police officers while he was Cook County state's attorney could ignite racial tensions.

Daley can't play Reagan's game. No one will ever call him a "Great Communicator." When he gets in a tight spot, he spouts angry babble instead of Reagan's genial optimism.

Nor can he mimic Reagan's dreamy obliviousness. Daley is clearly the man in charge of all phases of city government, even those that were once the province of aldermen. That's why it's so difficult to believe he didn't know some top aides were destroying records and rigging tests to hide violations of federal anti-patronage decrees, or that fraud was widespread in the city's minority-contracting procedures.

Yet if Daley runs in February, minus the legacy-busting handicap of a federal indictment, he's likely to be re-elected.

With the recent emphasis on scandals and the smoldering resentment over some of his policies that are painfully slow in showing results--restructuring public housing and reshaping failed public schools, for example--it's easy to forget that the mayor has had a strong relationship with legions of Chicagoans.

It's complicated and conflicted, with a personal dimension that goes beyond politics and governance. He's the good son who honored his mother and father. The devoted husband who chokes with emotion when talking about his wife's bravery in coping with breast cancer. The loving father who gets teary-eyed at the mention of his soldier son Patrick and always includes Kevin, the boy who died many years ago, when referring to his children.

He wears his heart on his sleeve, and a lot of Chicagoans appreciate that.

They also take a perverse sort of pride in his outbursts. They roll their eyes and wonder if he's really lost it this time, as when he responded to a complaint that tollway traffic was manipulated to ease his drive to his weekend home by screeching, "Silly, silly, silly, silly!" Or when he got fed up with stalled efforts to convert Meigs Field into a park and staged a midnight bulldozer raid that tore up its runways. (Yes, I know that was outrageous, but I couldn't help cheering him on. Mainly, my reaction was: Good. He's atoning for what he did to the lakefront when he OKd the Soldier Field renovations.)

Mayors of other big cities don't behave like this, but as the rascal lawyer Billy Flynn said in the hit film named for our city, "That's Chicago!"

Source of pride

There's another, more significant factor in Chicago's relationship with this mayor. He made the city feel proud again after it had endured 25 years of pummeling and ridicule.

Chicago's troubles had simmered for a long time but burst to the surface in the mid-1960s with bloody upheavals in the misery-soaked black ghettos, the ghettos that Daley's father, Mayor Richard J. Daley, said didn't exist.

Chicago's police force brutalized anti-war demonstrators at the 1968 Democratic National Convention while the whole world watched. The city's public schools were labeled the worst in the nation, and they had earned it. Its public housing, designed to wall off the black and poor so the rest of the city could forget about them, was a crime against humanity. Its Park District existed mainly as a lucrative haven for a patronage army, while the parks themselves deteriorated. I could go on with a long list of other social crimes because I covered most of them as a reporter in the 1960s and 1970s.

In 1983, a bloc of white aldermen staged a race-based war against Harold Washington, Chicago's first black mayor, and city government ground to a halt for three years. Chicago richly deserved the Wall Street Journal's sobriquet, "Beirut by the Lake."

By 1989, the city that had grown accustomed to one Mayor Daley for 21 years had been governed--although that is hardly an appropriate term--by four other mayors in just 12 years.

None of the four, it is fair to say, had a single lasting positive impact on the city's entrenched problems. But it is also fair to add that Harold Washington barely had time to wrest control from the hooligan white aldermen before his death. The city was grim and depressed, and it looked that way.

Then the new Daley took over. And even those who thought his dad had failed found a stability associated with the name that was reassuring. There was hope that, at least, he would have learned something about managing a city government, and that he meant it when he said he would be more responsive, more attuned to the needs and concerns of a contemporary metropolis such as Chicago. And he had a string of successes.

He made a genuine effort to reach out to all segments of the community. He took control of the budget and spread money around neighborhoods that had long been neglected.

Under his direction the city and the Park District planted several hundred thousand trees, spruced up boulevard median strips with flowers and shrubs, built or restored school parks. He promoted theater and the arts, boosted downtown residential development to breathe life into an ailing Loop, and tried to improve frayed relationships between citizens and police officers with the Chicago Alternative Policing Strategy.

His New Homes for Chicago program has used city money to reduce sales prices for about 2,000 low-income families.

These initiatives were welcome. Two others were heroic and have earned him nationwide praise: taking on the city's sorry schools and public housing. None of his predecessors did much about either, except make weak appointments to their boards and offices.

Without improvement in both, there is little hope of breaking the chain of chronic poverty and depression that has kept large swaths of this city from enjoying a safe, secure and productive life.

The trouble is, both are long-term projects. Progress will come slowly, and there are bound to be setbacks along the way--fodder for demagogues, and for political opponents.

City on the rise

But hopeful signs appear too. The Chicago Public Schools partnership with the University of Illinois at Chicago and the Academy for Urban School Leadership to train teachers is providing much-needed support to a gradually improving system. And new Chicago Housing Authority construction should ease the enormous problem of relocating families uprooted by the demolition of high-rise units. That will continue to be a struggle--especially with an administration in Washington that has washed its hands of urban problems.

Five months ago, the Economist magazine published a series of articles on Chicago's progress since the 1980s, concluding that the city "has come through deindustrialization looking shiny and confident. ... Chicago is undoubtedly back. Back, that is, from what many feared would be the scrapheap."

Whether that shiny confidence is shared by a majority of Chicago voters may be the determining factor in next year's mayoral election.

Even if voters aren't so confident, if Daley remains unindicted but they find his behavior in the hiring scandals inexplicable and unforgivable, they may be nervous about rejecting him and ushering in another dozen years or so of turmoil.

They will need to see a link between scandals and poorer services or higher taxes, which hasn't happened. And they will need to be convinced that a Daley opponent can manage this tough-to-run city with the same courage and concern for its future that this mayor has demonstrated.


Lois Wille is a former Tribune editorial page editor.


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