The Citistates Group presents

Thank you for reading This website is no longer being updated, as of October 2013. We invite you to visit our new site at

The Seven High Pillars of Daley’s Success

Neal Peirce / Sep 23 2010

For Release Sunday, September 26, 2010
© 2010 Washington Post Writers Group

Neal PeirceNot for naught has Chicago’s soon-to-retire Richard M. Daley been called “the king of America’s mayors,” hailed as the man who took command of a raucously divided city in 1989 and turned it into one of the world’s most respected metropolises.

One factor was sheer political skill. Daley reached out to a diverse array of constituencies that his legendary, heavy-handed father, Mayor Richard J. Daley, had largely ignored. A prime example: Chicago’s large African-American community. In 1988, the younger Daley’s first run for mayor, black voters gave him just 2 percent of their vote; in his last election, 2006, they accorded him a majority.

But seven dramatic policy shifts of the Daley years elevated Chicago’s fortunes to the top tier of world cities.

  1. Livability. Chicago’s handsome park setting along Lake Michigan, where white sails sparkle on a summer day, has always been a major plus. But Daley expanded the lakeside beauty inland, to create a new green alchemy, not just in the city’s heart but also its historically neglected neighborhoods.

    Today, downtown is filled with beds of flowers and blossoming pots hung from new street lamps — part of a system of 110 miles of green roadway medians stretching out into the neighborhoods. Starting with City Hall itself, the city has developed a world-leading 7 million square feet of green roofs.

    Most attention centers on Millennium Park, built atop ugly old rail tracks, opened in 2004 with $475 million worth of greenery, sculptures, fountains, playgrounds, bike rentals and a performing arts center. But the caring green touch extends to 570 city parks.

    Add in Daley’s broad focus on arts and culture, and the result is a city where people — including talented but footloose professionals — want to live. That makes possible the next Daley landmark:

  2. A vibrant new century economy — past the smokestack era, past Carl Sandburg’s legendary “hog butcher to the world” and “city of big shoulders” — to a “hot” modern-day urban center of advanced financial, legal and specialized services to the Midwest and wider world.

    Emblematic: Recruiting Boeing from Seattle, the thriving financial services by the Chicago Mercantile Exchange and Board of Trade, and Daley’s ferocious determination to keep building O’Hare as a top global airport.

  3. A climate action plan that’s arguably the world’s most advanced. Based on careful scientific research and broad community consensus-building, it features 452 steps cross-cutting major segments of Chicago’s geography, economy and living patterns.

    And there’s strong follow-through, including quarterly accountability meetings of department heads. A “Boeing-supported dashboard” carefully tracks progress on every front from building weatherization to solar installations to tree plantings.

  4. Daley’s “Plan for Transformation” of public housing led to demolition of such projects of his father’s era as Robert Taylor Homes and Cabrini-Green, most of them located uncomfortably close to the Loop. The projects were a huge drag on the city — some of the most fearful spots on the continent, afflicted with gang turf wars, waves of homicides, deep poverty and bestial living conditions.

    Substituted — though at a much slower rate than hoped for — were federally-supported “Hope VI” mixed-income projects and housing vouchers for the displaced tenants. Although many families ended up in Chicago’s low-cost, declining south suburbs, surveys showed their safety and welfare had materially improved.

  5. Mayoral takeover of Chicago’s public schools. “I want to make the schools a beacon of hope for every child in the city– not [a] cold, hopeless, graffiti-scarred” environment, Daley asserted in 1990. He persuaded the Illinois legislature to put the system under his control, selecting his own school system CEO.

    Other major U.S. cities have followed suit and Chicago schools have improved — but clearly less than Daley hoped for. He keeps pushing for after-school programs, charter schools, and strong libraries across Chicago’s neighborhoods.

  6. The Metropolitan Mayors Caucus — 273 “your honors” from across “Chicagoland’s” five counties, founded at Daley’s initiation in the early 1990s. An historic outreach by a major center city, since emulated in Denver and Philadelphia, the caucus helps build alliances and accords with the area’s mayors in times of increased emphasis on entire metro regions.
  7. Chicago and the world — Daley’s final outreach. Watching, checking for ideas, forging ties with world cities, he travels overseas often, reads foreign newspapers daily, fosters Sister City ties with 28 global partners, and holds an annual forum in Chicago for global mayors. It’s an outreach for learning and alliances — vital for this century — that no other American mayor has matched.

Are there faults, shortcomings in the Daley record? Clearly. Vestiges of the old patronage machine continue; there have been some bribery-fraud investigations, though none touched him personally. Relations with Chicago’s “gotcha”-focused local press are rocky. The current recession has hurt with a current $655 million deficit to cover. His successor faces daunting challenges.

But the big picture is clear: Daley’s initiatives stand out as beacons for mayors, American and worldwide, to emulate.

Neal Peirce’s e-mail is

For reprints of Neal Peirce’s column, please contact Washington Post Permissions, c/o PARS International Corp.,, fax 212-221-9195. For newspaper syndication sales, Washington Post Writers Group, 202-334-5375,


  1. raquel
    Posted September 23, 2010 at 8:31 am | Permalink

    I was invited to give a talk on creativity and leadership in landscape architecture and since my main interest resides in public space and the city. I took Daley’s work and mostly his vision as a prime exemple of creative leadership. I truly believe that change comes from the will to do it, and Mayor Daley did it at a time that most cities where still wondering if climatic changes were a real problem on the urban core; he acted and move towards real solutions on green roofs and so on. Montreal, where I live is a much smaller city than Chicago and with easier solvable problems and we have not come accross the leadership and engagement that Mayor Daley showed. To succeed him is an immense task but his vision on fondamental and structural change will certainly transgress small politics. Bogota were I was born had visionnaires like him, Mokus, Penalosa, Garzon but we were not able to bypass small politics and the present Mayor Moreno went back to old politics of corruption and personnal gains. I believe the change and support of what Mayor Daely has done will come from engaged and “smart” voting form the opulation; maintaining the gains from Daley’s work is the responsability of the Chicago citizens. The sound future of a democratic, responsible and liveable city is mostly on the hands of its citizens.

  2. Larry Bennett
    Posted September 23, 2010 at 9:41 am | Permalink

    Letter from (what has been) Daleyville

On Tuesday, September 7 Richard M. Daley announced that he would not seek reelection in Chicago’s upcoming mayoral contest. Mayor Daley has held office since 1989. If one calls the last 55 years a half century, Daley and his father Richard J. have led Chicago for nearly 80 percent of that long half-century. There does not appear to be a current Daley with a claim to the fifth floor executive suite in City Hall, so the sense that an era in Chicago history nears its close is unmistakable.

    The Daley era in Chicago has been, at times, very bumpy. Richard J. Daley endured an aggressive civil rights movement in the mid- to late-1960s, and in August 1968 Abbie Hoffmann and company induced near-anarchy on the streets of downtown Chicago. During the 1970s Chicago drifted, and given the erosion of what had been its sustaining industrial economy, the drift was mainly downward. The city’s 1980s were rambunctious. An insurgent mayor, Harold Washington, attempted to bring economic and racial justice to Chicago. Richard J.’s heirs in the City Council (which did not include Richard M.) would have none of it.

    Then in 1989, a year and a half following Harold Washington’s death and much unseemly political maneuvering, Richard M. Daley won the mayoralty and for a time ushered in what might be called the Pax Richiana. During the 1990s Chicago actually added residents, something the city had not accomplished since the 1940s. The racial carping of the 1980s, in which underprivileged Blacks and barely privileged working class whites quarreled over the remnants of a disappearing birthright—factory jobs, patronage employment in local government—seemed to evaporate. Over the two decades of Richard M.’s mayoralty much of the U-shaped territory to the north, west, and south of the downtown Loop has gentrified. Rich and Maggie Daley made a brief media splash by moving from his parents’ old neighborhood, Bridgeport—determinedly insular, a short walk from what had been the Union Stockyard—to Central Station, a new urbanist enclave just south of Grant Park. In 1994 Chicago flawlessly hosted preliminary World Cup soccer matches. In 1996 Richard M. brought the Democratic presidential nominating convention to Chicago, and what disobedience there was, was strictly civil. An official protest site was located several earshots’ distance from the United Center, and groups of protesters dutifully relegated themselves to this holding pen. Otherwise, Richard M. Daley showcased a city of elegant shoulders: some basking in the sunshine of lakefront beaches, others dining at an array of adventurous new restaurants.
    In recent years Richard M.’s portion of the Daley era has become bumpier. Several hiring and contracting scandals have tarnished his reputation for running a tight municipal ship. Efforts at municipal revenue-boosting through the leasing of public assets, including parking meters, public garages, a South Side toll highway, and Midway Airport, have aggravated many Chicagoans and not significantly improved the city’s government’s weak fiscal situation. In several south and west side neighborhoods, gang activity and police indifference are long running sore points. Still, Mayor Daley caught most of us by surprise on September 7, and for some, the prospect of his departure will be viewed with alarm.

Among Chicago’s business and civic elite, Richard M. Daley is viewed as the skilled politician and forceful administrator who “brought the city back” from the bad old 1960s, ‘70s, and ‘80s. In fact, Chicago’s comeback is less impressive, indeed is less conclusive than many of Daley’s admirers suppose. Contemporary Chicago’s condition is very much of a piece with the condition of the United States these days. The busy, gleaming Chicago of the early 21st century is a swath of the city running from Barack Obama’s Hyde Park neighborhood on the south lakefront up through the Loop, then into Lincoln Park, and Lake View on the north lakefront. To the west, north side areas such as Ravenswood and Lincoln Square prosper, as do the west side neighborhoods radiating from the University of Illinois at Chicago campus. Farther afield, on the city’s South and West Sides, physical devastation, population loss, and the pop of gunfire persist. Driving west of the Loop through the Austin neighborhood there are precious few signs of comeback, even after two decades of Richard M. Daley’s mayoralty.
    Richard M. Daley’s accomplishments have been substantial. He has worked great changes in Chicago’s public schools, as well as in the operations of the notorious Chicago Housing Authority. On September 7, even as Daley announced his intention to step down, the one hundredth new school, as mandated by his Renaissance 2010 plan for the public schools, opened it doors. But just as the United States is becoming a more and more economically polarized nation, school reform in Chicago has tended to polarize academic resources. The majority of Chicago’s public school students do not attend the small, often privately managed Renaissance 2010 schools. Many of the latter have achieved impressive records of student performance, but there is little reason to suppose that their aims, techniques, or fund of resources will ever become the standard across the city’s hundreds of public schools. Ultimately, the irony of school reform in Richard M. Daley’s Chicago is that it will be another vector contributing to the growing class inequality that is the hallmark both of this city and the nation.
    For all that has been distinctive about the Daley era in Chicago, or even the Richard M. Daley comeback of the last two decades, Chicago is not very different from the rest of the United States. Our city is quietly but deeply divided, and in the next several months we can anticipate—just like the current Democratic and Republican squabbling in Congress—a rancorous rather than illuminating process of choosing a new mayor and determining the city’s future course. Richard M. has closed the Daley era in Chicago with an impressive balance sheet of achievements, but our city, no less than the country at large, is sharply divided by the fault lines of race and material inequality. The policy challenge that Richard M. Daley never managed to unravel was how to advance his city’s reputation and leading institutions while also generating widespread opportunity for the half or more of Chicago that never recovered from those devastating bumps in the early years of the Daley era.
    Larry Bennett

  3. Posted September 23, 2010 at 12:07 pm | Permalink

    In 1992 Ester R. Fuchs completed an amazing comparison in “Mayors and Money — Fiscal policy in New York and Chicago.” The roots of Daley’s success will be found in her analysis for those who are looking for reasons why some lessons are learned, and others not.