For Release Sunday, September 26, 2010
© 2010 Washington Post Writers Group
Not 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.
- 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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
For reprints of Neal Peirce’s column, please contact Washington Post Permissions, c/o PARS International Corp., WPPermissions@parsintl.com, fax 212-221-9195. For newspaper syndication sales, Washington Post Writers Group, 202-334-5375, email@example.com.