For first time in decades, Chicago faces life without a Daley in charge

Richard Daley's decision to quit after 21 years as Mayor marks the end of an extraordinary political dynasty
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The Independent US

No Daley in City Hall? It sounds about as likely as waking up one morning to find they had drained Lake Michigan. To the astonishment of nearly everyone, Richard M Daley has announced that he will not be running for re-election as Mayor of Chicago next year.

It is a shock that will send biographers running for their laptops. No other mayor in America comes close in terms of political stature – not even Michael Bloomberg of New York. His decision also fires the starting pistol for Democrat Chicagoans, who hitherto have barely dared even to dream of competing for the city's top political post. Among those thinking of joining the sprint is the White House Chief of Staff, Rahm Emanuel.

It was assumed that Daley would run again to keep the job he has occupied with relentless – some would say bullying – passion since being elected for the first time in 1989. (His team of political advisors included both Emanuel and David Axelrod, now chief advisor to President Barack Obama). And it was assumed that he would win. Removing him would be "akin to dethroning a king," Obama biographer David Mendell told The New Yorker.

There are critics, of course, who will argue that the Daleys long ago overstayed their welcome.

Before Richard M, who has been elected five successive times, there was his dad, Richard J Daley, who died from a heart attack while in office in 1976. He had been elected six times. Between them, the two men have run Chicago, America's third largest city, for 42 of the last 55 years. Chicagoans, in other words, may be in for a bout of separation anxiety.

"Simply put, it's time," Mayor Daley, 68, declared when he made the announcement. "Time for me, [and] time for Chicago to move on."

A possible explanation is the deteriorating health of his wife, Maggie, who is struggling with cancer. Apart from that, he may have recognised some awkward political realities. Though overthrowing him next year would have been a tall order for anyone, the affection he has enjoyed among voters for two decades has dwindled of late.

Recent set-backs have included the failure of Chicago's costly bid last year to win the 2016 Olympic Games, a US Supreme Court decision to overturn a city-wide ban on handgun ownership and, in common with other major cities, an alarming slide back towards familiar struggles of urban gang violence and city budgets drenched in red ink.

There have, moreover, been repeated corruption scandals suggesting that Daley's promise to end the city's traditions of illegal political patronage and cronyism has never been properly delivered. These have included the conviction of a top aide in 2006 in connection with criminal hiring practices at City Hall and a department head's conviction this year for doling out plum jobs to political campaign workers. Before that was the Hired Truck scandal, which showed the city paying large sums to politically connected haulage firms for doing very little work.

And not all Daley memories are salubrious. It was Daley Sr who sent in the police with their clubs to break up the demonstrations at the 1968 Democratic Convention, leaving a scar on the city's reputation that took years to heal. Nor has Daley Jr shaken off the shadow cast by successive cases in which jail inmates in Chicago were tortured, some of them while he was the city's top prosecutor in the mid-1980s.

It is possible that over the years Daley Jr has miscalculated the dividing line between a boss who does what it takes to make things happen and a boss who breaks the rules. Bloomberg is a fan of the toughness, telling New Yorker writer Evan Osnos that Daley's "philosophy is 'beg for forgiveness, not for permission'. He goes and does it".

But anyone who was in the city seven years ago will recall how Daley lost patience with local pilots and preservationists who resisted his attempts to close down a small airfield on the shores of Lake Michigan. One night he sent bulldozers into the airfield to carve deep X's into the single runway making it impossible for aircraft to land or take off from that moment on. A doer or a dictator? Daley has arguably been both.

According to Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell, another grizzled veteran of the party, Daley is nonetheless the "best mayor in the country". Even his critics will not deny his achievements, which include the revamping of what was once the worst-performing public school system in the land; the razing of tower blocks marked by violence; the greening of Chicago with trees and green roofs; and, most recently, the opening of Millennium Park on the lake's edge, an enterprise that broke all budgets but which has increased tourist spending by 50 per cent.

For a measure of Daley's impact, look for a moment at the other once-great cities of the American Midwest – Detroit and Cleveland for instance. While they totter, Chicago, for the most part, glistens.

Another reason Daley has endured is that people remember what it was like in the 13 years between his reign and his father's – when five mayors presided over a city wracked by race wars, delinquency and drug violence.

The ripples of Daley's decision will travel well beyond the city and have already triggered a small earthquake of speculation in Washington DC centred on Mr Emanuel, who said in a television interview earlier this year that if Daley stepped aside he would be interested in taking his place.

The pressure will be on Emanuel to make up his mind quickly. He will have assemble a coalition of supporters and donors and will be required to gather over 15,000 signatures to file his candidacy before the end of November. That may require him to resign as White House Chief of Staff before the mid-term congressional elections at the start of the month.

Were Emanuel to hand in his notice to Mr Obama, that might in turn provoke a much wider reshuffle of the President's inner circle. Quite a few Democrats might have liked to see new blood in the White House months ago (particularly in the top economic team), but a shake-up now would come when Mr Obama is facing the darkest storm of his first term, with polls suggesting a possible Republican rout in the mid-terms.

Daley's departure from Chicago politics therefore promises to be every bit as thunderous as all the years of his dynastic rule.

The Daley years


Richard J Daley is elected as Mayor of Chicago. He becomes known as the last of the big city bosses and runs a well-organised Democratic party political machine.


A storm of protest followed allegations that Daley told police to 'shoot to kill' rioters in disturbances following the death of Martin Luther King.


President-elect Jimmy Carter and Vice-President Nelson A Rockefeller at Daley's funeral at Nativity of Our Lord Catholic Church after he died of a heart attack after nearly 22 years as mayor.


Richard Daley after his first election win.


High-rise housing schemes (built by his father) are knocked down. The schemes had given the city the reputation as one of the most segregated in the US.


Chicago loses its bid for the 2016 Olympics despite a multimillion-dollar effort and an endorsement from President Obama.


Daley announces he is quitting as Mayor.


Bulldozers are sent in under the cover of darkness to tear up an airstrip and turn it into a park in highly contested scheme.