City Journal

Paul Glastris
Chicago's Hands-On Mayor
The Secret of Rich Daley's Success
Autumn 1993

Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley gestures out the car window with the wet end of an unlit cigar. “Look at that trash can on the corner,” he says indignantly from the back seat of his blue Lincoln Town Car. “Every time I drive by here it’s overflowing.” It is a balmy summer afternoon in the Loop, Chicago’s downtown area, and as usual the mayor is focusing on the small, visible details of his domain, acting less like the chief executive of America’s third-largest city than like the proud owner of an old family business.

Like his father, the late Mayor Richard J. Daley, who ruled Chicago for 21 years, young Rich Daley has a passion for basic government services, the ones that are supposed to keep the city looking nice. He not only notices small problems, but spends vast amounts of mental energy trying to figure out cost-conscious ways to fix them. The offending trash can, for instance, is filled with rubbish from a nearby McDonald’s restaurant. Couldn’t the restaurant manager put out his own trash bins, Daley wonders? “Maybe hang little buckets on the parking meters, with the McDonald’s logo on them?”

Leaving downtown on the Eisenhower Expressway, heading for an event in the West Side ghetto, the mayor continues with his theme that everybody (he pronounces it “evi-body”) should take personal responsibility for the city’s appearance. He complains about the weeds and grass that grow thigh-high on the sides of the expressway, and about how he must pressure the state government to mow them. As we exit the expressway and drive through the impoverished Garfield Park neighborhood, Daley sizes up homes and apartment buildings, noting faux wrought-iron fences and other embellishments that signal, as the mayor says, “some identity, like, ’Hey, this is mine, so keep off!’” We pass an elementary school ringed by asphalt and vacant lots. “That looks so uninviting,” he groans. “We should tear that up and plant trees, put in maybe a soccer field or a baseball diamond. You mean to tell me the principal of that school doesn’t have $20 to plant some flowers?”

The mayor’s local critics see his mania for greenery and cleanliness as evidence that his vision of government is too simplistic for the complex problems his city faces. Yet beneath his surface concerns lies a deeper logic. Chicago, he believes, can retain its middle class and avoid the urban death spiral of increasing poverty and decreasing tax revenues only by improving its quality of life—and that means better, more cost-effective basic services like trash pickup, the kind that benefit “evi-body.”

This vision has a deeper political logic, too. Voters have noticed the small improvements in the quality of services and the look of the city since Daley was first elected mayor in 1989. He won reelection in 1991 with 71 percent of the vote. Since then he has made numerous blunders, such as a failed proposal to boost property taxes, and as I write he is struggling to help the Chicago School Board close a $400 million budget hole and avoid a threatened teachers’ strike. Yet polls show little decline in the mayor’s popularity; his overall job approval rating was 66 percent in a recent Chicago Tribune survey. Nationally, he has won praise from everyone from President Clinton to the Wall Street Journal editorial page for his efforts to “reinvent government” in Chicago.

Stout and hale at 51, with the pale, almost translucent complexion of the Irish, Rich Daley has neither the expansive personality of an old-fashioned big-city pol, nor the polished wonkery of the typical New Democrat. Gentle and almost shy in person, he sometimes seems ill at ease and defensive in public, as if resentful that his chosen career forces him to use rhetorical skills that he knows to be limited. He speaks with a working-class South Side accent, in sentences made up of chunks of imprecisely expressed thoughts strung together with dismaying syntax, rendered more incoherent by a politician’s fear of answering questions directly. Yet thanks to the very ordinariness of his vocabulary, you usually know, or think you know, what he means. Chicago sophisticates love to debate just how intelligent Daley is. Judged solely on his spoken word, the answer would probably be not very.

But look at his governing strategy and you’ll see streaks of true brilliance. On race issues, for instance, the mayor has moved about as deftly as any big-city politician in recent memory. Having lost his first mayoral bid in 1983, when he and Jane Byrne split the white vote and Harold Washington became the city’s first black mayor, Daley spent the next six years building a decent managerial reputation as Cook County states attorney, while wisely staying aloof from the racial self-immolation that engulfed Chicago politics. These were the infamous years of “council wars,” in which Mayor Washington and his black aldermanic allies battled an obstructionist white majority led by Edward “Fast Eddie” Vrdolyak.

When Daley ran for mayor again in 1989, he could legitimately present himself as above the racial fray. Vrdolyak and Daley had been bitter enemies since 1976, when (almost immediately after the elder Daley’s death) Vrdolyak engineered the slating of fellow Croatian Michael Bilandic as mayor, thereby cutting young Rich Daley out of the line of succession. In 1989, most black voters (who represent about 40 percent of the Chicago electorate) backed the black candidate, acting mayor Eugene Sawyer, who had succeeded the late Harold Washington. But Daley managed to pull together a winning coalition of white ethnics, Hispanics, Asians, and affluent “Lakefront liberals.” Among the latter group were educated Jewish voters who had opposed Daley’s father and backed Washington, but who had dropped their support of “movement” blacks after an aide to Sawyer proclaimed that Jewish doctors were injecting black babies with the AIDS virus.

The Daley years have been remarkably quiet in contrast with the preceding half-decade of open racial hostilities, when the national media dubbed Chicago “Beirut on the Lake.” Most blacks don’t love the mayor but don’t quite hate him, either (his job approval rating among blacks is 53 percent). Daley has carefully avoided giving the fractured black political leadership any major issues around which to rally outrage. Among other things, he has preserved Washington’s minority contract set-aside program and placed numerous African-Americans in high-profile cabinet posts—though not in his inner circle of advisers, which until recently was made up largely of longtime friends from Bridgeport, Daley’s South Side neighborhood.

The mayor has occasionally signaled his distaste for the more extreme aspects of affirmative action. But he has done so subtly, not in the in-your-face manner of an Ed Koch. When the idea of “race norming”—adjusting test scores to boost minority performance—was suggested for the police and fire department promotion exams, Daley responded with a clever sports metaphor that drained the idea of its racial edge. “You mean taking someone who got a 70 over someone who scored 99?” asked Daley, soon after the Chicago Bulls won their third straight basketball championship. “That would be like declaring the Phoenix Suns the winners.”

Even more impressive than his handling of race issues is Daley’s gut understanding of how the politics of city governance has changed since his father’s death. The old order was held together by two linchpins. The first was patronage, an institution that died in cities like New York in the 1930s but survived in Chicago well into the 1970s. The senior Daley, as both mayor and chairman of the powerful Cook County Democratic Central Committee, controlled between twenty thousand and forty thousand government jobs in scores of city, county, and even state agencies.

Those agencies may have been bloated and corrupt, but political logic dictated that the elder Daley defend them. So what if there were elevator operators “running” the automatic elevators at City Hall? So long as those employees worked their precincts at election time and contributed the required fraction of their salaries to the party campaign fund, the mayor was happy. And anyway, nobody ever accused Richard J. Daley’s machine of failing to pick up the trash. The city delivered basic services reasonably well because city employees owed their jobs to machine politicians, to whom voters went with requests and complaints. This is what Daley meant by his oft-quoted formulation, “Good politics is good government.”

The second linchpin of the old order was the limited role of unions. Whereas New York City’s workforce became unionized in the 1960s, Chicago government remained largely nonunion until the mid-1980s, thanks to a traditional “understanding” between City Hall and organized labor. Union leaders sat on all important policymaking boards and commissions, city contracts went to unionized firms, and city workers, especially skilled tradesmen, were paid “prevailing wages.” In return, unions didn’t press for collective bargaining rights for city workers. That meant politicians and city managers had near total control of work rules, workforce numbers, benefit levels, hiring, firing, and promotions. It also meant lower taxes and more-careful spending, as Ester Fuchs convincingly argues in Mayors and Money: Fiscal Policy in New York and Chicago.

All this began to change around the time of Richard J. Daley’s death in 1976. First came a series of court decrees that ended the Democratic Party’s power to hire and fire the vast majority of city workers for political reasons. Then came unionization, a gift from Harold Washington, who won his 1983 race as an anti-machine reformer with substantial help from the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees. In return, Washington lobbied the State Legislature and secured bargaining rights for city employees. Washington did many fine things for the city, such as cleaning up its books and boosting its bond rating, but improving the management of its agencies was not one of them.

The death of patronage and the growth of unions changed the political calculus in Chicago. City bureaucracies went from being political assets firmly under the mayor’s control to politically useless behemoths that soaked up tax dollars without following orders. But voters continued to hold the mayor responsible for city services, and politicians continued to remember Michael Bilandic, who was thrown out of office for failing to remove the heavy snows of 1979.

Enter Rich Daley. Without a patronage army to deliver votes and services, he devised a governing strategy that essentially reversed his father’s formulation. Good government, he recognized, is now good politics. Since his first day in office, Daley has talked incessantly of the need to “cut bureaucracy and red tape.” The members of city hall’s jaded press corps tend to treat such talk as mostly rhetoric meant to impress editorial boards and Lakefront voters, a smoke screen hiding some deeper self-serving political agenda. What they don’t quite understand is that bureaucratic reform is the self-serving political agenda.

Take the Chicago Department of Buildings, responsible for everything from issuing building permits to inspecting elevators. A perennial source of scandals involving kickbacks to building inspectors, the department has been turned around by Daley’s handpicked building commissioner, Daniel Weil, a former federal prosecutor and a registered Republican with no ties to the building trade unions that have long dominated the agency. Weil streamlined the department’s Byzantine permitting process and sliced away at overly strict building codes that maintain trade union jobs but inflate city construction costs. He also pushed through changes in state law allowing nonprofit groups to take over and rehabilitate empty buildings and forcing delinquent landowners to pay the costs when city crews demolish their empty, dilapidated buildings.

Weil’s latest innovation is a technologically advanced reporting system to make sure that inspectors are actually visiting buildings and not filling out forms while sitting on bar stools. Instead of clipboards, inspectors will carry hand-held computers with attached light wands that they sweep across bar-coded labels affixed to all the buildings on their routes. They then transmit the data directly into the department’s mainframe computer via telephone, eliminating the need for time-consuming trips back to the home office and scores of data-entry people to transcribe material from paper. While Weil admits the system isn’t foolproof, he says “it takes the fun out of cheating.”

Another transformed bureaucracy is the Department of Revenue. Once better at generating headlines and indictments than funds from licenses and parking tickets, the department has “cleaned up its act wonderfully well,” says Toni Hartrich of the Civic Federation, an independent good-government group. Under former revenue director Paul Vallas, whom Daley recently promoted to budget director, the department boosted parking ticket payment rates from 20 to 60 percent through heavy use of the dreaded “Denver boot” that immobilizes cars and a computer system that revokes the licenses of parking scofflaws. Vallas also managed to replace 10 percent of the department’s staff and 60 percent of its managers without running afoul of union job protections. His secret: internal audits. “You find discrepancies on the books and start asking people where the money went,” he explains. “Pretty soon they see the light and start leaving voluntarily.”

Part of what drives Daley’s reform agenda is his almost manic preoccupation with creating jobs and his awareness that nothing smothers economic growth like unresponsive government bureaucracies. Back in the days of the machine, a phone call from a powerful ward committeeman was all a merchants’ group needed to get, say, brighter streetlights for a retail strip (provided, of course, that those merchants hung the alderman’s poster in their shop windows at election time). But as the machine began to die, rules and regulations that came with federal funds began to shift decision-making power from politicians to engineers and technocrats in various overlapping city departments. By the time Rich Daley became mayor, the city’s most powerful but dim-witted aldermen were being flummoxed by the bureaucracy and couldn’t deliver the bacon to their wards, while only a handful of bright but politically unimportant aldermen had “the brains and stick-to-itiveness to work the bureaucratic channels,” explains Jackie Leavy of the nonprofit Neighborhood Capital Budget Group.

A couple of years ago, stung by criticisms that he was focusing on large downtown development projects to the exclusion of neighborhood job development, Daley decided to take on the infrastructure planning and budgeting process. He reformed the system by vesting some powers in a citizens’ advisory committee. Today, community and small-business groups can actually influence, if not dictate, how and where capital dollars are spent. Moreover, groups can point to an easy-to-read five-year budget plan to show prospective business investors all the new curbs and water mains planned for their neighborhoods.

Having grown up in his father’s house, Daley came to city hall with the expectation that a mayor should have near-total control of his own agencies. “You get elected mayor to make decisions, and then you find out the bureaucracy is against you,” the mayor fumes. “Their attitude is: ’we’re going to be here when you leave.’” This Perot-like frustration with today’s government makes Daley a natural fan of corporate CEOs, whom he rightly sees as having a freer hand to manage their organizations. Business leaders return the favor with substantial campaign contributions.

His pro-business, antibureaucratic frame of mind has led Daley to embrace privatization as a way of improving the delivery of government services. Contractors now perform such functions as trimming trees, removing stumps, fixing traffic lights, and polishing the marble floors of City Hall itself. “We’ve privatized more than the State of Illinois, and we’re the Democrats,” Daley chuckles. A few years ago, abandoned cars were piling up on Chicago streets faster than the Department of Streets and Sanitation could haul them away. The net cost of towing was $30 per car, even counting the money the city got for the scrap. Today, abandoned cars are a rare sight thanks to a contract with a private firm whose tow trucks roam the streets looking for the rusting hulks, paying the city a $25 fee for each car they collect.

It’s easy to make too much of Daley’s reforms. Many smaller agencies have been shaped up, but the larger ones, such as the Police Department, remain largely unreconstructed, thanks mostly to Chicago’s Lakefront skyline potent union resistance. There are weaknesses, too, in Daley’s management style. Too often, bad news doesn’t travel up to his fifth-floor City Hall office—a consequence, say insiders, of the fear Daley’s temper inspires. Motivating city agencies and employees requires not just threats but strokes. Unfortunately, notes Chicago Sun-Times columnist Mark Hornung, “the mayor is more adept with the stick than the feather.” This could hurt Daley down the line. “A lot of the guys who work for me hate the mayor,” confides a ward superintendent with the Department of Streets and Sanitation.

And while some of Daley’s privatization efforts have saved the city money, others have been embarrassingly costly. A contract for a computerized 911 system, for instance, hit major cost overruns, a fate that also seems likely for the mayor’s controversial private-sector trash recycling program. And a private contractor who sank a piling through the floor of the Chicago River last year, puncturing a vast underground tunnel system and causing a massive flood that knocked out most of downtown Chicago.

Daley’s privatization efforts have won him effusive praise from the conservative editorial page of the Wall Street Journal, which describes him as part of the new vanguard of mayors who are “[bringing] back businesses and middle-class taxpayers” to their cities instead of “[blaming] their urban ills on cutbacks in federal aid.” But in truth, Rich Daley is no ideologue, and when it comes to federal aid for cities, he is a prominent and unapologetic booster. The mayor lobbied strenuously for the Clinton administration’s economic stimulus package, and, to help matters along, he larded Washington with former subordinates, including his former campaign manager, David Wilhelm, who now heads the Democratic National Committee. When the stimulus package died, Daley publicly lashed out at the president for “backing off” from his campaign promises. The mayor had been counting on the extra money to plug a budget hole.

Daley’s strategy for dealing with the Federal Government has its roots in the historical structure of Chicago government. Chicago earned its “city that works” image largely because its mayors did two things well. First, they provided reliable and relatively cost-effective basic services like fire protection and trash pickup-services that directly benefited working- and middle-class voters. Second, mayors promoted jobs and economic growth with big-ticket brick-and-mortar projects like highways, universities, and airports. The latter obviously meant securing vast amounts of federal and state aid, a talent Richard J. Daley famously possessed. Less well known, however, was the elder Daley’s knack for avoiding direct responsibility for programs that mainly benefited the poor.

The contrast here with New York City is striking. As Ester Fuchs points out in Mayors and Money, over the last sixty years New York City government has taken on responsibility for a vast array of redistributive services, from public hospitals to welfare. Chicago mayors, by contrast, foisted responsibility for these programs on higher levels of government, while using the clout of the machine to retain political control of these services. In 1958, for instance, Mayor Daley merged Chicago’s public welfare department with that of Cook County, thereby forcing affluent suburbanites to contribute to costly programs like AFDC. He further spread the burden in 1974 by getting the state to take over the county’s welfare responsibilities. In 1970 he palmed Chicago’s jail and court system off on the county, too.

Chicago mayors were also smarter than their New York counterparts about creating and using special government districts. Chicago runs its profitable airports, for instance, but leaves responsibility for its money-losing elevated trains and bus lines to the Chicago Transit Authority, a fiscally distinct entity that is partially subsidized by state bonds and a countywide sales tax. In New York, by contrast, the Port Authority rakes in the money from Kennedy and La Guardia airports, while the city provides generous subsidies for the subways.

Given these great structural differences, the mayors of these two cities can both lobby for more federal aid and yet be asking for quite different things. When David Dinkins calls for more urban “investment,” he is talking about expanding the welfare state. When Rich Daley does so, he can more credibly claim that the investment will fund basic services and economic development projects which, over the long run, should help the city retain both jobs and taxpayers, lessening the need for more subsidies later. In addition, the more Daley succeeds at reforming his own agencies, the less affluent suburbanites can oppose urban aid on the grounds that their tax dollars will be thrown down a “rat hole.”

That, anyway, is the theory. In practice Daley has been hardly better than Dinkins at wresting extra dollars for his city. During his first two years, when the State Legislature was dominated by Democrats and the governor was liberal Republican James Thompson, Daley won state and federal funds for, among other projects, a new light rail system and an expanded convention center. But since deficit-cutting fever hit Washington and control of the State Senate shifted to unsympathetic suburban Republicans, Daley has suffered one defeat after another, most prominently of his plans for a land-based casino complex downtown and a third airport on the city’s Southeast Side.

But things may be shifting Daley’s way. Instead of land-based casinos, it looks like Chicago will get gambling riverboats, the revenues from which could help close the school budget gap. His Washington connections might also help him in his campaign against unfunded federal mandates. And slowly, steadily, he is making cost-saving improvements in city government.

As his car heads back toward City Hall, Daley brings up a vexing problem: the trees he wants to plant in the Loop will block the light from lamps that tower over the sidewalk. His solution is to put in shorter lamps made to look like old-fashioned cast-iron gaslights. “They’re cheaper too, ’cause you don’t need a hook and ladder to change the bulbs,” says the mayor triumphantly. Such matters may seem trivial. But more than anything else, this sort of attention to detail is what America’s cities desperately need.

 

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