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Chicago's Hands-On Mayor

from the magazine

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

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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