Farewell To A Benevolent Dictator

This week, for the first time since the ’80s, Chicago has a new mayor. Throughout my lifetime as a Chicagoan, two figures have been a constant… Mayor Richard M. Daley and Oprah Winfrey. And they are both leaving us during the same week.

While my feelings about Oprah leaving lie somewhere between glee and giddiness (more on that later this week), my feelings about Daley are more complicated. When I sat down to write the obligatory farewell column, I couldn’t decide which way to go. I could have written a salutory post about all the development that Daley spearheaded that kept Chicago closer to NYC and LA than Cleveland and Detroit. I could have written a scathing post about how he enriched business at the expense of the neighborhoods. I could have written a funny post about his malapropisms and famously thin skin. I could have written a sad post about the inevitable melancholy you feel when a figure from your youth leaves the stage.

But none of them would have been honest. Because after 22 years, I feel all those things about Daley and more.

Part of me feels relief. Relief that Chicagoans didn’t have to pull the plug, relief that we didn’t have to find out whether we had the courage to, even though we knew that Daley’s moment had passed.

Part of me feels wistful. For almost two-thirds of my life, Daley was the mayor of the city that, for most of that time, I lived near or in. Many news stories have indicated that after they finally got their way, many Egyptian protestors softened on Mubarack. They wanted him out of power, but they didn’t wish him harm (Egypt and Chicago… leaders in father complexes). I certainly don’t mean to equate Daley with Mubarack, but I can understand the feeling. Perhaps Chicagoans are more insular than others, perhaps our innate insecurity makes us cling to our leaders a bit more tightly. But we like to see ourselves (or what we think of ourselves) in our leaders, be it mayor or sports coaches or actors or whatever. And, for better or for worse, Daley was one of us. Whatever his faults, there was no doubt that he loved Chicago, that all he wanted out of life was to be the Mayor of Chicago, that he would never do anything he believed would seriously harm the city. To have a mayor that thinks of his city as his home, and who doesn’t have any designs on higher office, is a rare thing these days.

Part of it is thankfulness. Chicago could easily be Cleveland or Detroit or any of the other fallen Midwestern cities. Instead, Daley leaves us in a class with NYC and LA and the other great American cities. To me, that’s his greatest accomplishment, and it overcomes most of his faults. From Millennium Park to the new stadiums to Lollapalooza to a thousand other initiatives, Daley realized that if Chicago wanted to be an international rather than a provincial city, it had to keep growing, keep developing, keep spending. Did this make lots of money for his friends? Of course. But, honestly, I’m not really sure there’s another way to develop a city. Chicago no longer has most of the natural advantages that spurred its initial growth. Why did it continue to flourish when other inland industrial cities floundered? On the list of answers, Daley is near the top.

Part of it is frustration. There is no doubt that the people who made out best during Daley’s reign were his friends, family and contributors. Deals were continually set up to enrich a favored group over others. This is wrong, and probably the only way to run a city successfully… I don’t pretend to know how to solve this paradox. But once you’re doing this while also not making good decisions, it goes badly quickly. No city in America is not in trouble right now. When there is a bad economy, it’s always gets worse the lower the level of government, because the lack of bucks gets passed down from the Federal to the State to the County to the City. Chicago has severe budget problems, some of which are Daley’s fault and many of which aren’t. But to close short-term budget gaps with long-term private leases like those for the Skyway and the parking meters (he also tried to take Midway private) seems like a most short-sighted move. If the City of Chicago had just extended the hours and raised the rates for parking meters, it would have made just as much money… and we wouldn’t have sold the system for 99 years. It was an act of desperation that signaled it was time to go.

Part of it is defensiveness. Consciously choosing a benevolent dictatorship makes you look like an idiot to outsiders. One of the subtexts of the national stories is “A Daley has been mayor for 44 of 56 years… what kind of backwards Chicago shit is that?” Well, fuck off then. At least we didn’t let our mayor change his term limits as they were about to expire, like Hugo Chavez.

Part of it is embarrassment. Daley was a dictator, there’s no two ways about it. The City Council was little more than a rubber stamp. He was able to act largely however he wanted. As a Chicagoan, I’ll own it, and I think he did more good than bad, but the bad was some backwards-ass shit.

Part of it is uneasiness. Some of my earliest Chicago memories are of Council Wars, when the whites in the City Council did everything they could to destroy Harold Washington, Chicago’s first black mayor. Chicago gained the nickname of Beirut by the Lake, and it was well-earned. It was racial politics at its ugliest, and it stopped Chicago in its tracks. Do I think Rahm Emmanuel will go through the same problems? No. But Chicago no longer has a hand that can take the reins and do what’s necessary. (As a sidenote: Daley’s reign seems inevitable now, but he was the recipient of some good, if morbid, luck. Daley lost his first race for Mayor to Washington, who eventually won the Council Wars and romped to a second term. Just when he got control of the city and settled in for a nice long run, Washington died of a heart attack. And the rest is history.)

Daley was many things to many people, just as most politicians are. But few are many things to each person, which he was to Chicagoans.

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Filed under David Simon Cowell, Politics Has AIDS

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