Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Richard Daley to Pass up on Re-Election

After 21 years as mayor of the country's third-largest city, Richard M. Daley announced today that he would not seek another re-election. Saying that he loved his time leading the city, he said "I've always believed that every person, especially public officials, must understand when it's time to move on."

What people outside of Chicago rarely appreciate is that, unlike the mayors of New York City, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, for example, Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley never wanted to hold any other higher political office. He didn't want to sit in the U.S. Senate. He had no interest in being governor of Illinois. Not even president.

To Daley, being mayor of Chicago is being king of the world. The City of Big Shoulders is the center of his universe (as it is for most Chicagoans), so why would he want to leave it?

As Daley himself noted, in the coming days, lots of people will be dissecting his time in office. There's a lot of bad to talk about. Stubbornly high crime rates. Persistent corruption in public works. I can't defend that; though I lived in Chicago for most of the 1990s (and am now in San Francisco), I'm a Wisconsinite at heart and by political bearing. Clean government is very important to me.

But I think people should also note the good. When Daley took office back in 1989, he was derided for saying he was going to put up more wrought-iron fences and plant more trees. People questioned whether he had a big-enough vision for the city. Past mayors built giant public housing complexes, paved over vast swathes of classic neighborhoods to make way for expressways, created an urban university. Against that, what did fences and trees do?

He was also derided for not being the most eloquent speaker around. That's putting it nicely; in reality, he made the Bush presidents sound like Shakespeare. One of the meanest – and, frankly, best – things the Chicago Tribune did to Daley in the 1990s was to publish an interview with Richard Daley without cleaning up the quotes, as journalists usually do (taking out the "ums," "ers," and paraphrasing sentences that start and stop uncompleted). It was brutal, but the Tribune had a testy relationship with Daley, and it is to the paper's credit that it continued pursuing its criticism even when he made life hard for it.

Well, the fences helped block off abandoned lots that could therefore no longer be used as drug markets. Trees were only the cornerstone of his commitment to environmentalism. I don't remember the exact number, but I remember reading years ago that Chicago was recognized for the hundreds of thousands of trees that had been planted under Daley's leadership. Daley was also a big proponent of "green roofs" -- using the tops of buildings as gardens, which help reduce heating/cooling costs, provide pleasant respite in the urban jungle, and fight air pollution. City Hall in Chicago even has a green roof.

But bigger transformations did come, and he has left a legacy worthy of a big city behemoth. He took on the city's terrible schools – called the worst in the nation by Secretary of Education William Bennett – and wrested control of them from the state. I don't think anyone would call Chicago's schools today the best in the nation, but they're a lot better than they were, and that's because of Daley.

Another area of transformation is the city's public housing. As part of a national trend away from public housing and toward subsidized, distributed, less-dense low-income housing, Chicago redeveloped its massive inventory of public housing. In the early part of the 21st century, I was a senior editor at Affordable Housing Finance magazine (come on, you used to have a subscription when you were in college, right?) and one of the more interesting articles I did was a visit to Chicago to tour some of the redeveloped sites, talk to the head of Daley's housing department (and other city folks), and meet with developers and residents. Anyone who ever went to a Chicago White Sox home game in the 1990s knows what an ugly site it was to look over the stands, across the highway, and see block after block of one of the nation's largest and tallest (and most dangerous) public housing projects. Those were taken down and replaced with distributed, low-rise, mixed-income housing that revived a long-dormant and depressed neighborhood.

That was only part of a multi-multi-billion dollar affordable housing plan. It was part of a national trend, as I noted above, but Daley does get credit for the execution, because it was his people, his vision, his determination to revive neighborhoods and change the character of huge parts of the city. The cover photo above is from the October 2005 issue of Affordable Housing Finance, for which hizzoner was nice enough to pose for a photo along Chicago's revitalized lakefront. (He later autographed a copy of the cover, which I have sitting in my office.)

While I was at the housing magazine, we had a conference in Chicago and one of our lunch speakers was none other than the mayor. I don't know what the other editors were expecting, but I didn't have high hopes. Having read that Tribune interview with him years earlier, and knowing that politicians usually give a welcome-to-our-city-we're-doing-great-things-spend-your-money-goodbye type of speech, I had no higher hopes. But Daley spoke for about 30 minutes about the reasons for Chicago's re-engineering of its affordable housing stock, and he spoke well and knowledgably. It was clear this was not just another agenda item for his administration; it was clear it was a passion of his.

His speech was at noon, and right after the speech, he flew to Houston to watch his (and my) beloved White Sox win the World Series. I suspect that, if you could really ask him what were the highlights of his time in office, he would mention things like the schools and housing and the revived lakefront park and the election of a native Chicagoan as president. But I think he'd also mention getting to see a Sox World Series.

That's the man who just announced his pending retirement.

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