PUBLIC OFFICIALS of the YEAR

Richard M. Daley 1997 HONOREE

Mayor, Chicago, Illinois

It has been the fate of the Daleys, father and son, to be underestimated.

Richard J. Daley became mayor of Chicago in 1955 bearing a label as an uninspiring party hack interested in little more than politics and patronage. But during 21 years in office, he demonstrated governmental expertise and managerial skill that won him eventual recognition--even from some critics--as perhaps the most capable American mayor of his time.

Richard M. DaleySo it has been, more or less, with Richard M. Daley, who was dismissed by many upon election in 1989 as an inarticulate lightweight trading on the family name, with little of his father's knowledge or innate shrewdness.

They were right about one thing: The second Mayor Daley is no more of an orator than the first one was. But like his father, he has been patient and skillful in mastering the details of local government, and remarkably creative in devising pragmatic solutions to the most complex problems. When the mayors of the 1990s look around for innovative approaches to urban management, more often than not they discover that Daley was the one who tried them first.

The most conspicuous symbol of that innovative spirit is his 1995 decision to assume personal control of the failing Chicago school system. Few considered it a wise move. Decades of poor classroom performance and administrative chaos left even Daley's Democratic allies convinced that the cause was hopeless. But the mayor installed two of his closest aides as the system's CEO and board chairman, and by the end of the first year, order and discipline were noticeably better; by the end of the second year, test scores had begun to improve. This fall, Daley sent a powerful signal when the school board dismissed dozens of high-school faculty members, including some senior teachers, in schools where no progress had been made.

Daley has been equally innovative when it comes to delivering basic city services. In an effort to gain control over Chicago's bloated payroll costs, he has used private contractors to provide everything from fleet maintenance to drug treatment. It's not that Daley is an ideologue on privatization--it's just part of his obsession with keeping the city's finances in order and the tax rate manageable. And these efforts, in turn, are part of his master plan to keep the middle class from fleeing.

In some cases, making Chicago safe for the middle class has meant challenging entrenched political institutions. The Chicago parks, when Daley took office, were run by an overstuffed patronage bureaucracy. Daley installed another trusted aide as parks superintendent and broke up the gravy train in a series of reforms that decentralized the system and has sought to rebuild it on a customer service basis.

The current conventional wisdom about Daley is that he is more interested in management than in politics, but the truth is, he hasn't been bad at politics, either. He has been able to achieve stable working control of the fractious 50-member city council that spent much of the 1980s in a state of racial and ethnic warfare. Daley's annual budgets, including some that threatened traditional political patronage, have won approval with remarkably little dissent.

Daley has had his conspicuous failures--in winning support for a downtown casino/entertainment complex, in attracting a new airport--and he continues to draw his share of criticism, especially in the city's black community, to which he has never been close. But even when he stumbles, he nearly always manages to leave most Chicagoans with one overriding impression: that he has taken on the toughest tasks--even sought them out--and handled them with as much competence and success as any big city in the 1990s has a right to expect.

— Alan Ehrenhalt
Photo by Larry Evans/Black Star