Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley is in trouble.
After a smooth run of 17 years, Daley is suddenly facing an aggressive federal prosecutor and a growing number of potential political challengers.
A total of 30 City of Chicago employees and contractors have been indicted and 21 convicted on charges that range from stealing asphalt to trading city contracts for bribes to selling heroin on the job. Dozens of city employees – including several department heads and the city’s inspector general – have been fired, retired or forced to resign. Some of the city employees have been linked to organized crime.
The federal prosecutor for Northern Illinois, U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald, may be zeroing in on the mayor from other directions as well. Mickey Segal, a longtime player in city politics and business associate of the mayor’s brother, John Daley, was convicted of insurance fraud last year and will likely serve decades in prison.
Fitzgerald is a tenacious prosecutor whose previous assignment was the conviction of the first World Trade Center bombers; his current portfolio includes investigating the alleged leak of CIA agent Valerie Plame’s identity and undercover assignment by White House officials. He is almost certainly trying to get the cooperation of Segal and others to indict those higher up in the City Hall hierarchy.
It is a remarkable turn-around from a seemingly impregnable position. Just a few years ago, Daley was known for his fiscal responsibility and civic pride. He was praised for restoring the downtown and beautifying the city with trees and planters. He took control of the city schools, quelled their querulous labor union, and is boasting of improving test scores among city school children.
For years, Mayor Daley operated unscathed as federal prosecutors picked off corrupt Chicago aldermen one by one, along with a few county officials and state legislators. He even got to appoint many of the aldermen’s replacements; he has named more than one-half of the current City Hall roster. Daley even wields considerable power in the state capital at Springfield, usually hostile territory for Chicago mayors.
Out-of-towners still shower Daley with plaudits. Lauding him for his “imperial power,” Time praised “Richard the Second” in April as one of the nation’s top five mayors. The city’s new downtown Millennium Park has dazzled visitors with its public art and amenities. Like the new metallic sculptures that ring the park, Daley may shine from a distance. But up close, Chicagoans can see that the continuing scandals have scraped away the Mayor’s Teflon coating.
Underneath Daley’s technocratic veneer is a pinstripe patronage version of his father’s political machine. Take Millennium Park itself: Many Chicago taxpayers gasped at the price tag-more than $475 million, including $270 million in public funds-and were shocked by the sweetheart deal given to a politically connected restaurateur. They noted that funds were spent without any public input at a time that rising property taxes were making every property owner groan.
Though the cost of Daley’s appetites may not be apparent to those attending grand lakefront festivals like the Blues Fest and the Taste of Chicago, it is obvious in Chicago’s neglected low-income neighborhoods. In 2000, the Mayor announced his Plan for Transformation, a $1.6 billion plan to tear down the notorious high-rise public housing buildings in Cabrini-Green, Robert Taylor Homes and other developments, and replace them with low-rise, mixed-income housing.
Halfway through the plan, however, dozens of buildings have been demolished but only a small number of replacement units have been built. Most residents have relocated using Housing Choice Vouchers to private apartments in other segregated, impoverished, crime-ridden areas further from the city center. Hundreds of families, if not thousands, have been rendered homeless. The demolitions also eliminated buildings that drug-dealing street gangs effectively used as storefront space, spurring fights for new territory that have driven up the murder rate.
Daley’s failures will not shift the balance of power between Democrats and Republicans. The Chicago GOP has been a fringe party in Windy City politics for decades. One of their more memorable recent candidates, Ray Wardingly, is better known by his stage name, “Spanky the Clown.”
But Daley is likely to face a challenger from the progressive wing of the Democratic Party in the 2007 mayoral race. So far, the most likely opponent is U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D‑Ill.), whose district includes a wide swath of the city’s predominantly African-American South Side. The son of the prominent civil rights leader, the junior Jackson was an early opponent of the invasion of Iraq and among the first to endorse former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean’s presidential bid for the Democratic nomination in 2004.
In a city that has been reticent to criticize Daley, Jackson has spoken out unequivocally about the mayor’s performance. In reference to Daley’s minority set-aside program, Jackson told the City Council to “clean up the stench.” Jackson described the mayor’s recent moves to fire several officials as “too little, too late.”
If Jackson runs, it will be a battle royal between a new generation of two American political dynasties. The current Mayor Daley sat in his father’s booth while Chicago police pummeled protestors outside the Democratic National Convention in 1968. At the next convention in 1972, the senior Jackson, in dashiki and Afro, supplanted the elder Daley amid a major realignment of national politics. Jesse Senior was part of a wider progressive coalition within the Democratic Party that opposed the Vietnam War, demanded civil rights legislation and programs to help the poor.
Should he be elected, current Chicago public housing residents would hope to receive similar attention from Jesse Junior. On his Web site, Jackson makes it plain that “adequate, safe, and affordable housing is a human right.”
The Web site’s housing page continues: “Adequate and fair housing for all of the American people should not be treated like peanuts, soybeans, beer, and cars‑a commodity to be produced, distributed, and sold privately in the marketplace for profit.”