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The Cleanup Man

Bill Daley's challenge is to change the Commerce Department's image of being in the shady contribution business. And the son of Chicago's former mayor may have just the political savvy to do it.

March 10, 1997|ART PINE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — When Richard J. Daley was sworn in as mayor of Chicago in April 1955, the next day's newspaper carried a hastily posed portrait of the new mayor and his family. His youngest son, Billy, then 7, was standing off to the side, almost out of sight.

That would be the Bill Daley persona for years to come: a behind-the-scenes man, helping politicians of all stripes, but never holding office himself.

Now 48, after a low-profile career as a back-room strategist, corporate lobbyist, high-priced lawyer and Democratic party fund-raiser, a matured William M. Daley is finally stepping into the limelight on his own as President Clinton's new secretary of Commerce.

By Daley's admission, the move is partly the result of what might be described as a political midlife crisis: After years of serving in the background, "I was ready to do it," he says with a grin. But, as he is discovering, it will not be easy.

The Commerce Department is a bureaucratic behemoth with 31,000 workers, but Daley's biggest challenge will be to erase the widespread perception that the department has been turned into a giant influence-peddling machine, taking in hefty campaign contributions from business and spewing out political favors and access in return.

During Clinton's first term, Commerce Secretary Ronald H. Brown--who was killed in a plane crash in August--larded the agency with political appointees who allegedly used it as a base for conducting fund-raising operations for the Democratic National Committee.

There are suggestions that some senior department officials may have misused official trade missions--ostensibly set up to hawk U.S. exports abroad--by loading them with company executives who donated to the DNC. Commerce was home to money man John Huang, who is under investigation in the current scandal over funneling possibly illegal campaign contributions to the DNC.

So how can the public expect a guy like Bill Daley--a lifelong political insider and campaign fund-raiser, the son of one of America's best-known machine politicians and the brother of Chicago's present mayor--to deal forcefully with such a political mess?

Daley's supporters insist that despite what seems like a ton of political baggage, the new secretary has the determination--and the integrity--to pull the job off.

"I think Bill's going to surprise everyone," says Joseph Cari, a Chicago attorney and Democratic fund-raiser who has worked with Daley on several campaigns. "He understands the sensitivity of the issues. He's going to do whatever it takes."

Well-liked, even by his political adversaries, Daley also has a reputation for being almost devoid of pretension. "There's absolutely no sense of put-on or phoniness," says a longtime acquaintance. "With Bill, what you see is what you get."

Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.), the Senate's chief proponent of campaign reform laws, has delved extensively into Daley's background and says the new secretary seems determined to set things right.

"I happen to think he's sincere," McCain asserts.

McCain is not alone. Talk to anyone who has watched Daley in action and the picture that emerges is one of a soft-spoken, even-tempered, disarmingly genuine sort of man who has a keen sense of what the public wants.

"Bill has the best nose in politics--he can smell a stench from 100 paces," says David Axelrod, a Chicago media consultant who has worked with Daley on several campaigns. "I would really be shocked if anything happened on his watch that created appearances of impropriety."

Friends say Daley also can be tough when he needs to, quietly but efficiently getting rid of whoever or whatever poses a problem likely to prove serious in any organization he is running.

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The youngest in a brood of seven children, Daley grew up as the "baby" in a strict, old-fashioned Irish-Catholic household that put a premium on privacy and family loyalty.

Being one of the mayor's kids did not garner any of the Daley youngsters special treatment, Daley insists, but it did impose some constraints. "You had to be more careful than most of your friends," he recalls. "We were always being reminded by Dad to watch yourself, not get in trouble."

Over the years, the family's alliances served as a career-booster--and a learning laboratory. Daley honed his skills in dealing with people by watching longtime family friends such as former Rep. Dan Rostenkowski (D-Ill.) at dinners and picnics.

Although Rostenkowski ended up in jail after being convicted of misusing $636,000 in expense money, Daley is openly loyal--and unapologetic about their friendship. Much of what "Rosty" did had been legal "not long before," he points out.

Daley has had his own brush with scandal. A former Illinois insurance official was charged with having altered the answers on a state licensing test so that Daley would pass. But the man was acquitted, and Daley denies having had any part in it.

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