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National Perspective | POLITICS

Slur or No Slur, Chicago's Mayor Daley Still Popular

April 02, 1998|STEPHEN BRAUN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CHICAGO — A lot gets done in this town by political muscle. Favors are redeemed, strings are pulled and, presto: Street people become landed voters. Neighborhoods disappear and highways emerge in their place. Lifelong political vendettas are forgotten.

But Chicagoans this week witnessed a phenomenon that is startling even for a place inured to the excesses of civic life. Something happened--or did not happen--in a City Hall meeting room filled with people, an event so disputed that it left the town's popular mayor, Richard M. Daley, near tears and provoked a running battle with a politically seasoned columnist for the Chicago Tribune.

For three days, Chicagoans have debated whether Daley might have uttered an ethnic slur about a 20-year-old college student with an Italian surname and Irish heritage who was crowned queen of the city's St. Patrick's Day parade.

Columnist John Kass quoted the parade queen, Jennifer Battistoni, as saying she had overheard Daley laughingly refer to her as a "dago" during a photo session last month before a crowded City Hall news conference. Battistoni, Kass wrote, then confronted the mayor, who began sweating and "started giggling, you know, the way people do when they're nervous."

Daley, crimson-faced and shaken, called a news conference to deny the remarks. He was seconded by Battistoni, who insisted she had never heard the mayor using the slur and that Kass, a veteran of Chicago political coverage, had gotten it wrong.

"I know my words sometimes get tangled and I leave you wondering just what it is I was trying to say," said Daley, who inherited his penchant for mangling English into tortured syntax from his father, onetime Mayor Richard J. Daley. "But this was not one of those times." Battistoni, who could not be reached for comment, denied on a radio talk show that she had heard any slur.

Kass has declined to elaborate outside the confines of three columns. But James O'Shea, the Tribune's deputy managing editor for news, noted that the college student's mother worked as a city police officer--and that both were "obviously getting jittery" and were susceptible to pressure from City Hall to change their story.

On Wednesday, Kass wrote that through Daley's nine years as Chicago's mayor, City Hall reporters have "heard him say a lot of crazy things about a lot of people and subjects. So we know he's capable of saying goofy stuff." He added: "I'm not backing down either."

The furor, in fact, harks back to a legendary 1989 controversy, Kass reminded his readers, over a statement Daley made to a gathering of supporters as he prepared for his first mayoral election against Timothy C. Evans, a black politician running as the heir to the late Mayor Harold Washington.

Evans' backers howled that Daley, referring to Washington's fractious tenure, had been overheard saying it was time Chicago had a "white mayor." Daley replied that he had been talking about a "wet mayor"--a reference, he said, to a joke about drinking.

The reported remark had no bearing on the election; Daley breezed to victory. Now, a similar purported quip that could maim the careers of most politicians is again glancing off.

O'Shea marveled at Daley's seeming invulnerability to bad press--a testament to his political clout and his undiminished popularity with Chicagoans. "I don't think it's damaging him," O'Shea said. "Half the people believe him, half don't, and he just goes on."

Several of the city's influential Italian American fraternal organizations rushed to back Daley, not flay him. Louis Rago, a funeral director who heads the Joint Civic Committee of Italian Americans, said: "The mayor didn't say it, and we believe him."

The paper's credibility, Rago added, is not high among Sicilians ever since one of its sportswriters jokingly compared Boston Celtics coach Rick Pitino to former Mafia hit man and federal witness Salvatore "Sammy the Bull" Gravano.

"We're the first people to stand up when someone uses a slur against us," Rago said. "But here you've got a room full of people and the only guy who says he heard something bad is a guy who wasn't there. If the mayor didn't say it and the girl says he didn't, why should we believe otherwise?"

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