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THE NATION | DISPATCH FROM CHICAGO

Clouds Darken Windy City Mayor's Outlook

Will five-termer Daley be able to weather the political scandals and preserve his legacy?

June 10, 2005|P.J. Huffstutter | Times Staff Writer

CHICAGO — Mayor Richard M. Daley, who will host the U.S. Conference of Mayors meeting here today, is arguably one of the most powerful local leaders in the country.

But at a time when Chicago residents can seem to talk of nothing but his and the city's monumental failures, Daley is struggling to secure his legacy.

On a recent muggy evening, standing before a group of young artists, the man who was groomed from childhood to be mayor articulated his hope: "We are trying to build a good life and a good city for our young people."

As the 63-year-old politician spoke to the artists who had gathered in the lobby of the Millennium Park garage to unveil their murals, Daley was surrounded by reminders of things gone wrong.

The park, which architects and civic leaders hail as one of Daley's crowning achievements, was finished almost four years late and about $325 million over its original $150-million budget. Just south of where the mayor was standing was the multimillion-dollar bean-shaped sculpture "Cloud Gate."

The work, whose price tag was nearly double the original budget, remains partially under wraps for repairs.

A few blocks away, federal officials were interviewing city staffers as part of an ongoing investigation into Chicago's estimated $40-million-a-year Hired Truck program and citywide contract cronyism. The investigation has led to 27 criminal charges and 11 guilty pleas so far.

And the gaggle of reporters around Daley at the park was peppering him with questions about the most recent trouble: Two employees at the city's Department of Water Management were arrested Wednesday and charged with running Chicago distribution for a Colombian heroin trafficking ring.

"There has always been corruption and controversy here, but this is bad -- even for Chicago," said Paul Green, director of policy studies at Roosevelt University in Chicago. "This is a continuation of the beat-beat-beat of the scandal that drip-drip-drips on the mayor. The question is, when is the public going to feel that enough is enough?"

Daley grew up in a family whose name is synonymous with Chicago.

His father, Richard J. Daley -- who some here refer to as "Richard the First" -- was a controversial backroom dealer: Foes saw him as manipulating a corrupt political system, but allies said he was responsible for helping Chicago's business community and culture to blossom.

In April, a two-day downtown festival celebrated the 50th anniversary of the elder Daley's swearing-in. Family and friends joined political allies, journalists and historians to talk of his accomplishments, and most chose not to bring up the cronyism and racial troubles under the first Mayor Daley. Few mentioned the infamous antiwar demonstrations outside the 1968 Democratic National Convention.

"This is a city that, going back to its origins, is rooted in corruption," said local political consultant Don Rose. "In the early days, aldermen controlled the land in their wards. When you needed to lay gas or water pipes, you had to pay off the various aldermen. Corruption flourished under Daley's father's tenure, and that was the city the son inherited."

After earning his undergraduate and law degrees from DePaul University, Richard M. Daley entered politics, winning election to the Illinois Constitutional Convention in 1969. Daley also served in the state Senate and was elected Cook County state's attorney three times.

First elected mayor in 1989, Daley cast himself as a strict manager with little tolerance for rhetoric. Over the last 16 years, he has become known as much for his temper as for his voter support.

For his fifth term in 2003, Daley pulled in 79% of the vote.

In the last two years, Daley has been able to point to signs of success: Chicago's murder rate has dropped and high school graduation rates have risen.

And as federal and state funds have dwindled, Daley has tapped corporate contacts to help fund ventures such as Millennium Park, a 24 1/2 -acre open space and performance center near Lake Michigan. There, locals and tourists flock to the spacious lawns and ornate gardens, gaze at the towering modern sculptures and hear free concerts at the outdoor music pavilion designed by Frank Gehry.

"But the key to Daley's success is him. A majority of Chicagoans identify with him personally. They want him to succeed," Roosevelt University's Green said. "The personal side of his lifestyle is still admired. He's a family man," a father of three. "His son has enlisted in the Army and is off at boot camp.

"He goes to church every Sunday. And that still counts in this city.

"As long as these scandals don't directly touch him, he'll still be standing," Green said.

The highest-profile current scandal, involving a city trucking program that outsourced contracts to private companies that did little or no work, has resulted in convictions of former city workers.

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