The late Chicago newspaper columnist Mike Royko correctly predicted what would happen after the city’s first Mayor Daley died of a heart attack in office a few days before Christmas in 1976.
“They’ll be kicking and gouging, grabbing and tripping, elbowing and kneeing to grab all, or a thin sliver of the power he left behind,” he wrote in a column after Richard J. Daley’s death that became the introduction of his book, “Boss.”
A similar scenario began to unfold after Mayor Richard M. Daley this week told the third-largest U.S. city that he wouldn’t seek a seventh term, creating a void that Rahm Emanuel, President Barack Obama’s chief of staff, has said he’d love to fill. Politicians, business leaders and residents expressed hope that this latest Daley departure won’t create political chaos.
Chicago can’t afford it, facing an estimated $654.7 million deficit in its $3.39 billion budget for 2011 and a metropolitan unemployment rate of 10.5 percent in July.
“During these very difficult economic times, the last thing that the 50 aldermen need to do is permit that type of rhetoric to emerge,” said Jerry Roper, president of the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce. “Business leaders are going to rally around someone that can keep this city connected globally, someone who is a leader, someone who is a fiscal conservative.”
Obama told ABC News in an interview broadcast today on the “Good Morning America” program that he does not expect Emanuel to make a decision about a potential bid until after the November elections.
“My expectation is he’d make a decision after these midterm elections,” Obama said. “He knows that we’ve got a lot of work to do. But I think he’d be a terrific mayor.”
A Daley has run Chicago for 42 of the past 55 years. Younger voters have never known a mayor by another name.
The period when a Daley wasn’t at the helm during the past half century was marked by political turmoil and racial tension. Seven years after the elder Daley’s death, the city entered a time residents called the Council Wars. The Wall Street Journal dubbed the city “Beirut on the Lake,” a reference to the political infighting in a city that sits on Lake Michigan.
The 1983 election of Harold Washington, the city’s first black mayor, led to years of political gridlock, pitting most white aldermen against a coalition of black, Hispanic and so-called lakefront liberals.
As Daley, 68, presided yesterday over his first City Council meeting as a lame-duck politician, aldermen considering mayoral bids posed for television cameras in a conference room behind the council chambers.
“An opportunity like this, in Chicago, only comes around once every generation,” said Alderman Joseph Moore, a potential candidate. “So you would have to be foolish not to at least take a look at it and make an assessment about whether you are able to come up with the resources and support necessary to make a credible run.”
Moore said he isn’t concerned about a repeat of the racial politics that emerged during the 1980s.
“I think we’ve gone beyond that,” he said. “Not to say race isn’t a factor, of course it is. But is it the kind of incendiary factor that it was in elections past? No, I don’t think so.”
Dick Simpson, a political science professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said he is skeptical of a candidacy by Emanuel, a former Chicago congressman.
“He doesn’t have automatic clout,” he said. “Not everyone is going to salute and line up to support him.”
Alderman Ed Smith also dismissed suggestions that Emanuel, 50, would be an automatic frontrunner.
“How do you all, first of all, give Rahm the key?” he asked reporters. “There’s all kind of people in Chicago. We have aldermen here who are talking about running, so how can you just say, ‘Rahm is the man?’”
Smith said he’s not concerned about a scenario where multiple black and Hispanic candidates would divide the vote in a city where non-Hispanic whites account for 32 percent of the population.
“I think the black community, if they want a candidate, they have to find a candidate, just like the white community,” he said.
Moore, who estimated it will take $2 million to run a credible campaign, said voters will be more concerned about finding someone to govern in an “open and accountable fashion.”
A frequent critic of Daley, Moore said he expects aldermen will have more open discussions, more compromise and “a lot fewer aldermen who are just going to look to the mayor’s office on the fifth floor to decide how to vote.”
Moore also said the city’s fiscal situation may be “even worse” than the most recent estimates show.
“This budget is probably the toughest budget that this mayor has ever faced and in fact this city has ever faced, at least since the Great Depression,” he said. “There aren’t any more rabbits to pull out of the hat.”
Alderman Toni Preckwinkle said the city could use a boost of democracy following the 21-year tenure of a man who is often described as ruling with an iron fist.
“Council Wars weren’t chaos,” Preckwinkle said. “It was democracy at its best, if you ask me. Democracy is messy and contentious and sloppy.”
Preckwinkle predicted a dozen or more candidates will compete for Daley’s job and that the Feb. 22 election will be followed by an April 5 runoff.
“This is going to go to April and the two strongest, whoever they are, will be in a really brutal battle,” she said.
Daley sought to calm fears during a news conference yesterday, telling reporters he remained active and in charge. He said he was confident he could have won re-election.
“I knew I was not going to lose,” he said. “Don’t say I’m arrogant.”
Since his announcement, Daley said he had spoken with Obama, Emanuel, former Vice President Al Gore, Oprah Winfrey, Illinois Governor Pat Quinn, and David Axelrod, a senior presidential aide and former campaign adviser to Daley.
“They all called and just thanked me for 21 years of public service,” the mayor said. “We did not get into politics.”
Daley said he didn’t plan to endorse anyone in the race and declined to speculate about Emanuel’s possible bid.
“I think there will be a lot of candidates,” he said. “This is the best job in America.”
Robert Gibbs, White House press secretary, said Emanuel’s colleagues in the administration know of his long interest in the mayor’s job.
“I have no doubt that he’ll take some time to think about what he wants to do with his future,” Gibbs told reporters aboard Air Force One as Obama traveled to an Ohio appearance yesterday. “His focus right now is on his job as chief of staff.”