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Mayor Daley’s Evolution Turned Foes Into Fans: Albert R. Hunt

The coalition of Richard-M.-Daley-is-the-greatest-mayor-ever includes Rick Garcia, Marca Bristo and Abner Mikva. That may not seem like such a big deal as they’re all Chicagoans, where Daley has been mayor for 21 years.

Last week he announced he won’t seek re-election next year after serving longer than his legendary father, Richard J. Daley, who ran the most powerful political machine in the U.S. What’s interesting about the accolades heaped on the current 68-year-old Mayor Daley by these three is the history.

In the early 1990s, Garcia, an official at Equality Illinois, a leading gay and lesbian rights organization, was arrested for protesting in the mayor’s office; later, angry about the city’s policies on gays and lesbians, he shouted down the mayor at a luncheon.

Today, he says: “Mayor Daley is the very best on gay and lesbian issues in the entire country. We have unbelievable access and he has been supportive of anything we’ve asked.”

Garcia and others say Daley changed as he learned more about issues ranging from AIDS funding to discrimination. “He told me once, ‘We will not allow homophobes to run the city of Chicago,’” Garcia says.

Marca Bristo, who runs Access Living, the leading organization in Chicago for people with disabilities, is equally effusive: “I don’t know of any other mayor who has made disabilities such a personal cause.” In transportation, employment, voting machines and his aggressive cabinet-level department, the Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities, Daley has been a constant champion for this community, she says.

‘One of the Best Mayors’

Abner Mikva is a longtime leading Illinois Democrat who calls Daley “one of the best mayors in the history of America.”

This is the same Ab Mikva who was a leader of political change more than a half-century ago. Mikva, who rose to prominence in Congress, as a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals, as President Bill Clinton’s White House counsel and as a mentor to Barack Obama, clashed repeatedly with the first Mayor Daley. It was so ferocious that Daley redistricted him out of his Chicago congressional seat. “Rich,” he says of today’s mayor, “has avoided the pitfalls of the old man.”

This isn’t his father’s coalition. The old Daley machine included labor, business, white ethnic ward leaders and black machine politicians. This Mayor Daley has some of those, including business, while adding more elements important to governing.

Racial Divide

His laudable accomplishments start with race. When he first elected in 1989, Chicago was bitterly polarized racially; aldermen packed heat at city council meetings, dubbed “council wars.” Mayor Daley today has considerable support from the black and Hispanic communities.

In 1995, he was one of the first big city mayors to take over the schools, among the worst in the U.S. He introduced tougher standards and accountability, and while there’s a long way to go, the system has improved. “The city can’t work and keep a middle class without decent schools,” is an article of faith for the mayor. Two of the foremost leaders in the education-reform movement, Paul Vallas, now the head of the New Orleans school system, and U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, were Daley appointees.

Daley created the 25-acre glittering Millennium Park that, with its fountains, art and gardens, is one of the spectacular urban public spaces. He wins praise from environmentalists and the arts community. Downtown Chicago is alive, neighborhoods have been improved, and he tore down some of the dreadful, crime-ravaged high-rise public-housing units.

Global Leader

He became a global urban leader. The annual Richard J. Daley Global Cities Forum at the University of Illinois at Chicago attracts mayors, city planners and academics from around the world.

I first met Rich Daley, in passing, at a Democratic ward dinner in 1976, when he was a state senator. He seemed like a hack.

Watching him evolve as mayor disabused me of that notion. He gave new meaning to hands-on. I once ran a small foundation that was helping inner-city schools start newspapers, and I asked his brother, then-Commerce Secretary Bill Daley, for a low-level contact at the Chicago school system to help find possible candidates. Early the next morning, my office phone rang. “I’ve got just the school for you; it’s struggling and this could help,” Mayor Daley said. Shortly afterward, there was a school newspaper there.

Tradition of Corruption

To be sure, after more than two decades, there are glaring blemishes. While personally honest, the mayor has tolerated too much corruption, a Chicago tradition. He can be as capricious as his father; when there was opposition to his plan to transform the dilapidated Meigs airfield, in downtown Chicago, he unilaterally sent in bulldozers at midnight. His privatization of parking meters has been a disaster.

And like many other state and local government, Chicago is in a fiscal pickle. The city faces a deficit of as much as $655 million on its $3.4 billion budget for fiscal 2011, and unfunded pension liabilities, by some estimates, exceed $14 billion.

The Daley contributions and imprimatur on this great city are much more enduring. Whatever its problems, Chicago is a vibrant city, with an involved business community and most elements of society, from blacks to Hispanics to gays to those with disabilities, with a greater voice and a greater stake.

His charming wife, Maggie, who courageously has battled cancer for eight years, has been an important partner and, insiders say, has softened her husband.

“Daley has been such an inclusive mayor,” Mikva says. “He’s loved the job, and while his methods weren’t always as smooth as silk, his accomplishments are.”

(Albert R. Hunt is the executive editor for Washington at Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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