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Hall of Fame: The Case for Richard J. Daley

Late Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley (right) was a major player in Illinois and nationally for three decades. AP Photo/Chicago Sun-Times

No group of politicians are closer -- literally and figuratively -- to the people who elect them than mayors. That proximity can breed admiration, devotion and contempt (and sometimes all three) depending on how able a politician the man or woman in the mayor's office happens to be.

Our three mayoral nominees for the Fix Political Hall of Fame -- former New York City Mayors Fiorella LaGuardia and Rudy Giuliani as well as former Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley -- brought out very strong feelings among those they governed. All three of the trio were admired and, in some circles, loved. But, they also had their fair share of detractors.

Over the next few weeks, we will make the case for and against each man's inclusion in the Fix Political Hall of Fame.

Today we make the case for Daley -- a man who epitomized the city he represented. "He was raucous, sentimental, hot-tempered, practical, simple, devious, big and powerful," wrote journalist Mike Royko who penned the definitive biography of Daley. "This is, after all, Chicago."

The Boss

Most politicos trace Daley's stranglehold on Chicago politics to 1955, the year he was elected mayor of the Windy City. But, the seeds for what became more than two decades of unquestioned (and unchecked) power actually were planted two years earlier when Daley was chosen as the head of the Cook County Democratic Party.

From those twin perches, Daley dominated Chicago -- and Illinois -- politics in a way that few before him and none after him have been able to replicate. He enjoyed almost total fealty from the city council; it was long accepted that as many as 50 aldermen on the council were loyal to Daley.

The machine that Daley oversaw -- he perfected the art of using precinct captains to learn exactly how many votes he could get out of each block of the city -- was without parallel in its ability to support and elect the candidates that the Mayor wanted to see in office.

Daley's reach extended far beyond Chicago, however, as one of his earliest political triumphs was the election of Adlai Stevenson as governor in 1948 -- and his subsequent runs for president in 1952 and 1956 (more on that later).

"In any case study of America's great political machines, it is commonly accepted that the Cook County Democratic organization is the largest, richest and the last in the nation still at full thrust," wrote Seth King in the New York Times of the Daley machine.

To stand astride a city's politics for even a single four year term is quite an accomplishment. Daley did it for two decades.

Molding Modern Chicago

Daley loved the city he represented and worked maniacally to turn it into a major metropolis. A look around modern Chicago is a testament to Daley's work: O'Hare International Airport, the Sears Tower, McCormick Place and the Dan Ryan Expressway were all built at his behest.

(A side note: Daley, as has been pointed out by his biographers, never did things small. O'Hare is among the world's busiest airports, McCormick Place the largest convention center in the world, the Sears Tower one of the highest structures and the Ryan Expressway one of the world's widest. This was not a man with small ambitions.)

Daley's vision for his city -- and his dogged determination to make it so -- helped Chicago make the awkward transition from its manufacturing roots to a more-modern economy even as other major cities in the upper Midwest faltered. That Chicago is one of the major metropolitan cities in the country today is due in no small part to Daley's relentless advocacy for it during his 21 years in office.

A National Player

Daley was decidedly local in his approach to his own politics but he had ambition and reach well beyond the confines of Chicago.

During Daley's time in office, he could claim credit for directly helping to elect four Democratic presidential nominees and a president.

As we noted above, Adlai Stevenson's first campaign for governor was helped immeasurably by the Cook County machine in which Daley was becoming an increasingly major player. By the time Stevenson ran for the Democratic presidential nod in 1952 and 1956, he had Daley working publicly and privately to help ensure victory. It worked -- twice -- although Stevenson fell short both times in the general election.

Four years later, Daley helped ensure that John F. Kennedy did not repeat Stevenson's mistakes. After delivering the lion's share of the Illinois delegation's votes to Kennedy -- over challenger Lyndon Johnson -- during the Democratic National Convention, Daley pulled off perhaps his greatest electoral feat in the general election. Kennedy took a 465,000-vote margin over Richard Nixon out of Cook County thanks to Daley -- a huge edge that helped him carry the state by a narrow 8,800 vote margin and win its 27 electoral votes.

In 1968, Daley was expected to affirm his status as the pre-eminent power broker in the party when the Democratic National Convention came to Chicago. Protests -- and Daley's ham-handed handling of them -- robbed him of that victory lap although Minnesota Sen. Hubert Humphrey, Daley's preferred candidate, did wind up as the party's nominee.

Few -- if any -- mayors can claim that sort of influence over the identity of their party's presidential nominees over a 16-year period.

Tomorrow: The Case Against Daley

By Chris Cillizza  |  September 23, 2009; 10:41 AM ET
Categories:  Hall of Fame  
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I am intrigued by the concept of Hall of
Fame. But I think you have to get your
low bar criterion in order here. Let's call it the Pete Rose limbo bar (to continue the never-ending baseball metaphor
operative here).
What is the Pete Rose standard? Can you get into the Hall of Fame if you were convicted? what about indicted? before a grand jury?

Posted by: canaldoc | September 25, 2009 11:02 AM | Report abuse

"For larger-than-life with an impact that lasted well beyond his terms in office, you need to consider Frank Rizzo. Good and bad, he truly bestrode the city like a Colossus. Posted by: david6 "

All politics is local, and so was Rizzo. Daley was only Mayor of the Second City, but he bestrode Politics like a colossus.

Rizzo is to Daley as Philly is to Chicago. Just Jealous.

Posted by: ceflynline | September 24, 2009 8:49 PM | Report abuse

"And, ceflynline, '77 was also memorable for the run made by the South Side Hit Men White Sox team. Daley, as a true Sox fan, would prefer that tied to his memory rather than a Cubs season. Posted by: johnrCMH"

Ah but! The Sox have been an off and on contender over the years. But when you are riding down Clark St, inbound, at addison, and the PA announces the sell out of Wrigley for the first time in unco years, and then hear that THE COBS ARE NOW IN FIRST PLACE!, that is the relative climax to a wonderful summer, just as it starts. Later I did go to Comiskey to watch Wilbur Wood in shorts beat Oakland, Vida Blue starting, on a military ticket with its automatic upgrade to six rows back of the Home dugout, (Chicago being THE best military town in the country), but on THAT day the long suffering bleacher bums REALLY had something to yell about.

Posted by: ceflynline | September 24, 2009 8:46 PM | Report abuse

Rudy should not even be on the list - the perspective of time will relegate Rudy to second-tier status.

My (very parochial) nomination is Tommy D'Alesandro Jr, father of Speaker Pelosi and Mayor Tommy III. Jr.'s twelve years as Mayor profoundly shaped modern Baltimore including ending fifty years w/out a major league baseball team. This Time Magazine piece from 1954 tells some of that story -,9171,860626,00.html

Also maybe consider William Donald Schaefer, who single-handedly remade the City after the decay of the 1970s.

Posted by: MicahWatson | September 24, 2009 1:57 PM | Report abuse

For larger-than-life with an impact that lasted well beyond his terms in office, you need to consider Frank Rizzo. Good and bad, he truly bestrode the city like a Colossus.

Posted by: david6 | September 24, 2009 11:48 AM | Report abuse

Considering his accomplishments in office that still influence his city today (heck, his son is the current mayor), Daley wins this hands down. Only a die hard New Yorker could object.
Guiliani didn't even have enough influence to remove the NY mayoral term limit as "America's Mayor". As far as his presidential run went, the surprise is that he wasn't sued by his contributors, the poor saps, for blowing $70 million on a single delegate. LaGuardia is more significant than Rudy but I'd argue Robert Moses was more influential on NYC than any mayor of the last 50 years, and more than LaGuardia. Combining LaGuardia and Moses gets you close to Daley.
And, ceflynline, '77 was also memorable for the run made by the South Side Hit Men White Sox team. Daley, as a true Sox fan, would prefer that tied to his memory rather than a Cubs season.

Posted by: johnrCMH | September 23, 2009 10:01 PM | Report abuse

Ah, finally! Back to the Hall of Fame!

Nice write-up on Daley. He was, in terms of influence and longevity, a historic figure who wielded power well beyond the confince of his city's boundaries.

However, I look forward to seeing the case against. I was living in the Chicago area a few years after Daley's death when Jane Byrne (and later Harold Washington) was mayor. Machine politics still ruled the roost, but without the elder Daley to oil the gears (his son wasn't a political force yet) the Machine wasn't the same smooth beast that provided "idiot cards" to state legislators to tell them how to vote.

(Harold Washington, to his credit, largely ignored those instructions and had a somewhat contentious relationship with both Daleys and the Chicago Democratic machine as a result, but that's a different story.)

In retrospect, instead of having two New York mayor, maybe we could have found a Boston mayor to replace Giuliani? James Curley comes to mind: elected on four separate ocassions and incarcerated for five months during his fourth term. Now *that's* a politician. :)

(Yes, I'm a political history junkie. But I'm going to meetings to learn to deal with it.) ;)

Posted by: Gallenod | September 23, 2009 4:04 PM | Report abuse

David Lawrence, Pittsburgh.

No Mayor ever did so much for his city, so well.

Posted by: mark_in_austin | September 23, 2009 3:16 PM | Report abuse

For raw political efficiency, it's hard to beat Daley. But if you add moral consideration into the mix, it must go to LaGuardia. I assume Giuliani is thrown in here just as a sop to movement conservatives, given the pure absurdity of any alternative candidates they might nominate (see below).

I like scrivner's "Fame or Shame" idea.

Posted by: nodebris | September 23, 2009 1:01 PM | Report abuse

It's easy to govern in boom times. But the Little Flower---Fiorella---governed during the worst depression in history, and he kept a coalition together, and he clean up government. Giulani's only accomplishment was appointing a brilliant police commissioner. Daley was certainly a brilliant politician---but the vote goes to LaGuardia.

Besides, who wouldn't rather fly out of LaGuardia Airport than the endlessly stack-up O'Hare?

Posted by: maris9 | September 23, 2009 12:07 PM | Report abuse

A few years ago, I went to see a great play in Chicago called Boss--about Daley, naturally. While he seems to have been personally incorruptible (no secret bank accounts, no vacation homes in Canada, etc.) there was a huge amount of corruption going on around him that he willfully ignored as cronies enriched themselves. That may have been the nature of big city politics in those days, but I am pretty sure LaGuardia didn't have blinders on like Daley.

Posted by: jhpurdy | September 23, 2009 11:54 AM | Report abuse

Richard J. Daley. Heck yes... his influence extends to this generation...Mr. and Mrs. Obama are going all-out to make sure his son's Chicago gets the 2016 Olympics. As Daley(father) gave Kennedy those Chicago precincts, so Daley (son) called in the chits from the Kennedys to get them to support Obama and then get the Obamas on board for the 2016 Olympics. Now that's mayoral power from the great beyond.

Posted by: Grace6 | September 23, 2009 11:53 AM | Report abuse

I love the idea of the HOF, and Daley's a worthy nominee, but the influence of organized crime on Chicago Democratic politics during his tenure cannot be overestimated. Daley may have had the plans and vision, but The Outfit delivered the votes and contracts.

Posted by: dlk117561 | September 23, 2009 11:43 AM | Report abuse

The New York mayors will split the vote, I think. Instead of Giuliani, I would have nominated MAYOR Sarah Palin.

Posted by: JakeD | September 23, 2009 11:41 AM | Report abuse


Still think that if a politician's dark side overshadows his/her more noble accomplishments, they deserve to be singled out for a "Hall of Shame."

Daley would meet the criteria, as would Nixon. Would be an interesting sub-argument: "Fame" or "Shame"?





Posted by: scrivener50 | September 23, 2009 11:41 AM | Report abuse

Of the three candidates given, Daley is the obvious choice. He could legitimately claim that Chicago was the City that works, and that he was the operating engineer. On His own merits as mayor, and as power broker.

Saying he stood head and shoulders above the others was unfair to Laguardia, who came from a long line of short mayors.

Add to his claims to have made Chicago work, the long time that he kept it working. The year he died was perhaps the perfect year, since it didn't bother to rain from march to August, Star Wars was at the Oak St Theater, King Tut was at the Field Museum, and for the first time since WWII the Cubs went into first place in the national league, and on Memorial day at that. He went out a winner.

Laguardia and Giuliani by comparison were never so long lived, and Giuliani was never near so competent.

And Hizzonner probably gets the nod on his nickname alone.

Posted by: ceflynline | September 23, 2009 11:25 AM | Report abuse

"devious" eh?

Crony (pay to play) corruption is not just devious, it is the Democratic party's number one problem. Daly was a crook.
No amount of big construction projects (which occurred everywhere in those years) can rehabilitate him.

And his handling of the convention was a lot worse than "ham handed". In contributed a great deal to the election of Nixon over McCarthy. There was no way the (also corrupt and incompetent loser HHH) could make Nixon look as bad as he was.

Posted by: shrink2 | September 23, 2009 11:20 AM | Report abuse


This is masterfully written. You do exceptionally well with this pro vs. con format--I can only express the hope that you'll somehow incorporate this Hall of Fame series into your eventual book--rather like a latter-day Profiles in Courage.

Of your 3 listed governors, I currently am trending to Fiorello LaGuardia, but I do agree Daley was an unforgettable figure.

Unfortunately, I know too much about the less publicised, glory-stealing, false-claim ridden shenanigans of Rudy, and his happening to be in the right place at the right time to consider voting for his inclusion into the H.o.F. Would Bush's standing on a pile of rubble and shouting into a megaphone constitute grounds for inclusion into the Presidential H.o.F.?

Any other candidates? Alfred E. Smith? Mario Cuomo (oratorically, one of my heroes), Nelson Rockefeller, Teddy Roosevelt, others?

Posted by: sverigegrabb | September 23, 2009 11:19 AM | Report abuse

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