Hall of Fame: The Case for Richard J. Daley
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."
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
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