For an astonishing 38 years out of the 53 that I have lived on this planet, there has bee a Daley as Mayor of the city of Chicago. Also in those 38 years, the legendary patronage and payoff operation known as “The Machine” has dominated local politics.
The current Mayor Daley – Richard M. – has just been reelected to an unprecedented 6th consecutive term, garnering more than 70% of the vote against two African-American challengers:
Richard M. Daley laid claim to history on Tuesday, steamrolling two opponents and winning a sixth term that promises to make him the longest-serving mayor in Chicago history.
Another four years in the office will push Daley past the current record-holderâ€”his father and role model, the late Mayor Richard J. Daley.
With more than 95 percent of precincts reporting, Daley had received about 71 percent of the vote to defeat challengers Dorothy Brown and William “Dock” Walls. But Chicagoans apparently considered it a ho-hum election, with only about a third of the city’s 1.4 million registered voters turning out to cast their ballots.
A jubilant Daley walked into a ballroom of the Chicago Hilton & Towers to the strains of “Takin’ Care of Business” and, in a speech that lasted just a few minutes, claimed victory before excited supporters.
“An election is not an end,” Daley declared. “Instead it offers a new beginning. ... I want to thank the people of Chicago for their continued support.
But the real story of this election was the defeat of a couple of veteran Daley allies on the City Council and the fact that an almost unprecedented 11 Council members will have participate in the run off election in April:
In the worst election night for City Council incumbents in more than 15 years, three aldermen lost their jobs Tuesday, including Ald. Burton Natarus (42nd), the colorful, veteran alderman of downtown Chicago.
Ald. Darcel Beavers (7th) lost to Sandi Jackson, the wife of U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.), and scandal-plagued Ald. Arenda Troutman (20th) was also unseated. But Natarus was hesitant to concede.
Another 11 council members appeared headed toward the runoff election in April after failing to win a majority.
On a night when Mayor Richard M. Daley easily won re-election, the results in wards across the city showed that the mayor’s popularityâ€”and his once-powerful patronage armiesâ€”no longer could be counted on to pull along council allies.
And what may have finally put the Machine out to pasture was not legions of reformers storming city hall or massive demonstrations protesting the corrupt way that the city has done business forever. There was no sudden, bolt-of-lightening election that overturned the status quo and brought sunshine into the dark areas of City Hall.
Instead, it was simple disgust. And changing demographics. And a new generation of African American and Hispanic politicians who have made their bones without becoming absolutely beholden to the Daley Machine.
All of this created a perfect storm – a storm that was fashioned by a scandal that typified the way that city politics has been since Big Bill Thompson was taking orders from Big Al Capone; a system where the politician and the criminal walked side by side, rubbing elbows sometimes, while being indistinguishable from one another at other times.
The scandal began with a $40 million a year hired truck program where the city would hire trucks by the hour to perform various city services. Here was a program aching to be fleeced. And The Machine didn’t disappoint. Some of the revelations in the Chicago Sun Times investigation were jaw dropping examples of blatant and systematic corruption at the highest levels of city government:
- Some politically connected companies were getting paid for doing little or no work.
- Some of the trucks were owned by known mobsters.
- Even though city employees were barred from taking part in the program, many set up their wives or relatives with city contracts.
- Truck owners paid bribes in order to get into the program.
- 44 people have been charged in the scandal with 41 already pleading guilty or convicted.
That was just the start. The investigation eventually led to City Hall and one of the mayor’s staunchest supporters, his former patronage boss Robert Sorich. After a court order prevented the city from hiring people based on their political loyalty, Sorich rigged interviews and falsified documents to hide the fact that City Hall was lousy with Daley loyalists. The Feds got him for mail fraud along with two others and snared a 4th for lying to the FBI. For a while, there was considerable buzz that Daley himself was under the prosecutor’s microscope but to date, there have been no charges filed nor are any likely in the near future.
The Machine has known scandal before. It has known federal investigations and indictments before. It has known newspaper exposes, legions of reform minded citizens groups, good government gurus, even reform politicians before. And The Machine just kept chugging along. It absorbed, bribed, or destroyed most of the reformers. It shrugged off the Feds and the States Attorneys. And in election after election after election, it rolled to victory. Sometimes the reformers would gain a modest victory here and there. But in the end, The Machine triumphed because it worked.
So what happened yesterday?
In past elections, patronage armies loyal to the mayor crisscrossed the city to help elect aldermen who readily heeled at the mayor’s command. They scared other council members into submission. But the federal probe of patronage hiring in the mayor’s office crippled those groups.
Labor unions that are feuding with the mayor vowed to step into the void left by the mayor’s legions of campaign workers.
The Service Employees International Union and other labor groups spent hundreds of thousands of dollars and deployed hundreds of workers for challengers. SEIU contributed to the Reilly and Jackson victories, and at least four targeted incumbents were headed to runoffs with union-backed foes.
Jerry Morrison, executive director of SEIU’s state council, declared the results a “big, big win for working families and unions.”
There were several new African American faces who won through to victory including Representative Jesse Jackson, Jr.’s wife, elected outright as an Alderman from the 7th ward running against the daughter of one of the Mayor’s most valued allies. And even the Mayor’s losing opponent Dorothy Brown, County Clerk of the Circuit Court, showed a feistiness and strength that will probably make her a future star in city politics.
Unions, reform minded minorities, and a population trending younger, hipper, and more liberal could mean that this may have been Hizzoner’s last hurrah. For all the graft, corruption, and electoral shenanigans, Daley has presided over something of a city-wide Renaissance with all areas, income groups, races, and neighborhoods enjoying at least some kind of renewal. And while blacks and Hispanics have plenty of bones to pick with Daley, even they admit he has been a good listener and has staffed his office (and The Machine) with plenty of minorities.
Four more years of Daley and then what? The Machine has been eulogized before only to come back stronger than ever. But this time, the city itself has changed. The old ways may not die all at once. But I suspect they will gradually give way to the impulse of the reform minded to replace the machine with something else – something of their own creation.
There will still be graft and corruption. But there won’t be the city-wide control of patronage and contracts exercised by Chicago mayors for nearly a century. We will see if that affects how the city is actually governed. And whether the city will itself be governable.
Ex-Chicagoan now Texan Tom Elia noticed something in the Trib story:
My two favorite parts of the following Tribune piece? The song played at Hizzoner’s victory party: Takin’ Care of Business; and the reason given by experts as to why perhaps stronger candidates didn’t challenge Mayor Daley: they would get ‘throttled.’
They wouldn’t just lose. They would get ‘throttled.’ Hey … it’s Chicago. Takin’ care of bidness.
Sorta like my White Sox “throttling” your Cubbies this year during the Cross Town Showdown, eh Tom?