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Mayor Daley: some substance, some smoke and mirrors


Jaws dropped on two continents last September after a British talk show host introduced Chicago's mayor of months, Richard M. Daley, as a likely presidential candidate in 1992. An embarrassed Daley later told reporters he didn't know how the Briton ever got that idea and, besides, President Bush is doing a good job.

He should say that. Both he and Bush have a lot in common. Both ran flawless campaigns, and both know how, in this era of government minimalism, to do a little and make it seem like a lot.

Just what was Daley doing in England and Ireland? Ostensibly he was promoting Chicago tourism but actually providing great television footage for the folks back home. The Chicago TV stations all paid a lot of money to send their crews along on Daley's trip, and they were determined to file lengthy reports each day, whether or not the mayor did anything significant. When news crews complained that the shots of Daley shaking hands with middle-echelon politicians were boring, the mayor obligingly posed in Trafalgar Square to provide more exciting visuals.

Bush is great at this sort of thing, too: cradling a cocaine baby, unveiling the flag desecration amendment in front of the Iwo Jima memorial. But he should be; he learned media manipulation during eight years at the feet of the master.

Daley, on the other hand, is the first Chicago mayor who has really turned the media to his political advantage. His father tolerated television but never exploited it, content to let his patronage apparatus churn out the votes. Jane Byrne tried, but the cameras seemed to magnify her natural waspishness. Harold Washington's great personal magnetism never quite came across on television, and he'd frequently get annoyed and stalk out of press conferences.

Byrne and Washington also were hampered by amateurish media handlers and by their own justifiable paranoia. A lot of people really were out to get them. They had to fight constantly, and people got tired of it. Daley promised quiet after 10 years of "bickering and name-calling" and is delivering on his promise.

Daley's first seven months haven't been all smoke and mirrors. The mayor helped push an income tax increase through the legislature, and he came up with enough money to begin renovating Navy Pier, balance his budget and reduce next year's property taxes a modest $25 million. The last should defuse some of the anger over skyrocketing property assessments. His school board restored art and music classes and opened the schools on time this year without a teacher strike — common practice throughout most of the civilized world but a near miracle in Chicago. He also got the council to approve a trust fund to build low-income housing. But will this be enough to ensure that Daley, who is serving the remaining two years of Washington's term, will win a full four-year term in 1991?

You bet it will. If Daley is to lose in 1991, he will have to make a blunder of monumental proportions — and Daley is not prone to blundering. His worst so far was his response to the news that the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) owed the city millions in unpaid water bills. The CHA, Daley said, should limit its residents to one shower a day. Though some said this showed racial insensitivity, it actually showed ignorance: The problem wasn't that residents used too much water but that CHA managers weren't paying the bills.

Daley's biggest advantage is that his political opposition is even more divided than it was during the primary and general elections this year. Unfortunately, Chicago is so racially polarized that everyone assumes (correctly) that any significant opponent in 1991 will have to be black. Though some white liberals distrust Daley,

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no white person is ready to put together the multiracial coalition necessary to end Daley's political career.

Blacks are probably correct when they say Daley doesn't really understand their culture, but he is a canny enough politician to retain an African-American police chief, appoint an African-American school board president and name minorities to 11 of 22 top cabinet positions. They complain that his closest advisers are white, but that is no surprise to any voter.

But black leaders aren't running up the white flag quite yet. In an effort to find an ssue that would energize their community a number of them, led by the Rev. Jesse lackson, strongly defended Manford Byrd Jr., the school superintendent who was eventually forced out by Daley's school board.

It didn't work. Byrd had little public support outside of Jackson's Operation PUSH, and the save-Byrd effort was widely viewed as an effort to protect black educational bureaucrats and contractors at the expense of black school children.

Later a number of black aldermen and ministers, but not Jackson, charged that police brutality was flourishing under Daley. The numbers did not seem to bear that out, but the accusers could point to two serious incidents: Two white officers drove two apparently innocent black boys to a white neighborhood where they were beaten; and a black officer shot and killed an unarmed black ex-convict. A City Council committee held two days of hearings on the issue, resurrecting brutality cases that occurred as long ago as the 1970s. Daley's best defender was Leroy Martin, his tough, outspoken (and black) police superintendent.

The danger is that black leaders like the Rev. Bernard Taylor, who declared that Daley has created "open season on blacks," will start something they can't stop. But black voters may be more sophisticated than their leaders realize. They may be waiting for a black candidate who can rally blacks and whites by discussing substantive issues in a nonemotional way. It happened in New York this year when David Dinkins beat Ed Koch and congratulated his supporters for voting "your hopes and not your fears." It can happen in Chicago too, but probably not by 1991. □

John Camper is a reporter for the Chicago Tribune.

November 1989 | Illinois Issues | 33

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