The Daley Years

Corruption. The indictment and trial of Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich fit neatly into a national caricature of Chicago and Illinois as ethical cesspool, even if other states, like Florida, far outpace Illinois when it comes to public sector crime. As for Daley, there has been a rat-tat-tat of indictments and convictions around him, just like with his dad. And, as was also true back then, there is no consensus, even among cynical prosecutors, as to how much the man in charge, whose knowledge of his government is intimate, really knows.

His onetime patronage chief was sent to jail for rigging hiring tests to help Daley partisans. Another scandal revealed fat contracts given to politically-tied firms in exchange for bribes. Another bribery-fraud investigation nabbed building department workers and private developers. There's been more, with some kinky deals involving a nephew.

How could he not know? Is it that he's just so smart that he makes sure that he is never part of a conversation about putting in a fix? The latter seems to be the case. He's been a master of insulating himself and declaring ignorance. As for the general public, most do not care. Even good-government professionals just want their streets safe, potholes repaired and garbage picked up. To most of them, the city has worked.

But not as much of late. A $655 million budget shortfall assures far greater cutbacks, with the police department in a high-crime metropolis already understaffed. Teachers are losing their jobs, libraries are slicing hours and his poll ratings are their lowest ever.

It's coincidence but the resignation came on the day the city council finance committee was approving another $1 billion in borrowing for O'Hare International Airport expansion and just two days before the start of an annual ritual of three evening budget meetings in different city neighborhoods. There he becomes a two-legged piñata, calmly listening to endless gripes about drive-by shootings, police deployment, graffiti, drugs, potholes, mistimed traffic lights, allegedly nasty parks officials, closing of mental health centers, street sweepers, flooding, fluoride in water, and shortened hours for animal shelters.

It will surely be worse this time even with the regrets people will voice over his big decision. The economy has inspired a visceral rage among citizens, and the fiscal troubles will escalate for his successor amid declining city revenues and outlays from a virtually bankrupt state government.

Running most cities is a gargantuan task. Few have done it better than Chicago's Daley, who, after more than two decades and in tough economic times, can hardly be blamed for wanting to get out of the box.



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James Warren is the Chicago editor of The Daily Beast and an MSNBC analyst. He is the former managing editor of the Chicago Tribune.

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