Sunday, August 28, 2005

OP Ed: Mayor Daley in no win position

I sense the general mood regarding Mayor Daley is shifting from adulation to disappointment on the part of his admirers, and from fear to glee for his detractors. They both have one thing in common. They well recognize that this latest round of Chicago scandals is different. This is more than a momentary sputter in the Democrat machine that has governed Chicago since that GOP corruption poster boy, Big Bill Thompson, left office in 1931.

The current scandal is different in scope and magnitude -- even compared to past corruption eruptions that would, themselves, be considered huge in any other major city. Chicago has been renowned not only for corruption, but for the electorates tolerance of it. Over and over, the citizens paid the hidden corruption taxes and pretended they believed Da Boss was not culpable. Part of the automatic absolution of the mayor has been the countervailing belief that Chicago was a well run city.

Furthermore, the public saw Mayor Daley as “one of us” – a common neighborhood guy who loves and lives Chicago above all. The current mayor inherited that widely held sentiment from his father, who seemed to have truly lived it. However, this Mayor Daley may have squandered that legacy.

This round of corruption is different. The “never befores” are most telling.

Never before has publicized and provable corruption been on this scale. It is like the southeast Asian tsunami that stunned a region despite a fore warning history of lesser disasters.

Never before has the “corruption tax” been estimated to be so costly. Penny ante stealing, featherbedding, and city work crews spending afternoons in taverns instead of on the job were tolerable. After all, this was the “city that works,” even if all the pay rollers didn’t have to. However, seeing rich and powerful insiders making millions in complex scams, while folks in the neighborhoods are being slammed by property and sales taxes, has eroded public tolerance.

Never before has the family of the mayor been associated, even remotely, with front page scandals – at least not since that tempest in a teapot when the “Daley boys” benefited from city insurance business more than a generation ago.

The role model of the first Mayor Daley’s wife, Sis, as the quintessential wife, mother and homemaker made the family untouchable. On the other hand, Maggie Daley is seen more as a socialite, bit of a snob, and not beyond using pillow talk to achieve some civic goals -- such as that sweetheart O’Hare deal for a few of the “ladies who lunch.” One, maybe two, Daley brothers now have there names connected to portions of the ongoing investigation. John Daley is a county commissioner and, more importantly, boss of the 11th ward, where many of the indicted officials reside. No fire yet, but the smoke is billowing.

Never before has the mayor of Chicago gone so upscale. The incumbent’s father lived in the same family bungalow his entire adult life, Bilandic lived with his mother, until he married during his brief term, Byrne even moved into public housing, and Washington, raised in public housing, maintained a modest apartment. The current Mayors move from Bridgeport to trendy Printers Row, and soon to the elite Millennium Park, ended his image as the neighborhood good old boy – and with it, some of his political armor. At the precinct level, urban myth blames Maggie for that, too.

Never before has the mayor been subjected to so much media scrutiny. Like the citizens of yore, the Chicago press often minimized scandals, and showed no desire to press investigations that rose above low level employees or political figures with whom Daley was indifferent or adversarial. The relationship between publisher and politician was social, civic and friendly. Daley’s privilege of deniability was always protected. He now faces aggressive reporters and columnists, and no longer has the proactive benefit of sycophantic columnists, like the late Steve Neal, to support City Hall’s public relations strategies.

Never before has the mayor’s very management been questioned. “But it is a well run city…” is not selling. Congressman Rahm Emanuel tried to keep that argument alive with a ringing pro-Daley speech at the City Club. Judging from the candid off-the-record after lunch chatter (this author was there), the largely Daley-friendly crowd was not buying it. Tinged with sadness, for sure, the audience could not find a way to absolve Daley of management blame. Their usual arrogant optimism about his political future was notably absent.

Never before has there been a political “death watch” on the mayor. For the first time, an inability to get re-elected, resignation before the completion of his term, and even the possibility of an indictment, are suggested in news stories and street talk. Neither ignorance (“I was not aware…”), indignation (“I am shocked and hurt …”) , nor future intent (“This will not be allowed to go on …”) are sufficient answers.

Whether Mayor Daley is the reigning king of corruption, or merely the minister of mismanagement, he is a gravely wounded political figure. His moral leadership is evaporating. He has passed the point of any winning strategy. He cannot deny that he has presided over an unprecedented era of mass corruption. Whether it existed by his leave or by his direction is of little matter in terms of his public reputation. He has lost that battle already.

His only defense is in the hope of convincing the public that he is not personally dishonest, but rather (by inference), an incredibly aloof and incompetent manager of municipal affairs. His problem is that the latter is not a credible argument after years of wallowing in, and promoting, a reputation as an outstanding micromanager. Past image polishing makes his only defense incredible and unsaleable.

As far as his legal situation, public opinion is of little importance. Whether the mayor is found to be only politically damaged, or found criminally culpable, will be played out behind the locked doors of the U.S. Attorney, the FBI and the grand juries. Like observers at a bridge tournament, we will only see the previously dealt cards as they are played out by the professionals. But … never before have the words “indictment” and “target” even been speculatively associated with the name Daley.

And of course … never before have we had a truly independent, aggressive and effective public prosecutor.

And this is only today’s world. It does not take a fortune teller to predict a lot more bad news is coming for Hizzoner.

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