In Chicago elections one’s antipathies are always nicely divided. The division is usually between idealistic incompetence and corrupt quasi-competence. Corrupt quasi-competence, the way of the Daley dynasty, père et fils, for better and worse generally wins the day. The result has been that the city kept humming along, with all its messiness pushed under an ample carpet: horrible public schools, heavy debt, lots of street-gang murder in slum neighborhoods to go around. But beautiful trees were planted everywhere, and the snow got shoveled off the main thoroughfares. Chicago, the city that works—that is, if you don’t look too closely.
For a brief patch, 1983-87, Chicago voters went for idealistic incompetence, and elected a black mayor, Harold Washington, who died in office. It wasn’t, I think it fair to say, quite worth it. This was the period in Chicago known as the Council Wars, in which the 50 aldermen of the City Council, a group that makes Ali Baba’s 40 thieves look like l’Académie française, was divided down the line between black and white, with ugly racial feeling right out in the open. Like an unsuccessful movie, the Council Wars left no one to root for, with scoundrels on both sides of the divide. Black or white, when a Chicago alderman speaks on television, one mentally crayons in the eye-patch, the hooped earring, the parrot on his shoulder.
Mayor Richard M. Daley—Richie as opposed to his father Dick—came into office in 1989 and put an end to the Council Wars. He did so, one assumes, by assuring the aldermen that the spoils of big-city local government, in patronage and other emoluments, were plentiful enough to go around for everybody, and that war only got in the way of plundering. Richie has served six terms and been, on balance, a good mayor; not as good as Rudy Giuliani, who truly saved a city, but by Chicago lights, which is to say—yo, Benito!—he made the trains run on time.
Richie Daley is 68, he has a wife with cancer, his crest of popularity is now on the slide—enough, he must have concluded, is enough. He was a man of limited ambition, never wishing to rise to governor or U.S. senator, but content, like his father, with controlling his rich satrapy of Chicago. But the Chicago sky just now is darkening with chickens coming home to roost, with a billion-dollar budget deficit and an impressive $15 billion pension shortfall.
To help pay off some of the city’s debt, Richie entered into a billion-dollar parking-meter contract with a private firm that has substantially raised the cost of street parking in Chicago and has everyone grumbling. Parking on Chicago streets now feels less like a convenience and more like a punishment. Cars in Chicago are towed at the drop of a snowflake. Cameras have been installed at traffic lights on busy intersections allowing the city to collect $100 fines for people crossing on yellow lights. With more and more major industry leaving Chicago, it now sometimes seems that the city’s main source of revenue is traffic and parking fines.
So Daley will not leave office covered with glory but rather, one suspects, with the feeling that he is escaping just in time. Looking upon his exhausted face, one has a sense of a man awaiting a strong organic substance to hit a rudimentary air-conditioning device. Feets, one senses a voice within him crying, get me out of here!
Players ready to take Richie Daley’s place have long been on the field. And a grim lot they are, giving diversity its usual good name for fairness and bad name for mediocrity: a black woman, two men of Hispanic ancestry, and a fellow, as my black basic-training sergeant Andrew Atherton used to say, of the Hebrew persuasion of well-publicized disputed residency riding in from the nation’s capital.
Ladies first. Carol Moseley Braun, the lady in question, is the politician who, perhaps more than any other in recent years, blew it on a field of the greatest magnitude. She is the first black woman elected to the U.S. Senate. That fact alone ought to have made her statue-worthy, the subject of a rich PBS profile cranked up every year during Black History Month, along with those on Rosa Parks and Althea Gibson.