When Cook County Democratic leaders met in December 1954 to pick a candidate for the 1955 mayoral race, they gave Mayor Martin Kennelly three minutes and 58 seconds to make his case for re-endorsement. Elected in 1947 to bring an air of respectability back to the mayor's office after the long, scandal-plagued rule of Mayor Ed Kelly, Kennelly had earned the respect of the business community and the newspapers but not of the Democratic Party. After his time was up, party leaders promptly endorsed their own chairman, Richard J. Daley.
Daley, who had been Cook County clerk since 1950, defeated Republican Robert Merriam on this date to become the new mayor of Chicago at age 52.For the next 21 years, Daley combined the power of the mayor's office with the political clout of the Democratic organization to become perhaps the biggest--and ultimately, the last--of the big-city bosses.
During his long reign, the face of Chicago changed profoundly. His friendship with Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson brought millions of federal dollars to the city to pay for ambitious capital-works projects and to fund the jobs that Daley used to hold his political apparatus together. He presided over the construction of the city's expressway system, sprawling public-housing complexes, a greatly expanded O'Hare International Airport, the vast lakefront filtration plant for the city's water system and the West Side campus of the University of Illinois at Chicago.
Daley's national reputation was cemented in the presidential election of 1960, when legend has it that late-counted Democratic votes were responsible for Kennedy's paper-thin victory over Richard Nixon. He was later criticized for his heavy-handed methods in handling the riots of the late 1960s, and in 1972, he and his machine allies were prevented from taking their seats at the Democratic convention because of a challenge to their credentials.
The setbacks only seemed to make him stronger with voters in Chicago. He was elected by huge margins six times, and voters followed his directives to the point that nearly every elected county officeholder and every alderman on the 50-member City Council was a Democrat.
Paradoxically, it was Daley who severely wounded the party in the early 1970s when he reluctantly signed the Shakman decree, which outlawed the firing of public workers for political reasons. But since it was issued by a federal judge, Daley had little choice. In his later years, he held the party together through the force of his personality. He remained the Boss of the "City That Works." For a generation of Chicagoans, the word "mayor" came before only one name: Daley.