Richard M. Daley's first term

Mayor-elect Richard M. Daley is surrounded by confetti after his victory speech at the Hyatt Regency Chicago in 1989. (Tribune archive photo / April 4, 1989)

Richard Daley leaves office this month as one of the most ambitious mayors Chicago ever had, a political heir who embraced and transcended his birthright but whose hands-on drive to improve the city he loved did not always match his reach.

Chicago's longest-serving mayor protected the city's core -- preserving downtown, attracting businesses and fostering gentrification in certain neighborhoods. As other Rust Belt cities imploded, Daley stabilized Chicago and cemented its reputation as a beautiful city by the lake.

"Chicago is always changing," Daley, 69, said recently. "The Chicago Fire. Our industrial revolution. The Chicago stockyards. The Columbian Exposition. We always change. We're willing to change. And what happens to (some) cities, they get caught in the past. They can't change." But change -- and politics -- creates ample paradoxes over a mayor's 22 years in office.

Hailed nationally as a new-breed, green-eyeshade management whiz in the booming '90s, Daley bequeaths a city treasury gushing red ink. He wanted to be a master builder but also ended up being known for using the bulldozer, carving X's into Meigs Field's runway to turn the lakefront airfield into a park.

He traveled the world promoting Chicago, but the international community rejected the city's Olympics bid in embarrassing fashion.

The politician billed as an environmentally focused "green mayor" was never able to put in place a citywide recycling program.

And while known for charting every pothole, overfilled trash bin and graffiti splatter he saw, Daley also professed to know little about major hiring and contracting scandals.

Still, Daley departs as a leader who was popular for most of his time on top, a politician whose penchant for mangled sentences and red-faced outbursts helped him forge a connection with a working class comforted by his strong hand at the helm after a decade of disruption at City Hall.

"He has a granular familiarity with the city, every single block, every neighborhood," said David Axelrod, his longtime campaign strategist. "I always used to joke that he ran Chicago like Andy ran Mayberry. He knew everybody, knew every corner of the place. He was just an enormous presence in this city."

Impatient and reactionary at times, Daley made a constant effort to keep quality of life front and center in the minds of residents -- a preoccupation revealed in a story told by Ald. Brendan Reilly, 42nd. According to Reilly, Daley was riding past Connors Park, a small triangle of land on Wabash on the Near North Side, when he saw homeless people sleeping on the park benches. Within a few days, Daley had the benches removed. But the homeless soon returned and slept on the ground. Residents, however, had no place to sit.

"That's Mayor Daley for you," Reilly said. "He's very passionate, he sees something he doesn't like, and he wants a solution right away. It may not be the right solution, but it's a solution."

Out of his father's shadow

If anything, the story of Daley's reign was his ability to adapt. He maintained political control in the modern era by using Chicago's diversity to extend his influence rather than walling off racial and ethnic groups with expressways and zoning as did his late father, Richard J. Daley.

Though he eventually grew out from the shadow of the legendary Richard J., memories of his father were a constant for Richard M. Daley -- from exceeding his father's tenure as mayor to reversing the nightmares of the riot-torn 1968 Democratic National Convention by hosting a wildly successful coronation of Bill Clinton's re-election bid 28 years later.

"My dad worked seven days a week, and I said, 'I'm never going to be like my dad.' You always turn out like your father," Daley said. "On Sundays, I signed pictures and autographs because when I was a kid, a baseball player when I was a fifth-grader refused to sign an autograph for me, and I said, 'Someday, I will become something (and) would sign autographs.'"

It was his father who sent him to Springfield, first as a delegate to the convention that wrote Illinois' 1970 constitution. That's where Michael Madigan, now the powerful Illinois House speaker, was assigned by Richard J. Daley to keep an eye on the younger Daley. In 1972, the younger Daley was elected to the state Senate.