Daley's decades
"… And as we enter this new season, it's time to leave behind old setbacks, disappointments and battles. Because in the campaign for a better Chicago, we're all allies. Our common opponents are crime and ignorance, waste and fraud, poverty and disease, hatred and discrimination.

"And we either rise up as one city and make the special effort required to meet these challenges — or sit back and watch Chicago decline."

— Mayor Richard M. Daley's

first inaugural address, April 24, 1989.

He took control of the family business on his 47th birthday. The ceremony at Orchestra Hallacknowledged the race-based schism that for roughly a decade had cleaved city politics: This second Mayor Daley wasn't only succeeding an African-American mayor, Eugene Sawyer. More problematic in South and West Side neighborhoods, the son of Richard J. Daley would serve out the unexpired term of Chicago's iconic first black mayor, the late Harold Washington.

Richard II navigated those treacherous waters. And now he departs. The totality of his record is complex, uneven.

If, years from now, all of us remember but one turn of the wheel from his epoch, let it be a point we cannot make too often:

What distinguished Richard M. Daley from many big-city mayors is his remarkable if impossible-to-complete work to narrow racial chasms that, during the 1980s, threatened to swallow Chicago. He has done that not with anguished speeches or paeans to social justice, but by projecting a strong sense of fairness in the way he does his job. As a result, he has persuaded many Chicagoans, of many hues, to pull in the same direction: up.

Chicago isn't only about race. But when race is wrong here, when ugly tensions blind this city to its largely cooperative past and its richly promising future, not much gets done. Daley has not solved those tensions. He has, though, worked hard to diminish their scope and impact. Regrettably, he gets little credit for that. This city's racial rancor was so ugly that many of us have put it out of our minds.

A legacy held hostage

For 22 years, Richard M. Daley has ruled from his father's wooden desk in his father's wood-paneled office. But if Richard J.'s legacy leaps quickly to the tongue — laced with bold nouns like builder and kingmaker and boss — the final judgment on Richard M. will not be written for several years. Why so?

Chicago is broke. For that, Daley is significantly responsible. He spent too much money fulfilling proud ambitions for his city. He awarded sweetheart labor contracts that extend years beyond his reign. And he let unfunded pension obligations metastasize to a potentially devastating $20 billion-with-a-b.

Thus the peculiar dependency: The ultimate verdict on Daley rests with … one or perhaps more of his successors. If the next mayor, or the mayor after that, rescues City Hall from imminent financial peril, then Chicago, its prospects and its spirit will survive and thrive. For Daley, then, all likely would be forgiven. Why would history obsess on a financial crisis that went away?

If, though, a City Hall too timid or inept to tame its runaway finances presides over a rising exodus of people and jobs, Daley would be remembered as the mayor who stayed too long. His achievements would recede, forgotten, into the Chicago decline of which he warned in 1989.

For Chicago's sake, and for Daley's, we would rather see recovery and redemption than bankruptcy and blame.

Schools, poverty and violence

Daley spent his early years projecting a surprising national image: He would be less a pol than a business manager.

He understood that government needs to nurture an environment for private-sector growth. He wanted to attract corporate headquarters — and to keep their workforces of middle-class families in city neighborhoods. For both of those reasons he was impatient to elevate public education — and angry when his team found carpenters hand-building furniture for educrats while school buildings collapsed. In 1996, as he took command of the U.S. Conference of Mayors in Cleveland, we watched him spend part of a noisy, kickback party lecturing guests on why a nearby railroad bridge should be removed. This intensity was genuine, and intimidating. Paul Vallas, then Daley's schools chief, warned colleagues to expect tough questioning: "When you walk into his office, you're in mid-conversation."

As with education reform in his first decade, Daley took risks during his second on two other areas that most mayors — his father included — wouldn't touch: He provoked demolition of public housing high-rises that warehoused families in concentrations of poverty. And, upset that his city was scorned as America's murder capital, he authorized new policing strategies (which somewhat succeeded) and pushed gun control legislation (which did not). While more than 14,000 people have been murdered in Chicago during his mayoralty, the annual carnage now is half of what it was in the early 1990s.