Who's the better Mayor Daley? Richard M. or Richard J.?

December 27, 2010

Now that Richard M. Daley has passed officially his father, Richard J. Daley, to become the longest serving mayor in Chicago history, let the great debate begin:  Who was the better mayor?  

To the current mayor, there's little doubt.  When asked by reporters recently, the younger Daley said his father was the better of the two.

"He was both mayor and chairman of the Democratic Party. He came out of the Roosevelt era; one man, one party. That was a whole philosophy during the Depression. So that was very instilled and educated in him as a leader in government and politics," Richard M. Daley said.

A true assessment will come with the passage of time and ultimately will fall to historians and political scientists to decide.  But comparing the two Daleys is more than just a parlor game.   Examining the accompliments of the two men creates a fascinating look at the leadership, priorities and challenges facing U.S. cities during the last half century.

Richard J. Daley was elected in 1955 and became arguably the most powerful mayor in America during his time in office.  His influence extended to the White House and the State House, bringing largesse to Chicago that helped construct expressways, public housing high rises, McCormick Place and the modern O'Hare International Airport.  Known as a "builder mayor", he also presided over a major boom in downtown real estate development  and led the creation of a new campus for the University of Illinois-Chicago in the city's near west side.

But the elder Daley's tenure as mayor was not without controversy.  Machine politics strengthened and consolidated under his leadership, as did racial and social divisions, symbolized for many by the riots that erupted on the streets of Chicago during the 1968 Democratic National Convention.

Even so, University of Illinois-Chicago political scientist Melvin Holli published a 1999 survey ranking the best mayors in American history .  Richard J. Daley ranked sixth overall among the 160 historians and political scientists polled. 

More recently, Time magazine published its own list of America's Best Big City Mayors in 2005, which prominently featured the younger Daley.  Indeed, Richard M. Daley has been praised and feted widely for his leadership of Chicago during a time in which the transformation from a manufacturing to service-based economy took its toll on many Midwestern cities.

The younger Daley "has presided over the city's transition from graying hub to vibrant boomtown, with a newly renovated football stadium, an ebbing murder rate, a new downtown park, a noticeable expansion of green space and a skyline thick with construction cranes", wrote Time in 2005. 

That record, in part, prompted Chicago voters to return him to office time and again during the 1990's and 2000's by overwhelming margins.  Daley also has enjoyed near unanimous support in the City Council, support that even outpaces his father's in the legislative chamber. 

Political dominance allowed the younger Daley to push through controversial, ambitious projects such as an overhaul of public housing, the control and reform of Chicago Public Schools, the expansion of O'Hare Airport, and the creation of Millennium Park.  Lesser known initiatives like the construction and expansion of the city's libraries also have earned widespread praise

But Daley's strength also has prompted some notable displays of power, such as the night in March 2003, when he secretly dispatched bulldozers to Meigs Field under the cover of darkness to close permanently the small lakefront airport.  It's since been converted into a public park, with new plans for its future.

In addition, high profile scandals over patronage hiring and clouted contracts have cast a shadow over political corruption under his administration. And the city faces growing concerns about its financial health, as evidenced by budget gaps, debt loads and mounting public pension obligations.

Mayor Richard M. Daley announced he won't seek another term in office. His current term is set to expire in May 2011.

But these and other challenges  - including improving public schools, economic development and neighborhood safety - will remain.  And in that regard, Richard M. Daley's final legacy will be shaped much like his father's was:  not just by his own accomplishments, but by those of his successors as well. 

What's your take?  Who's the better Daley Mayor - son or father?