Daley biographer takes measure of the man

Daley biographer takes measure of the man
WBEZ/Andrew Gill, File
Daley biographer takes measure of the man
WBEZ/Andrew Gill, File

Daley biographer takes measure of the man

When Chicago resident Keith Koeneman turned 40 a few years ago, he used the moment, as many do, to take stock of his life. And he realized he was truly happy – except for one thing: He hadn’t written the book he’d always wanted to write, a biography of Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley.

It was then Koeneman decided to put his finance career on the back burner and dive head-first into the life and legacy of the man who has been Chicago’s mayor for 22 years. He’s been researching ever since, having spoken with dozens of Daley’s closest associates and fiercest critics.

Koeneman isn’t an academic or a journalist, but he’s a longtime student of politics and boasts graduate degrees from Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, Northwestern University’s School of Law, and the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business.

Late last year, we spoke about the Daley legacy – and the challenges inherent in chronicling it.

Here’s an edited transcript of our conversation:

One thing that’s often said about the Mayor and the Daley family as a whole is that they’re very protective of their privacy. So how do you go about trying to tell this story and get people to talk to you in truly insightful and revealing ways?

You know, I’m Catholic, which might not sound like that would be relevant, but it’s very, very relevant. A lot of the people I meet with are professionals and so they’re formal, but as soon as I tell them I’m Catholic, their whole body language changes. Catholicism in Chicago politics is important – it’s very, very important. And quite frankly, a lot of people I talk to say “Oh, you’re a Polish-Catholic kid from Chicago and you’re not a journalist, OK, I’ll talk to you.”


Yeah, and these are people whose entire lives are spent making judgments about other people - and they make judgments about me in 30 seconds. If they think I’m a good guy, they tell their buddies, “He’s a good guy, talk to him”, and if they don’t think I’m not a good guy, they tell their buddies “Stay away from him”. And so far, over 90 people have talked with me.

You’re deep in the middle of the writing and researching process. What insights have you uncovered, and what are the things that have surprised you about Mayor Richard M. Daley?

His father (Richard J. Daley) was an incredibly talented man – and I think that’s true whether you agree with his policies or don’t agree with his policies. His father was a hugely talented person who literally dominated a city of 3 million people.

And so Rich grew up in that shadow, which is a large shadow. He wasn’t the greatest student at Nativity of our Lord; he wasn’t the most talented basketball player at De La Salle. You know, he wasn’t very charismatic - he actually ran for Class President at De La Salle and lost.

And so there were low expectations for Rich Daley as a kid, but [he had] a father who was extremely competent and domineering. Many of us want to please our parents, and that is a deeply true thing about Rich Daley.

In what respect?

In the respect of literally spending a lifetime doing things that his dad would approve of: That if he was a good State’s Attorney, his dad would approve. That if he built Millennium Park, his dad would approve.

And in some cases, addressing blemishes on his father’s record.

I think that’s very true. This is my personal opinion, and some people disagree, but I think Rich Daley is a master of political calculus [and] is truly brilliant in terms of politics. He knows better than anyone what his father’s strengths and weaknesses are, and three clear weaknesses in terms of Richard J. Daley’s 21 years as mayor including: race relations, public schools and public housing.

And Rich Daley has spent his entire [mayoral] career focusing on race relations, trying to fix schools and trying to fix housing. It’s like he’s trying to finish the unfinished business of the Daley family – and his father would be very proud of that if he were alive.

You said a moment ago that Rich Daley is a brilliant politician. What is it that makes him brilliant?

Well, one of Daley’s first Chiefs of Staff, Forrest Claypool, said that [Daley] has the best political instincts of anyone he’s ever met - and Claypool has met a lot of politicians, including the President of the United States.

Rich Daley’s first reaction to an issue will almost always be the right political reaction, because he has sort of an ‘everyman’ sense. That’s something you can’t teach. Either you have that, or you don’t.

Given all of that, what’s your reaction to Mayor Daley’s decision not to seek a seventh term in office?

I think it’s a truly historic, unprecedented decision – and I’m using the word historic precisely. I went back and I looked at all the mayors of Chicago since roughly the 1870’s, starting with Carter Harrison Sr. Of the 16 important mayors going back to 1870, no one has ever done this before. Rich Daley is the first sitting mayor to ever voluntarily retire from office.

Of the 16, nine ran for re-election and lost. One basically had a nervous breakdown in office and couldn’t finish his term (Joseph Medill). Four either died in office or were assassinated – the assassinations were Carter Harrison Sr. and Anton Cermak. One got pushed out of office by the Machine as a sitting mayor based on his progressive racial views (Ed Kelly), and Rich Daley is the only one who voluntarily retired from office.

That’s astonishing to think about.

It is astonishing – and I think because Rich Daley started his early life with people having low expectations of him, he has a certain sense of humility. Again, people may be surprised to hear me say that, but I think it’s true.

When Rich Daley announced he wasn’t going to run again and they said “Who are you going to pick?”, and he said “That’s up to the voters to decide. I have faith in the voters”, he was being honest. And since 1870, no other mayor in the history of Chicago has looked himself in the mirror and said “This city can go on without me”. Rich Daley is the first guy to do that.