Say what you will about former Mayor Richard M. Daley of Chicago (1998-2011) and his strong-arm tactics, but you’ve got to admit that the man has vision and an ability to execute it.
This short, stocky, never-say-die, Irish Catholic grew up on the Southside of Chicago and learned the means and meaning of public service from his tough-guy father, Mayor Richard J. Daley (1955-76). He is one whiz-bang leader and his 22-year tenure—the longest of any of the city’s mayors—proves it.
Dubbed in 2005 as one of the “Nation’s Top Urban Executives” by Time magazine, Daley has improved Chicago’s schools, revitalized the downtown, reduced crime, diversified the economy and helped the city become one of the most environmentally-friendly cities in the world. He has earned an international reputation as an innovator in urban development, fiscal policy and government stewardship and many of his forward-looking policies have been emulated in cities around the globe.
He spoke to 2,000 people at the Economic Club of Southwestern Michigan held this week at Lake Michigan College.
Daley wooed his mostly conservative audience as he described the strategies behind his achievements. He is no policy wonk but instead a smart, straight talking, future-oriented thinker. Someone even asked him to consider running for president. And, after his speech I heard one man say to another that Daley “didn’t sound like a Democrat.”
Actually, Daley appears to be a hybrid of the country’s major political parties. What distinguishes him is that he is a man who loves his city and aggressively looked for ways to make it a beautiful, good place to live as well as an economically viable place to do business.
What he quickly recognized, however, was that he couldn't depend on the federal government to help him. So he reached out to both the public and private sectors as well as to officials in the suburbs and surrounding cities to form various coalitions and partnerships that “focus on what unites us.”
Some people have characterized him as a model 21st century leader.
Among his strategies was to make an investment in old and outdated infrastructure. Financing such multi-billion dollar projects requires public-private partnerships that pool their resources. This is what he did when he leased the Chicago Skyway for nearly $2 billion and then used the money to help repay the city’s debts.
Daley is especially keen on regional collaboration and declared the Great Lakes as “one of the most dynamic regions in America.”
Even the Chinese are impressed with the economic diversity of the Midwest in the areas of agriculture, water and manufacturing, and they see Chicago as a gateway.
This may all seem counter-intuitive as people insist on calling this area “the Rust Belt” due to its decimated industrial base.
Instead, Daley stressed that regions must consider the assets they have. Water is the chief asset of the Great Lakes region so protecting it to attract people to the area and using it to economic advantage are essential.
So in 2003 he with Toronto’s Mayor David Miller co-founded the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Cities Initiative, which is a coalition of U.S. and Canadian mayors that advance the protection and restoration of the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River.
By integrating their environmental, economic and social agendas, local governments are helping to sustain a resource that represents approximately 20 percent of the world’s surface freshwater supply, provides drinking water for 40 million people, and is the foundation upon which a strong regional economy is based.
In 1997 Daley gathered 273 mayors in the Chicago area to form the Metropolitan Mayors Caucus to tackle such critical issues as economic development, school funding and tax reform, workforce readiness, energy reliability and security, air quality, funding for transportation and other infrastructure, housing, and emergency preparedness. In this way they were able to speak with a unified voice to the legislative chambers of Springfield and Washington.
Education is an investment the economy cannot do without. The Chicago Public Schools were in dire straits academically and financially so in 1995 Daley asked the state legislature for responsibility over them despite his political advisers’ warnings that it would be a career-ender.
Under the “Modern Schools Across Chicago” program, he renovated 19 schools and constructed 48 new schools. He also encouraged the revisions of basic programs in reading, writing and math as well as the creation of charter schools, military academies and math/science academies. To prepare children for future job opportunities, he instituted language programs in Arabic, Chinese and Russian, emphasized technology and built 50 libraries.
Chicago leads the way in protecting the environment with green roofs, an efficient public transit system, a bicycling program with more than 165 miles of bike-ways, and various energy efficiency programs to help Chicagoans save thousands of dollars.
To make these strides he gathered 230 suburbs with the city as well as representatives from business, higher education and advocacy groups to write and execute the Chicago Climate Action Plan.
As mayor, Daley has changed the conversation in the city and put it on a new path towards economic growth and a high quality of life. What has driven him in this quest is his commitment to public service.
Politicians should act more like “public servants” rather than “ideological warriors,” he said.
As mayor, he worked for all Chicagoans regardless of whether they were Democrats or voted for him He also worked with Presidents Clinton, Bush and Obama to help his city.
Everyone wants President Obama to be FDR, he said. At the same time they try to dilute the power of the presidency and seem willing to give more power to the bureaucracy. This makes for a less effective president.
Like most politicians, and Daley surely is one, his tenure was not without controversy. Yet, he doesn’t appear apologetic or remorseful about these things but rather confident that his achievements will have lasting effect and inspire other cities to move forward toward their own futures.
“We in the United States have got to get back to believing in ourselves,” he said. “We can create an America that is better than the last century….We must not be afraid of the future.”
It strikes me that this is the kind of leadership and spirit we need in our politicians.