It’s mostly a generational thing that leads me to observe that Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley made a much greater impression on me than Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley. To some extent, though, Daley the Elder was far more unforgettable: the epitome of everything good and bad about twentieth-century urban machine Bosses, and a bit of a throwback to those of the nineteenth century. Who could forget his defining moment at the disastrous 1968 Democratic National Convention in his city, when he repeatedly and mouthed obscenities at Sen. Abraham Ribicoff for referring to “those Gestapo tactics in the streets of Chicago” in a speech nominating George McGovern?

YouTube video

“Richie” Daley, as his son was known early in his career, was obviously less colorful than the old man, which was good for him in a way; who would want to be described as having a face that looked like “a potato with mange?” But in his own way, Daley the Younger was a better, or at least a more adaptable, politician, as we learn in Alan Ehrenhart’s review of Keith Koeneman’s new biography of “The First Son” in the July/August issue of the Washington Monthly.

The elder Daley presided over a city divided uneasily by black and white, but he owned the meek loyalties of a political organization in which the white politicians were beholden to him and the black machine aldermen were willing to accept virtual table scraps of patronage in exchange for the votes that kept him in office.

The younger Daley never had a situation like that. He succeeded a pair of African American mayors, came in with the city’s black community highly suspicious of him, and faced a political environment in which unified black opposition might threaten his mayoralty at any time.

Richard M. Daley’s ability to work in this environment stands as perhaps his single most impressive political attribute. He saw the changing demographics of the city, with Hispanics drawing closer to their current one-third of the population, and reasoned that with sufficient Hispanic support he would never have to worry about a black challenger. He offered patronage and political assistance to Hispanic community leaders, and soon converted himself into a majority mayor rather than a minority mayor fighting to hang on.

And who could have guessed the son and heir of the mayor who oversaw a “police riot” against antiwar protesters in 1968 would have reached beyond old-school urban constituencies?

Daley cultivated other constituencies that were not part of his father’s world. Soon after taking office in 1989, he served as grand marshal of the annual gay and lesbian pride parade. “I think it is important,” he said, “for me to show my support of the gay community.” Daley’s conspicuous environmentalism—symbolized by his successful determination to place a “green roof” on top of city hall, won over many of the “lakefront liberals” who had constituted the only organized political bloc that had opposed his father. “Talk about a tree person!” Daley once boasted to reporters. “Right here! I’m a tree hugger.”

The review weighs the pros and cons of Richard M. Daley’s long tenure and is on balance positive. Having visited Chicago a grand total of two times, I’m not in a position to second-guess him, though I suspect our Weekend Blogger tomorrow and Sunday, Chicagoan Kathleen Geier, might have a lot more to say.

YouTube video

(Yeah, I know, this ain’t disco music, but the name and sight are just too perfect).

Our ideas can save democracy... But we need your help! Donate Now!

Ed Kilgore is a political columnist for New York and managing editor at the Democratic Strategist website. He was a contributing writer at the Washington Monthly from January 2012 until November 2015, and was the principal contributor to the Political Animal blog.