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:: Mayors Daley and Ballard

The grizzly and the crow

By David Hoppe

At first glance it may seem that Richard M. Daley's decision not to seek another term as Mayor of Chicago has little to do with governance 150 miles down the road in Indianapolis.

Chicago is more than three times the size of Indianapolis. It is home to 11 Fortune 500 corporate headquarters, compared to two located here. Chicago has become an internationally recognized cultural capital, renowned for its restaurants, hotels and arts institutions. Indianapolis still grapples with its own identity, let alone with the image it presents to the wider world.

Finally, Richard Daley has been Chicago's chief executive for 21 years. Greg Ballard is in the final lap of his first term; it appears he'll be running for re-election in 2011.

It's possible that Ballard looks at Daley the way a crow sees a grizzly bear, finding nothing in common but a potential source of food in what the big predator leaves behind.

But my guess is that Ballard has learned enough about being a mayor to find the larger themes in Daley's story.

Although his approval ratings were at an all-time low, there were no serious challengers for Daley's seat. People griped about the job he was doing, but the consensus in Chicago was that if Daley wanted another term, he could have it.

Most Chicagoans could remember what their city was like before Daley took over. It was noticeably sagging, cracked and gray. Worse than that, it was racially polarized due, in part, to the hateful politics that ensued after Harold Washington was elected mayor on a reform platform in the early '80s.

Daley turned things around. He built an updated version of his Dad's political machine - one that was more attractive to big business than to labor -- and established his own kind of clout. Chicago developed a new set of muscles. People started talking about how beautiful it looked with all the new plantings and streetscapes.

Daley said that education would be the engine driving Chicago's prosperity. He made himself accountable for the performance of the public schools. He also saw how the arts and culture could energize the Loop and other neighborhoods throughout the city. He created Millennium Park, a massive public art project that ran way over budget but wound up being a wildly popular success as well as an international tourist destination.

People dug Daley because he seemed to know how to get things done.

That started to change during his last term. Sure, there were patronage scandals dogging members of Daley's administration, even members of his family. But these things are part of the territory in Chicago politics.

There were other, more intractable problems that emerged -- problems that challenged the very nature of Daley's urban governance. All the clout in the world couldn't make them go away.

Although Chicago had some of the toughest gun ordinances in the country (recently overturned by a Supreme Court ruling), the murder rate in the city, especially among young Blacks, went through the roof. Chicago police have been caught in the crossfire; at least three officers have been killed this year.

Chicago's high taxes are infamous. Sometimes it seems there are taxes on taxes. But this hasn't kept the city from falling into a financial hole leading to service cutbacks and lay-offs of public employees. More austerity measures are in store.

Public transit in Chicago is in a chronic state of crisis, forcing transit leaders to keep begging the Illinois state legislature for one eleventh hour bail-out after another. Yet the need for public transit keeps increasing.

Chicago's public schools have shown some improvement under Daley's watch, but they were in deplorable shape when he took responsibility for them. Progress has been slow and, according to many, barely sufficient. As one commentator put it, CPS has gone from a failing grade to a D+ or a C-.

Although these problems may be plus-size in Chicago, they are not unique. In Indianapolis, Greg Ballard could make a similar checklist. At issue is how to govern a city when demands are increasing while revenues are falling.

For almost two decades, Daley believed he could grow his city beyond whatever problems it faced. Bigger was not only better, greater size implied greater capacity to deal with challenges. High taxes could be borne if they provided streets that were safe, clean and, in many cases, even beautiful.

The landscape is different now. More taxes are paying for diminished services. That's a politically indefensible position. Daley must have seen this. It's probably why he went after the Olympics - a massive roll of the dice to attract investment in infrastructure improvements he couldn't otherwise afford. It didn't work out. Rather than learn a new way of governing, Daley decided to quit.

Figuring out a new way of governing in Indianapolis is Greg Ballard's job. It should be the platform he runs on - and how he's judged -- in his next campaign.