Richard J. Daley

Richard J. Daley (1902-1976) was the Democratic mayor of Chicago from 1955 to 1976 and the last of the nation's big city bosses.

The most powerful mayor in Chicago's history, Richard J. Daley, was born in a working class neighborhood on May 15, 1902, the only son of Michael Daley, a sheet metal worker, and Lillian (Dunne) Daley. His parents were Irish Catholics and sent young Richard to a Catholic elementary school, enlisted him as an altar boy, and then enrolled him at the Christian Brothers De LaSalle High School. Later, after several long years of night school, Daley earned a degree common to upwardly mobile Chicago politicians—a law diploma from De Paul Law School—in 1933. While a student Daley worked as a stock-yards cowboy and clerked in the Cook County controller's office.

Richard J. Daley worked his way up through the precinct and ward organization and made his first successful run for public office as a state representative in 1936. Two years later he was elected to the Illinois senate, where he remained until 1946 when he suffered his only election loss—as a candidate for Cook County sheriff. Defeated but not without friends, Daley was selected by Governor Adlai Stevenson in 1949 to become director of the Illinois Department of Finance. While there Daley expanded his grasp of budgets and public finance, which later served him well as mayor. Daley then returned to Chicago and was elected Clerk of Cook County. Meanwhile, he had married Eleanor Guilfoyle on June 23, 1936, and was the father of four sons and three daughters. A devout Roman Catholic, Daley reportedly attended mass every morning.


Begins Six Winning Elections

The key that opened his way to the mayor's office was Daley's election as chairman of the Cook County Democratic Central Committee in 1953. In 1955 Daley entered a Democratic primary election and defeated incumbent mayor Martin H. Kennelly. In the general election which followed, Daley beat Republican challenger Robert E. Merriam by a comfortable majority of the vote. During the next two decades Daley was reelected mayor over a series of nominally nonpartisan but generally Republican contenders in 1959, 1963, 1967, 1971, and 1975. The source of Daley's power derived from his dual role as mayor and party chairman. He ran a tightly organized party structure and made maximum use of about 35,000 city workers and patronage employees to bring out the vote. Daley also won public support because he paid attention to the delivery of municipal services and gave substance to the slogan "the city that works." His important role in helping John F. Kennedy win the Democratic nomination and the presidential election in 1960 brought Daley his first national recognition as a political strategist.

Dedicated to building and redeveloping Chicago's center, Daley encouraged the construction of downtown skyscrapers, stimulated expressway expansion, improved mass transit facilities, and enlarged the world's busiest airport, O'Hare. His administrations also set a rapid pace for urban renewal, the demolition of blighted areas, and the building of additional public housing. As with all of his enterprises he mixed politics and business, and for the scoffers, Daley repeated over and again: "Good politics makes for good government." When taunted about the evils of the "machine," Daley generally snapped back to reporters: "Organization, not machine. Get that, organization not machine." Although evidence of venality occasionally tainted Daley's cronies, the mayor himself appeared to remain free of corruption. One notable exception was when a lucrative insurance contract was given over to a firm employing a Daley son. When chided, Daley exploded with rage over the issue, insisting that it was the duty of any good father to help out a son. Beyond that misdeed numerous clandestine investigations by public and private agencies and local newspapers failed to produce a single solid charge of peculation against the mayor personally.


Some Setbacks in a Long Career

The year 1968 was a disaster for the Daley legend. In the wake of Martin Luther King's death in April 1968 a firestorm of arson, looting, and rioting swept through Chicago's Black West Side, and an enraged mayor issued an order which was broadcast across the newspaper headlines and television screens of the nation: "shoot to kill any arsonist … with a Molotov cocktail in his hand." Daley's command provoked the wrath of the liberal news media.

But that was only a foretaste of the bitter draught yet to come. Daley's attempt to host the 1968 Democratic presidential nominating convention in Chicago in August turned into a week of anti-war turmoil, street-violence by demonstrators, "a police riot," and a shambles that left Daley's reputation in low esteem. In newscaster hyperbole, Eric Savareid on national television compared that week in Chicago to the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia with tanks. Daley's standing with the public plunged to its nadir.

For a few years thereafter some professional societies refused to schedule their annual meetings in Chicago. Media liberals predicted that Daley was finished, and the lockout of the Daley delegation from the 1972 Democratic National Convention by the George McGovern wing of the party seemed to support that view. Yet when New York and other cities teetered on the brink of bankruptcy in the mid-1970s, Daley's hard nosed business management kept his city solvent and its bond rating high, bringing about a recovery for his reputation. He went on to win his largest political victory ever in 1975, gaining an unprecedented sixth four-year term. Early in his new term, on December 20, 1976, Daley died and was buried at suburban Worth, Illinois. Daley's public esteem had ridden a roller coaster of highs and lows but had recovered in time for a glorious obituary by the city.


An Evaluation of Mayor Daley

Daley's accomplishments during his 21-year tenure in office were numerous. The mayor had professionalized the police force and upgraded the fire department's services; he had continued the advantageous arrangement whereby suburban taxpayers paid for the support of Cook County Hospital, which served primarily city residents; he had solved a Chicago Transit cash shortage by the creation of a Regional Transit Authority which broadened the tax base; he had pushed through legislative action that transferred the cost and administrative responsibility for public assistance and welfare from Cook County and Chicago to the state; Daley had helped form a Public Building Commission to finance public construction by means of revenue bonds and at the same time protect the city's bond rating; he had prodded the Illinois legislature to create a Metropolitan Fair and Exposition Authority to operate Chicago's convention center, McCormick Place, without charge to the city; and, finally, he had persuaded the state to build a University of Illinois campus at the state taxpayers' expense in the heart of his city to serve primarily Chicago students. In short, Daley had expanded city services and shifted a large measure of the costs to the state, the county, and the Chicago area suburbs.

A year after the mayor's death a symposium was convened which included scholars, journalists, and practicing politicians who examined the Daley era and concluded: that Mayor Daley had won membership in a class of the best and most-effective big-city mayors of his time; that he had used the mayor's office in an instrumental way to rescue Chicago's downtown Loop from impending blight; that Daley's superior ability as a budget manager and an expert on public finances had helped steer Chicago away from the rocky shoals that nearly bankrupted New York City; and that as a political broker and organizer Daley was with few peers in the nation.

The mayor earned lower grades from the experts for his reluctance to reach out to the growing suburbs; the Democratic Party's slowness in accommodating newcomer Blacks and Hispanics; and his often stormy and abrasive relationships with the media. On the other hand, the city's bankers and real estate interests were pleased with Chicago's solid financial footing and its high bond rating. On balance, the Daley mayoralty was judged a success. The key to Daley's success, as an expert put it, was that "he was more observant of detail, more canny in his analysis of the political possibilities, and when compromise failed, more powerful than his opponents."


Further Reading on Richard J. Daley

For the two best works on how the "machine" worked under Daley see Milton Rakove, Don't Make No Waves: Don't Back No Losers; An Insider's Analysis of the Daley Machine (1975) and We Don't Want Nobody Nobody Sent (1975). A knowledgeable and veteran city watcher and newsman who put together a most perspicacious life and death of the mayor is Len O'Connor in his Clout: Mayor Daley and His City (1975) and Requiem: The Decline and Demise of Mayor Daley and His Era (1977). For an appreciation of the mythic and Irish dimension of Daley see Eugene Kennedy's Himself: The Life and Times of Mayor Richard J. Daley (1978). A wickedly clever and entertaining hatchet job on Daley "da mare" can be read in Mike Royko's Boss: Richard J. Daley of Chicago (1971). For a larger perspective on the Daley era, the best single source remains a conference symposium, Melvin G. Holli and Peter d'A. Jones, "Richard J. Daley's Chicago: A Conference," October 11-14, 1977, Chicago.


Additional Biography Sources

Kennedy, Eugene C, Himself!: The life and times of Mayor Richard J. Daley, New York: Viking Press, 1978.

O'Connor, Len, Requiem: the decline and demise of Mayor Daley and his era, Chicago: Contemporary Books, 1977.

Royko, Mike, Boss: Richard J. Daley of Chicago, New York, N.Y.: New American Library, 1988, 1976.

Sullivan, Frank, Legend, the only inside story about Mayor Richard J. Daley, Chicago: Bonus Books, 1989.