Q&A: Chicago’s Mayor Daley

Few American political dynasties can match the impact and longevity of the Daley family. Richard J. Daley was mayor of Chicago from 1955 until his death in 1976. His son, Richard M. Daley, has been mayor since 1989. But the younger Daley has ruled less with an iron fist and more with a green thumb. Daley has trumpeted streetscape projects and flower planters that have helped transform Chicago from a gritty manufacturing center to a pulsing hub with a diversified economy and booming real-estate market. But the Daley reign may soon be coming to an end. Daley has not publicly announced whether he will seek re-election in February 2007, and there are a handful of potential opponents testing the waters, including Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr.

Daley’s administration has also been feeling the heat from U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald’s investigation into city’s allegedly fraudulent hiring system. Though Daley is not under investigation and has denied any wrongdoing, his former patronage chief and three former city officials were convicted this past summer. And the mayor and city council haven’t always seen eye to eye. Daley recently vetoed the council’s ordinance that would have required retailers with at least $1 billion a year in sales and with stores of at least 90,000 square feet to pay their employees at least $13 in wages and benefits by 2010. Large chains, like Target and Wal-Mart, balked at the move and said it would hamper future store openings. Daley said the plan would crush development in the very neighborhoods, mostly black ones, which the minimum-wage bill was intended to help.

David Gerlach recently spoke with Daley about the minimum-wage issue, efforts to bring the 2016 Olympics to Chicago and government’s role in green initiatives. He would not comment about his future political plans or about the pending federal probe. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: You recently issued your first veto over the minimum-wage push directed toward "big-box" retailers.

Richard M. Daley: That was not the veto. We’re not a proponent of big-box retailers [per se]. We want economic development—both for people to work for the first time and for sales taxes. You also get real-estate taxes. The only time people have objected is when [the big-box stores] went to the west side of Chicago. Why is it that suburban areas can have any type of store and no one says anything?

Who objected to the stores? The unions?

I don’t know who it is. But it is wrong.

Recently, Wal-Mart opened its first store in Chicago in a depressed neighborhood on the city’s west side. What does it say about the economic climate in that part of the city where, according to Wal-Mart, some 15,000 people applied for 400 jobs available?

It’s nothing new. Everybody knows what’s happening on the west side of Chicago. There’s been no economic development.

Why do you think the south and west side of the city continue to struggle as downtown and other neighborhoods, particularly those near Lake Michigan, have been booming?

They aren’t struggling. [Business developers] want to go to these neighborhoods now. But people are saying [big-box retailers] shouldn’t come there. The minimum-wage [issue] belongs on the state and the federal government [level]. Why is it all right to pay someone different in the suburbs than in the city? You can’t say you can do this here and not over there.

Why do you think the Congress and President Bush have not addressed the minimum wage—which hasn’t been raised in more than nine years?

I don’t know. But that’s why you have this election coming up. That will be a determining factor of the election.

What do you see happening in the midterm elections?

I think the Democrats can take both houses. [Rep.] Rahm Emanuel [a senior adviser to Daley during the 1989 mayoral election and current chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee] is doing a tremendous job in regards to working with individual candidates all over the country.

When President Bush was in Chicago in July, you helped him celebrate his 60th birthday. Could you two be called friends?

I have respect for people in public office. I don’t hate anyone. If you hate someone you basically have hatred in your heart, which is wrong. I may differ with people on issues. He’s still our president, and it’s a birthday party.

This is in stark contrast to the mayor of Salt Lake City who led a protest when President Bush visited there recently.

That’s freedom of speech. That’s up to him.

Chicago recently submitted a revised plan to the U.S. Olympic Committee with hopes of hosting the 2016 Olympic Games. Part of this plan includes building an approximately $300 million, 95,000-seat temporary stadium in Washington Park on the city’s south side. Why do you think it is a good investment for cities to develop the infrastructure for an event that only lasts for a few weeks?

It’s all about good will. Immigrants to the city past, present and future helped [and will continue to help] make Chicago a global city. At the same time, the economic benefits are tremendous. Everything you build has a long-lasting affect. The Olympic stadium, after we break it down [after the Games], will host track and field, rugby, cricket, football, soccer. All the other venues will be long lasting. All the housing will be mixed income with affordable housing. [We’re] getting better transportation. All those things benefit a city in the long run. Barcelona is an example of a city that people didn’t understand, and look at it now.

As part of the Olympic bid, there are proposals to expand Chicago’s elevated-train system, in particular building a circle line to connect routes and cut commute times. How will you fund these projects?

Both the federal government and local governments [will] participate. But most of the things being built [for the Olympics] will be privately funded.

You take great pride in the environmentally friendly programs you have launched in Chicago since becoming mayor. Are these part of the city’s Olympic plans?

America is too dependent upon the car industry. Olympics can bring more money for infrastructure and public transportation. You’re not going to solve [global warming] by having more and more cars on the road, whether it’s in the city or in suburban or collar counties. It’s not going to happen. As you become less dependent on oil and use more public transportation, how do you clean up an expressway and clean up pollution? You have more and more landscaping that cleans the air. We’ve planted over half a million trees in Chicago. We’re removing air pollution for about 40,000 cars annually. [We’re pushing] water conservation and conserving rainwater, being bicycle friendly, green building construction. Green roofs to cut down energy costs. Taking asphalt and concrete and turning them into parks. Putting more solar panels on roofs of city buildings. Why do I do that? I have to lead by example.

You have not announced whether you will seek re-election. One potential opponent, Jesse Jackson Jr., recently said that you, as mayor, are personally responsible for the city hiring scandal that led to the conviction of four former city officials.

I have no comment on that.

You have been in office 17 years, approaching the length of time that your father served. Do you see any similarities in your respective styles of governing? Any differences?

I didn’t grow up in the Depression. Didn’t grow up in the second world war. He was a Roosevelt man. It’s as simple as that.

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