Richard the Privatizer

September 14, 2010

Bob Quellos, a founder of the No Games Chicago group that challenged the city's bid for the 2016 Olympics, chronicles the long and grim reign of Mayor Richard Daley.

WITHOUT WARNING, and to the relief of many Chicagoans, Mayor Richard M. Daley announced at a press conference last week that, after 21 years as mayor, he would not seek re-election.

Since his announcement, the mainstream media in Chicago have been busy glamorizing Daley's tenure as mayor and praising his ability to bring the city out of the doldrums of 1980s deindustrialization and create the "global city" that it is today.

While the media has been forced to give nods to the obvious troubles that have plagued the Daley administration, any real analysis of the city's political structure and current economic plan has been sparse. Take, for example, the praise for Daley's mayorship in a Chicago Sun-Times editorial:

[B]efore he goes, allow us to make one thing perfectly clear: Richard M. Daley has been one hell of a mayor. Though his dictatorial style at times offended us, Chicago flourished during his two decades at the helm.

As of late, the Daley administration has run into some problems. A July poll by the Chicago Tribune found that just 31 percent of Chicagoans wanted the mayor to run for re-election, as opposed to 53 percent who did not. And Daley's image has taken a hit over the last year after the details surrounding the sale of Chicago's parking meter lease became public.

Chicago Mayor Richard Daley
Chicago Mayor Richard Daley (Kate Gardiner)

Add to this Daley's embarrassing defeat in the bid for the 2016 Olympics, Chicago's ongoing budget problems, a defeat of Chicago's handgun ban by the U.S. Supreme Court, and a possible upcoming battle with the Chicago Teachers Union.

But the mayor's recent list of woes is nothing new. Throughout his time as mayor, Daley has watched many of his close political collaborators get hauled off to prison for illegal dealings at City Hall. The Hired Truck Scandal alone, which cost the city $40 million a year for city trucks that were paid not to work, sent nearly 50 people to prison, including the mayor's patronage chief Robert Sorich--with the investigation stopping short of implicating the mayor himself.

THE DALEY administration has been plagued by corruption since its first days in office. In fact, corruption was key to helping the young Daley win his first election, as he campaigned on his "success" as the Cook County State's Attorney.

As Charles Butler wrote on Huffington Post: "If I were writing Mayor Daley's legacy, it would have to include his tenure as the Cook County State Attorney, where on his watch innocent men were given death sentences, and tortured, many believe with the knowledge of state and local prosecutors."

Jon Burge, the police commander that oversaw this torture of more than 200 men and forced false confessions that sent many innocent men to death row, was finally found guilty of lying about torture earlier this summer. He is currently awaiting sentencing.

Daley still denies any knowledge of the torture that occurred under Burge and denies being aware of information about the ongoing torture by Burge given to him while he was Cook County State's Attorney.

While Daley has always pled ignorance to any wrongdoing or illegal acts that have occurred at City Hall since he took office, he's never been shy about using whatever means are necessary to get what he wants.

In March 2003, without providing notice to people in Chicago or even the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), Daley decided to shut down Meigs Field Airport, located on the city's lakefront just outside downtown.

His mission was accomplished by sending demolition crews in the dead of night to carve two large X's into the airport's single runway. The next morning, Chicagoans, the FAA and pilots with planes still at the airport woke up to find the airport was no longer operational. His brazen move brought outcry from the press, Chicagoans and the FAA, which eventually fined the city.

Daley's tenure as mayor largely coincided with two economic booms, but he's stepping aside as Chicago faces $655 million budget shortfall in the coming year. And like every other city dealing with the current economic recession, the last few years have by no means been easy for most Chicagoans.

Under Daley's watch, thousands of jobs have been slashed, city workers were forced to take furlough days, and basic services have been cut to ease the city's budget crisis--all while Daley sits on a slush fund $1.2 billion that he controls and doles out at his discretion.

While the basic standard of living for Chicagoans has been under attack, those aligned with banks and big business have been prosperous, thanks to a cozy relationship with Daley. As the Chicago Tribune commented on the day of Daley's decision to not seek re-election, "During Daley's 21 years in office, he built a tight relationship with business, and his agenda became their agenda in many ways."

In his campaign to become mayor in 1989, Daley championed the privatizing of government services. And the Daley administration did privatize--everything from the Skyway Bridge that leads to Indiana, basic services and downtown parking garages, to schools and public housing. It attempted to privatize Midway Airport and areas of the public parks, and even floated the idea privatizing the city's water system.

But the sale of the city's parking meters may prove to be one of Daley's greatest legacies, leaving residents to curse his name for decades to come. The parking meters sale was essentially a giveaway that made everyday life more difficult, as parking meter rates rose throughout the city. It was also a giveaway that clearly exposed how city business is done--behind closed doors and for the benefit of the mayor's cronies and the business elites.

In December 2008, Mayor Daley announced the $1.15 billion, 75-year lease of the parking meters to Chicago Parking Meters, LLC, a newly created entity managed by Morgan Stanley. Soon afterward, it became public that the real value of the meters was somewhere around $5 billion.

The deal was great for Morgan Stanley, which quadrupled parking rates and can look forward to making a good profit off the meters for the next 75 years. And while profits from the sale of the meters was supposed to be set aside for a "rainy day fund," almost all of the money obtained in the sale has been spent by City Hall within the last two years.

DALEY LIKES to take credit for coming up with the idea of privatizing everything under the sun. As he told Chicago Public Radio last year, "I'm the one who started talking about leasing public assets. No other city has done this in America."

But the Skyway Bridge lease, the first deal of this kind, was first pitched to Daley's top finance aides by Goldman Sachs, which was then later paid $8.4 million to advise the city on the deal.

And while the mainstream press has touted the mayor's success in "reforming" the Chicago Public Schools, the privatization program he implemented, known as Renaissance 2010, was in no way his brainchild. The plan for Renaissance 2010 originates with the Commercial Club of Chicago, an organization of the city's most powerful corporations.

In 2003, the Chicago Commercial Club published a 58-page document titled Left Behind, aimed at "reforming" the Chicago school system and attacking the Chicago Teachers Union and parent democracy in the school system.

What followed was the mayor's implementation of a program called Renaissance 2010. The program, when completed, will close 60 "under-performing" and low-enrollment schools and replace them with 100 new schools. Many of these new Renaissance 2010 schools are charter schools, which are operated by nonprofits, eliminate the teachers' union and outsource management.

As Andy Kroll of Truthout wrote of Renaissance 2010: " The corporate elite simply used the mayor and his authority over the school system as an avenue to privatize and militarize Chicago's schools under the guise of Renaissance 2010, a program that so far has seen, at best, very mixed results."

The press is still applauding Daley for overseeing the dismantling of Chicago's public housing, which has been a well-documented disaster for its residents. A recent Chicago Tribune editorial glowingly described Daley's overhaul of public housing, known as the "Plan for Transformation," stating, "He has dismantled the high-rise warehouses that ghettoized generations of Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) residents. It's another under-told saga, one that liberated often voiceless families from cyclical doom."

What the Tribune failed to mention is that a great majority of those families are still voiceless and face the same poverty, no thanks to the Plan for Transformation. The plan has forced large numbers of CHA residents off of public housing rolls and into the private sector. In the end, the Plan for Transformation has proven to be nothing more than a land grab by private developers in cahoots with the mayor and a nightmare for the public housing residents who have been displaced.

Combined, Renaissance 2010 and the Plan for Transformation have had a devastating impact on a large number of Chicagoans. This is especially true for the mostly poor and African American Chicagoans who live on the South Side, where these two programs work hand in hand not to better Chicago and the lives of the people in it but to gentrify neighborhoods--leaving many with no choice but to leave the city.

IN THE end, Mayor Daley's biggest accomplishment has been to place the city squarely under the thumb of corporations and the neoliberal economic policies they want implemented.

And the next mayor of Chicago will certainly be beholden to this formula. As Ramsin Canon from the Chicago blog Gapers Block wrote, "The competition for that office is not going to be left to minor players. Understand that the individuals who vie for that office will need to bind themselves to any number of institutional and organizational players with billions of dollars at stake."

However well Daley ran the political machine in Chicago, he hasn't been able to create an obvious successor during his tenure. His political machine was able to bring under its control Black, white and Latino politicians from every corner of the city--creating a City Council that rarely cast votes not in line with the mayor's wishes.

At the same time, he was able to adhere to the wishes of the city's corporate elite that contributed heavily to his campaign fund. Even though he isn't running for re-election, Daley will leave office with nearly $1.5 million in his campaign fund that he can claim as his own due to a late 1990s change in campaign-funding laws.

Daley's decision to step aside, with no obvious successor to steer the machine, creates a political vacuum in Chicago. This political vacuum could likely result in a political circus not witnessed in the city since the death of Mayor Harold Washington in 1987.

Days after Washington's death, Chicago's City Council convened to appoint an interim mayor. What quickly followed was one of the ugliest scenes in the history of Chicago politics--broadcast live on TV. Nearly 480,000 viewers watched Chicago City Council members posture, stand on tables to scream, break into tears, pray, swear, hurl racist insults, threaten physical violence and then finally elect Eugene Sawyer as Chicago's next mayor, shortly after four in the morning.

The upcoming Democratic primaries for mayor scheduled for February 2011 promise a holiday season full of Chicago-style political theater. Unfortunately, it is unlikely that the real needs of Chicago will be realized in the end.

However, when it's over, the election is sure to expose the fact that progressive reform in Chicago has not been limited by the iron fist of Mayor Daley, but by the corporate power structure that has propped him up, as the next likely Democratic mayor, however strong or weak, takes up his same policies.

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