For me, the Daley era began in December of 1982. I was a young writer for the Chicago Reporter covering Richard M. Daley's first mayoral campaign.
He was standing in the hallway of a hotel preparing to give a speech. I gingerly approached and held out my hand.
"Mr. Daley," I said. "Ben Joravsky."
"Hi Ben," he said. "Rich Daley."
I told him I'd like to schedule an interview— photo shoot included—and he told me to talk to his press secretary.
I never got the interview, as much as I bugged the press secretary. Somehow or other, Daley never had the time. Eventually, Michael Scott—then a deputy campaign manager and one of the few staffers who'd talk to me—told me there was no chance they'd ever find the time. According to Scott, Daley's handlers figured anyone from a do-gooder rag like the Reporter—with its focus on race relations—was too liberal to be trusted.
Well, you know what happened next. Daley lost that election to Harold Washington.
But in 1987 Washington died. And in 1989 Daley won a special election to replace him and the man's been The Man ever since.
I've been hammering at him almost every step of the way. It's nothing personal—I just don't like the way he runs the city. I don't like the corruption, or the waste, or the way he strong-arms everyone from corporate titans to aldermen into backing even the most harebrained schemes—like, just to name one, the underground station at Block 37 for nonexistent express trains to O'Hare and Midway.
I have a problem with the hundreds and hundreds of millions of property tax dollars intended for the poor that he showers on the rich (yes, I'm talking about tax increment financing again). And with the way he's fired teachers while giving raises to central office bureaucrats and farmed out charter school contracts to acolytes like the United Neighborhood Organization. The way he bleeds the police department through attrition while telling us he's adding more cops to the force. You know the story—I've been writing it for years.
In 2007 I went so far as to write a cover story urging voters to vote for someone else. Anyone else, really. Daley won that election with 70 percent of the vote.
I'll give him credit for one thing—Millennium Park. I love that park. Good job, Mr. Mayor, even though you went way over budget to build it. It's only money, right?
As far as I'm concerned, he should have quit right after Millennium Park opened—he could've walked away at the top of his game. But no—he doubled down on his bets with a cockamamie Olympic scheme.
I fought that sucker tooth and nail. It epitomized the lunacy of the city giving one man so much power. He was ready to dedicate millions—probably billions—of dollars to a three-week sports extravaganza even though there was barely enough money to run a decent public school sports program. The Chicago Public Schools still don't have even one indoor running track.
When I heard that the International Olympic Committee had saved us those billions by giving the games to Brazil, I happened to be driving through Hyde Park. I was so happy I started honking my horn and yelling out the window.
But I wasn't nearly so jubilant on September 7, when Mayor Daley announced he wasn't running for reelection. In fact, I was a little disappointed. I didn't want him to leave this way. I wanted him driven from office in a massive grassroots uprising, sort of like the one that swept Jane Byrne into office back in 1979. I wanted the election to come down to the wire, with the crucial votes coming from the poor west- and south-side wards he's been neglecting all these years.
Oh, well—Mayor Daley wins again.
Anyway, I was singing "Auld Lang Syne" when I showed up for his September 9 budget hearing at the South Shore Cultural Center.
I love the mayor's annual budget hearings. (He holds three of them—one on the south side, one on the west side, and one on the northwest side.) The idea is that the people will peruse the preliminary budget—it's available online and hard copies, some 50 pages long, are passed out at the meetings—and advise him on how to refine it. The mayor lines up his full cabinet—as many as 30 people—at a table, where he always sits in the middle, squeezed between his police chief and his budget director.
The residents parade before Mayor Daley like peasants before their feudal lord. They praise him for past favors and beg for new ones. I recall a woman on the northwest side a few years ago telling him that she wakes up every morning with a prayer of thanks that God has made Daley her mayor.
Then she asked for her sidewalk to be repaved.
This year's show at South Shore was disappointing. Oh, there were one or two high points—such as when Daley teased north-side alderman Tom Tunney about making a rare south-side appearance. I guess Tunney really is considering a mayoral run.
But the mayor's heart clearly wasn't in it. He was like a schoolkid waiting for the last bell to ring.
He raced through his preamble—the part where he lays out the general state of the city's economy and takes credit for everything that's good while finding someone to blame for everything bad. But there was no passion. He practically mumbled the words. (Contrary to popular perception, he does not always mumble: a little later in his remarks, when he asked south-siders to come forth with information that might solve the murder of police officer Michael Bailey, he was animated and clear as a bell.) He promised to leave office with the budget balanced, but he didn't give a clue as to how he'd close the $650 million deficit. Why should he? It's no longer his headache.
Late in the evening he left the table and wandered around the lobby chatting with reporters and other politicians, leaving his department heads to hear the remaining pleas from the little people.
I was in the lobby with Reader contributor Hunter Clauss, and all of a sudden Daley was talking to us. I'm not sure if he knew who we were. I hadn't met him face-to-face since 1982. If he recognized Hunter, he didn't indicate it. It was more like he turned around and there we were, so he said hello.
He asked Hunter if he'd ever come to a South Shore budget hearing before, and Hunter replied by asking why he'd postponed this one, which originally was scheduled for August 25. Daley gave a rambling response—neither Hunter nor I had any idea what he was saying, though I'm pretty sure it was in English.
Then Hunter said, "Mr. Mayor, this is Ben Joravsky from the Chicago Reader."
Daley looked at me and said: "Oh, nice to meet you."
I thought about telling him that we'd actually met once before. But instead, I said: "Nice to meet you, too, Mr. Mayor."
And then it was like a light in his head went on. He looked at me. I looked at him.
There was a long pause. The tone got a little chillier. He zeroed in on me.
"So this is the first time you've come to one of these?" he asked me.
He'd already said pretty much the same thing to Hunter and Tunney and, for all I know, every white guy at the hearing. Like he's superbad 'cause he hangs on the south side all the time.
I said, "Oh, no, Mr. Mayor. I've been coming to these for years."
"Here?" he asked.
"Yes, here. I love the budget hearings at South Shore."
"I've never seen you before."
"Really? I come every year. I sit over there." I pointed in the general direction of where I sit.
We were still looking at each other.
"Where do you live?" he asked.
That caught me off guard for some reason. I thought: do I really want Mayor Daley to know where I live?
"What?" I asked, stalling for time.
"Where do you live?" he repeated.
I told him. Only I didn't give an exact address—just a general location. You know, just in case.
"Oh," he said. And he walked away.
A few minutes later the mayor wandered back. And I don't know what came over me—I get these impulses.
"Hey, Mr. Mayor," I said. "Let's pose for a picture."
And so I put my arm around him and he put his arm around me. I said, "C'mon, Mr. Mayor—show me some love." And we grinned our crocodile grins while Hunter snapped away on his phone.
It took 28 years, but I finally got my picture and interview with Daley. Only he was the one who asked the questions.
Ben Joravsky discusses his reporting weekly with journalist Dave Glowacz at mrradio.org/theworks.