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Why Won't He Commit?

Who does the mayor like? He's not telling.

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Seven Democrats are running in the March 16 senatorial primary, including Gery Chico. He used to be Mayor Daley's chief of staff, and Daley slated him to be president of the Board of Education. But Daley hasn't endorsed him. Also in the race is state comptroller Dan Hynes, whose father, Tom Hynes, is a longtime friend of the Daley family. Daley hasn't endorsed Dan Hynes either.

Daley's reluctance to make endorsements has long bewildered local political observers. "It's really a mystery," says one near-west-side alderman who, like most politicians, doesn't want to be identified unless he's complimenting the mayor. "I mean, he's had loyal guys who worked for him for a long time, but he doesn't endorse them. I never got an answer that satisfies me."

As far as anyone can tell, Daley isn't endorsing anyone in the Senate race. "Mayor Daley never endorses in primaries--in anything," says Jason Erkes, a spokesman for the Blair Hull campaign. "I used to cover politics in this town, and I can't think of a time when he endorsed a candidate."

Never?

"Well, he doesn't often get involved in Democratic primaries."

Except sometimes he does. On March 3 he endorsed John Kerry for president, though it was the day after the senator had all but sewn up the nomination by sweeping the primaries on super Tuesday. At a press conference Daley told reporters he wasn't "getting on the caboose of this train"--he just didn't want to endorse any candidate while the race was in progress "because I know all the candidates."

He's also made several significant primary endorsements in the past few years. Two years ago, in the primary for attorney general, he endorsed Lisa Madigan over John Schmidt, a longtime Daley ally and appointee. He also endorsed Rahm Emanuel over two other prominent Democrats in the primary for representative of the Fifth Congressional District. Most observers say he supported Emanuel partly out of gratitude--Emanuel helped him raise money back in 1989--and partly out of loyalty. "Daley appreciated all the help Rahm gave him when he was a White House aide," says a north-side alderman. "I mean, he really came out for Rahm."

So why endorse in that race but not now?

"With Daley it's a one-way street," says a north-side political operative who has close ties to the regular organization and its Daley loyalists. "He makes endorsements when he thinks it's in his best interest. If you recall, he made a last-minute endorsement of Rod [Blagojevich] in the gubernatorial primary--because he sensed Rod was going to win and he didn't want to be left alone at the station. In Lisa's case, he wanted to help [house speaker] Mike Madigan, an old friend."

So why hasn't Daley endorsed Tom Hynes's son?

"You have to understand, there's a big difference between Tom Hynes and Michael Madigan," explains Gerald Wilson, a political strategist who runs the consulting service Antaeus Enterprise. "Tom Hynes is an influential politician, and Madigan's a powerful one. What's the difference? Hynes is a former officeholder [Cook County assessor]--he might be able to do you a favor. Whereas Madigan is a powerful officeholder--he can impose his will. Get it? When you're influential, people will only help you out if it's in their best interest or if they think they can get away with it. But when you're powerful, they'll endorse you because they think they have to."

In the case of the Madigans, Daley knew he had to endorse Lisa if he wanted Michael's help in the statehouse. In the case of the Hyneses, well, there isn't much Tom can do for Daley that Daley can't do for himself. "Hey, that's politics," says Wilson.

Daley does have a blanket policy of endorsing aldermen who endorse him. According to most observers, he endorses them for the obvious reason--it keeps them in line. "If he endorses you, that's one less thing you have to worry about when you run for reelection," admits the north-side alderman. "You have enough troubles without having to go up against the money and clout he can bring." But the net result is a City Council full of yes-men. "I guess that's the price we pay for reelection."

It's a far cry from the strategy of Daley's father, who was mayor from 1955 to '76. Richard J. Daley often championed the candidacies of prominent reformers such as Paul Simon and Adlai Stevenson for statewide office. Apparently he thought Chicago and Illinois looked good when they had honest and intelligent politicians on the national stage--so long as they didn't meddle in local political fights.

Richard M. Daley doesn't seek out reformers to anoint. If he did he probably would have endorsed Schmidt, who was highly regarded by most good-government groups, over Madigan in the primary for attorney general. "I think Daley the son learned a lesson from Daley the father in these kinds of endorsements," says Wilson. Richard J. Daley endorsed Paul Simon over Dan Walker in the 1972 primary for governor only to see Walker turn the endorsement against Simon, labeling him a political hack who was part of the Daley machine. Walker defeated Simon in the primary and went on to serve a term as governor. "The lesson," Wilson says, "is that just because you want a candidate to win, it doesn't mean you can deliver."

In other words, the mayor may have something to lose and not much to gain in making an endorsement. "Rule number one about politics is that it's about self-survival," says the north-side alderman. "Daley looks pretty foolish if he endorses, say, Chico and Chico loses. And you know something? I don't know how much weight Daley's endorsement really has anyway."

It's doubtful that a Daley endorsement would help a candidate running for alderman in a black ward. "In the black wards I think it's a liability," says Pat Hill, a police officer and community activist who's involved in south-side independent politics. "Most of the incumbents don't need him." And they don't want to look like they're in any way Daley puppets.

Daley's backing certainly hasn't helped some white and Hispanic candidates. Back in the days when she was an outspoken independent, 46th Ward alderman Helen Shiller routinely defeated Daley-backed candidates, much to the mayor's chagrin. (In the last election she backed Daley, and he backed her.) And in last year's aldermanic election Rey Colon and Manny Flores both defeated Daley-backed incumbents.

So why would a candidate seek his endorsement?

"I don't think politicians should," says Hill, "particularly if they want to run strong in the black community."

State senator Barack Obama has made no attempt to tie himself to Daley or to distance himself. "You know," says Obama's campaign spokeswoman Pam Smith, "we've got our hands so full we're just focusing on this race--our race."

Other candidates might have wanted Daley's backing, if only to scare opponents out of the race. According to many observers, Chico hoped to clear the field by announcing in July 2002 and by winning Daley's blessing. Chico refuses to express disappointment that Daley wouldn't back him. "The mayor has decided to stay neutral, and we support that," says Samantha Anderson, a spokeswoman for Chico's campaign. "Obviously what any candidate would like most is his endorsement. In the absence of that, neutrality is the best."

Hull, a businessman making his first run for office, is the only Senate candidate acting as if he had the mayor's blessing. He says that he met privately with Daley months ago and that the mayor encouraged him to run.

Did Daley mean to send a message to other candidates that Hull was his guy?

Absolutely not, says the north-side alderman: "Remember, before Hull got into the Senate race he was letting it be known that he was thinking of running against Rahm [for Congress]. Well, I don't know what happened, but I can imagine. Daley doesn't want a guy with $40 million to blow running against his guy."

The alderman says the meeting between Daley and Hull sounds like a classic case of Daley telling people exactly what they want to hear: "Daley's very good at saying vague but encouraging things. He's really smart--he just can't string two sentences in order. With Hull I bet he was smart enough not to say, 'If you don't run for Congress I'll endorse you for senator.' Why should he say that when he doesn't have to? What I suspect he said is, 'You know, I think you'd make a good senator.' That's good enough for most people. I think most people hear what they want to hear and disregard the rest."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bill Stamets.

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