"And then he talked about human frailties": Richard M. Daley

Chicago's longest-serving mayor needs little introduction. But what is he doing now?

By Sam Levine

Sydney Combs / The Chicago Maroon

GREY CITY

  /  

December 4, 2012

After serving for 22 years as Chicago’s mayor, Richard M. Daley decided not to seek a seventh term in office in 2010. In December of that year, Daley surpassed his father, who ran the city from 1955 to 1976, as Chicago’s longest-serving mayor. Since handing over the reins to Rahm Emanuel last year, Daley has maintained a low public profile, declining to weigh in on the new mayor’s policies out of, in his words, a “respect for the office.”

Instead, Daley has left City Hall behind for the classroom. Last year, he took a five-year appointment as a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Harris School of Public Policy, where he coordinates a guest-lecture series that has included private-sector CEOs, Tom Brokaw, and his own brotherformer White House Chief of Staff William Daley. Daley has also led small groups of students on tours around the city and launched a collaboration with the mayor of Gary, Indiana, that will allow U of C students to do research for Gary city agencies.

Grey City sat down with Daley to discuss his father’s private faith, the disappearance of true public servants, and the ways in which the Vietnam War wrecked the country.

GC: Do you miss City Hall?

RD: Well I knew, about a year before, I was gonna leave. Because, you know, I felt it was time—for me and for the citizens. I loved the job. I mean, loving a job and having passion.

I liked working Saturdays, because, if people worked during the week, when do you see them? Only through TV? So Saturday, the block clubs, the community organizations, marches against gangs, guns and drugs, or dedicating a park, or dedicating a school...Saturday was important. My cabinet, my deputies and commissioners, worked that day to feel the people. It’s not a poll that tells you what to do. You have to have some feeling about it. You have to have some human side of things. And whether it’s the homeless issue, or whether it’s the education issue, or housing issue, or discrimination and crime and things like that (taps pencil on table), you have to kind of feel the issue. You just can’t sit there in an office with a lot of computers and figure out, “I know the issue.”

GC: What do you do on Saturdays now?

RD: You know, I’m very disciplined...I like to read, work out. You know, spend time with the family, and just enjoy that day. I like Saturdays and Sundays.

GC: I wanted to talk to you a little bit about your political legacy in the city. How do you think the Mayor Daley who left office was different from the Mayor Daley who took office in 1989?

RD: I was much older, age-wise. And also, it was a different time. You know, Harold Washington was the first black mayor. A lot of people didn’t like it...When I ran [in ’89], I won, but I only received nine percent of the black vote.

In today’s politics, that nine percent doesn’t mean nothing because you don’t have to build upon that. Your base is over here (points to the side of the table), so you never build your base, you stay with your base. So you don’t do coalition building. And I knew that I represented the people who voted for me, people who voted for somebody else, people who didn’t vote, or people who couldn’t vote. So I represented everyone. So that’s how I looked at it. And then I knew I had to get more than nine percent. It went to 25 (in the next election), 30 percent, and then it went to 48 percent, and 60, 65, 70 [percent] of African-American votes....

Every time I ran for mayor, my opponents—nice people—I never was angry at them or anything. I was happy because I was successful in the election, so I wasn’t mad at them. You know, you move on with life.

GC: I wanted to talk to you a little bit about your dad. Your family has had a tremendous impact on political life in this city, and I think you could argue nationally. Becoming mayor, how was it difficult to assume that legacy, but also distinguish yourself from your dad?

RD: My dad came through the Depression and Roosevelt. At that time, Roosevelt was a savior of mostly cities. You know East Coast, Midwest cities. And then the war. And he was like one man, one party. It was a Roosevelt era...

My dad knew the political party was set up through Roosevelt. One man, one party. So it was very Democratic. And...they built coalitions. Coalitions of labor and business and politics... of ethnic and racial groups...That was coalition building. Now, it’s a base. [It’s thought that] you have your base, I don’t have to build upon my base—I have my base, I can always get elected. Or you Gerrymander everything.

My dad got elected, every one of his elections by African-American votes. Very interesting. From 1955 on, if you look at the highest percentage, they were always African Americans. He knew that things were changing because Vietnam destroyed the country more than anything else. It destroyed the presidency. Destroyed Johnson and the Democratic Party, because Johnson would not get out of the failed system (taps pencil on table).

And that was about 1966, ’67. My father told him to get out, “You’re going to lose.”...Johnson could not run for president, he could not campaign, he couldn’t even go out of the White House. And destroyed the country, killed a lot of people, and divided the country. And destroyed the Democratic party for years. Because they wouldn’t listen. Washington never listens. Can’t listen, because it’s a bureaucracy and red tape. They’re in their own shell. There’s their own shell around there.

GC: Two of your brothers have also had long tenures in public service. I was wondering what the conversations in your house growing up about politics and public service were like...

RD: There really wasn’t.

GC: Or, where do you think that legacy comes from?

RD: My father always believed that people should give back in different ways, and public service has a lot of different ways. He always thought it was not just those who were going into government and being elected, but a lot of things. He thought teachers are public servants. Doctors, nurses are public servants. I mean, you start thinking about people who continually work in shelters and help the less fortunate—that’s what it’s all about. He never directed anyone into the role of going into government.

I had a wonderful family, and our moral values...My father always said: Religion is personal. It should never be worn out here, it’s within here (points to chest). In your heart. “Everyone has the same moral values.” He was very strong on that. My father was a strong Catholic; he’d go to church, but he didn’t want anyone to go to church with him. He’d go himself. We would go with him, but no one else could go with him. He always kept it personal. He didn’t go around telling people he was a better person than you. He was like that.

And then he talked about human frailties. Money, power, sex, alcohol, drugs, people have human frailties. And he always taught me: Don’t get mad at them; get disappointed. They’re destroying themselves. You know, that’s what happens to people. But people don’t believe human frailties apply to anyone today until they find out some exposé.

So he stressed education. He said, “The only thing I’ll give you in life is the moral values and education. And then you take it from there.” And so when I decided to go into politics, it was my decision, not his. “Never complain to me and your mother. You and your wife make that decision. You become a public servant, you don’t become a political servant. You’re not a Democrat or Republican once you’re elected, you represent everyone.”

But today you’re a Democratic president. You’re a Republican president. You’re a Democratic congressman. You’re a Republican congressman. You’re a Democratic Senator or a Republican Senator. We’ve lost the identity of being public servants. We’re political servants to the party.

GC: Do you think it’s possible to get back to that idea of public service?

RD: No, because all the money goes into each party. Each party gets the money, and you become their political servant. You don’t become a public servant. You don’t represent the people. The younger people have to figure that out because you should not be a Republican or a Democrat. You should basically be a public servant.

But Washington has done this. They have formed this thing. If you look at the party system from the city and the county and the state, it’s all moved to Washington. Every city, county, state, political system has moved to Washington. The political party system is stronger there today than it was ever in the history of the country.

GC: Both with the president and others it seems like a lot of people who have been involved in Chicago political life, are now working in the White House. From your brother, to David Axelrod, to Valerie Jarrett. What is it about this city, or political life in this city that you think prepares people for Washington?

RD: They want to make a contribution so they’re willing to sacrifice in a way, and that’s really important. They’re willing, whoever it is, to serve the president, and serve that way. You need more people to serve that way. I think we should encourage more people to serve within government, and not restrict them not to serve. I wish there were more people serving in there. And if they have a conflict, you can take the conflict out. You can isolate that conflict. But we should encourage more people working in government so they can open government up to new ideas and changes.

And the world has changed considerably, and the world hasn’t changed. And I’m not talking about Obama, I’m just saying the structure of government. There’s too much bureaucracy and red tape. It is much bigger complicated government today than it ever was.

But they don’t want to change it. No one wants to change it. Because Republicans have their interest and Democrats have their interest.

GC: I wanted to ask you a little bit about the president. His entire political career developed while you were mayor. What do you think he needs to do in the next four years?

RD: He has a lot of good people around him. And they’ll advise him accordingly. I’m not gonna advise him. All the people there can work with him.

You learn through a campaign...One thing I found out is that the world is changing faster than we are. I go to China, I go to Russia, I go to Mexico. They’re not waiting for us. They’re doing their own thing. They’re not gonna wait for us, and we’re gonna share power.

I bet England was upset because the [American] Revolution upset the growth—and then what happened took place. I guess they should’ve been jealous of us. But they’re one of our strongest partners in the world. Why is it that we can share power with England but we cannot share power with the rest of the world? We fear China, we fear Russia, but in the Second World War, China lost more people to Japan than we did. Russia lost more people to the Germans than we did. Why do we fear them? I don’t know why. I can’t figure that one out.

And I think ours [America’s directives] should be humanitarian aid and of course the business to grow business here and outside the world—outside the United States. We think we always have to be the number one military power...I don’t think that’s good for our perception overseas.

GC: Guns. Gun control is something—

RD: My father in 1930 put a bill on Springfield against guns. Because if you look at the murder rate in the 1900s it was unbelievable in Chicago...It was just unbelievable. And so, what you have to understand is that, we came over from Europe and, historically, all they knew was that the king who sat in the castle or wherever, he had guns and gun powder and that ruled them. And so, some way, when we came here, we thought the gun is more powerful than the mind. And slowly but surely we thought we got out of there, but recently the gun has become more important than the mind. The gun is power...I have always believed that you have hunters, you have gun collectors—fine, I guess people want to have a gun in their home, you know. OK. But the escalation of guns in America is frightening to the rest of the world.

The protection of money launderers that make all the money, the protection of gun runners into Mexico and around the United States is overwhelming. So you take drug cartels, guns, and money, and you mix them together and you have violence in America and throughout the world. We have now abdicated to the gun manufacturers. I talk to other people in the world and they say, “You’re a civilized society, but you kill more people, and injure more people than the rest of the world.” I’m not talking about wars, I’m not talking about civil wars, or things like that, or ethnic violence, or religious violence. I’m just talking about day-to-day citizens. That’s what they wonder: “Why are you killing each other?” We’re a much more violent society. I get people on one end saying I should do this, I should do this, but an AK-47 in someone’s community—kinda frightening. Automatic weapons. The type of ammunition, the escalation of the military machine that Eisenhower talked about. Be careful. It’s here to stay. It’s here until America decides to do something about it.

GC: I know that as mayor you were part of the Mayor’s Coalition Against Illegal Guns.

RD: Oh yes, for years.

GC: And this summer New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg said that it’s time for our leaders at the national level to stand up and get serious about guns.

RD: Democrats are silent. Republicans are silent (taps pencil on table).

GC: Why do you think that is?

RD: Money interests in each one of them.

GC: Do you agree with Mayor Bloomberg?

RD: Oh yeah, I think it should’ve been a debate in this election. We should’ve heard from both candidates. We’ve had all these shootings in these schools, and religious institutions, and different things. But I don’t know. Maybe America is just immune to it.

GC: How do you think you can help the country address these problems in your position as a teacher at the Harris School?

RD: ...So money, pollsters, media. They decide the election. You don’t decide the election. They already carved you out. Such and such an age, you’re gonna vote that way. I don’t even have to know you, because we know how you’re gonna vote (laughs).

GC: So why should young people be interested in politics if they’ve been carved out?

RD: They have to change this. I don’t think polls should rule. I never believed the polls. I let my staff look at polls, but I would never look at them because I thought I should make my own mind up, or you try and convince me. Today, people look at pollsters and say, “Well, that’s it—we’re going this way.” I mean, that’s how life is. I’m not gonna change that...

But maybe we don’t identify these issues with human beings anymore. You’d think with all the violence they saw in the schools, every university would be outraged about guns. Now they’re passing laws to carry guns in schools. You think of that. Just think of the reaction we’ve had. And that’s why the rest of the world looks at us and says, “We don’t like what they’re doing there.”

GC: Was it hard for you to read about all of the violence in the city this summer?

RD: Sure, it upsets everyone. You don’t want to be known, no one wants to be known as a murder capital. So you have to really work at it. We have a good police force, I just want to make sure people understand that. This police force is a good police force. But they have different strategies, so that’s what they work on. They have different strategies.

GC: And the legacy that you hope you and your family can leave for Chicago—

RD: Well, no, you know this idea that everybody gets elected, they have to start sitting, writing on the wall “My Legacy.” You know, I don’t believe in that. You make decisions according to that time and...One thing you have to have: passion. You have to have honesty, and you have to be willing to make decisions. Take a risk. If you’re not, then it’s really boring.

GC: Then what would you say to people at the Harris School or any young people who are thinking of going into politics or public service in Chicago?

RD: Go into the private sector, then go into the public sector. You have to go into the private sector. You have to see people thinking outside the box. Many times people get caught in, it could be even in private sector, people get caught in a cage. You’re here and you feel, “What am I sitting in this room all the time for?” I can’t talk to you anymore. So you go non-for-profit or into the private sector. Because the private sector has all public policy, they’re dealing with every issue that government has. Every issue the world has. We forget that. Then you learn from that, then you go into the public sector and find out, “When I go there, what change can I make here?”

GC: I was reading that you created a partnership where students at Harris can do research for city agencies, especially Gary, Indiana.

RD: Oh yeah, for years we did that. I believe no part of America should be forgotten and Gary has really been forgotten for 50 years. Why do we allow that to happen? Why do we allow that in America? Why do we allow that? There are cities like that all over. So it isn’t government doing something—it’s just getting a whole new idea of looking at cities differently, and not looking at the way government looks at it. You have to look at it differently.

GC: And what do you hope students can get out of it?

RD: The real experience of basically evaluating the policy. Maybe the policy is wrong. Then eventually making a decision on how we can do this. How we can do it within our means, how do we raise the money, how do we look at the budget, how do we look at their policies.

It’s only about 80,000 people left in Gary. And look at the historical aspects of Gary, what it meant, what it can be in the future. What can it be? You go to Bilbao in Spain, and everybody thought it was an old industrial town, and now it’s a great museum, Bilbao. Shows you can change it just like that. Something happens. You can change it.

Interview has been condensed and edited.