Your Friendly Neighborhood Update

The President's Mayor

Daley the Younger says charter schools keep the system honest.


Richard Daley is rarely sick, and he doesn't believe in snow days. Sitting in an office high above his frozen city this week, the über mayor is fighting a flu and talking about Chicago's image. The city has been under the klieg lights lately as the hometown of President Obama, and because of its bid for the 2016 Olympics. Then there's Rod Blagojevich, who, when I sat down with Mayor Daley, had just become the first governor in Illinois history to be impeached.

[The Weekend Interview] Ismael Roldan

In the days before, the mayor had called Mr. Blagojevich "cuckoo" but had declined to call for him to step down. If he's convicted on federal corruption charges, Mr. Blagojevich would be the second Illinois governor in a row to go to jail. Does the state have a special problem with lawbreaking pols? Well, yes and no, says the mayor. Corruption is not unique to the state. Mr. Daley rattles off several cases. "Just recently you had the Speaker of the House of Massachusetts, Florida, the Senate president in New York," he says, referring to other recent incidents of ethical lapses: "It happens. Human frailty happens and will continue to happen unfortunately."

"Look, in Washington you have Tom DeLay," the mayor continues. "Tom DeLay was saying to all the businesses, you hire this lobbyist. Meetings like that -- in his office!" he says, his voice rising slightly to indicate shock. "And Abramoff, it's like everyone forgot him. Where is he? I mean its just amazing."

Despite the shock value of the tapes in which Mr. Blagojevich suggests that Barack Obama's Senate seat is an "[effing] valuable thing" that he wouldn't just give away for free, the actions of federal prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald and the Illinois General Assembly have been questioned in some quarters. Mr. Blagojevich was impeached without being convicted of any crime. "I bet the constitutional lawyers and the legal experts are going to really look at this very, very carefully," Mr. Daley says. "[W]hen you impeach somebody . . . you have to make sure there is sufficient grounds, because you could start impeaching local, state, county officials in regards to any crisis you have."

Mr. Daley notes that Mr. Blagojevich's wounds were partly politically self-inflicted, because of his lack of political allies and his inability to get along with the state General Assembly. He also points out a structural problem, one Illinois has in common with other states. Springfield, like most capitals, is out of the state's major media market so the media never cover it. "You're in Springfield, you're in Albany. They never cover things like that. . . . so there really aren't watchdogs anymore."

Chicago is one of the nation's great media cynosures, and has been since the riotous heyday of Colonel McCormick and the Chicago Tribune. Lately, it has been a national focus as the latest place where Barack Obama got his political education. His postcollege work as a community organizer was done in the Altgeld Gardens public-housing project on the city's south side. He served as a city lawyer and a professor at the University of Chicago. He became a state senator representing areas surrounding Hyde Park.

In other words, his political rise came in the dappled light of the shadow cast by Mayor Daley, whose personality and history are inseparable from Chicago political culture.

The Daley Dynasty, of course, goes back to his legendary father, Richard J. Daley who ran the town between 1955 and 1976, giving birth to what is still called by some the "Daley machine." The son, who was known as Richie when he first entered politics, has become enormously popular and successful politically in his own right, winning a sixth term in 2007 with some 70% of the vote. He may not be a man who speaks in the complete paragraphs of a typical politician, but he does know how to make things happen.

Given the slightly spicy aura of the Daley name, it should also be pointed out how successfully he has managed to hover above the various corruption controversies that have cropped up during his tenure, including a city patronage scandal investigated by the same prosecutor (Mr. Fitzgerald) who brought down Gov. Blagojevich. So, I ask, is the new president a typical Chicagoan? "Well, in the sense that this is the first time since John F. Kennedy that anyone in the executive branch of government has a decent handle on big city issues. . . . Meeting with CEOs, meeting with unions, community groups, you don't have to go educate his staff or anyone else around him about urban issues."

Okay. I try again. Is there anything people don't understand about the politics here? No, says the mayor. "Politics is the same all over. You go to New York, you go to L.A., you go to Sacramento, go to Miami . . . it is the same. There is no difference."

A flood of Chicago people are landing in Washington, led by new White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, a notoriously feisty Chicago congressman. Will Chicago ways change the way business is done in the nation's capital? Well, one difference, he hastens to add, is that Washington is a bigger and lazier bureaucracy. "When it snows in Washington, D.C., people don't go to work. Raise the roof, I think it's hilarious. Just imagine if it snowed here and people said I don't have to go to work."

Mr. Daley has just made what many considered a big sacrifice for Mr. Obama and the new administration, sending them Chicago Schools CEO Arne Duncan to be education secretary. Mr. Duncan is considered by many as a reformer in the same echelon as New York Schools chief Joel Klein and Washington, D.C., Chancellor Michelle Rhee, and his time in Chicago was marked by a strong commitment to charter schools, as well an improbable ability to work with both teachers' unions and reformers. But he wouldn't have had the opportunity if it weren't for Mr. Daley, who took direct control of the schools, making himself politically accountable for fixing what was widely seen as a broken system.

He laid out a series of goals in the citywide Renaissance 2010 plan, including closing 70 failing schools and opening 100 new ones. The move wasn't popular with neighborhoods and administrators who were losing schools. But Mr. Daley asks: "How long can they fail? Thirty, 40, 50 years?. . . We have to be able to save this generation and other generations


Mr. Daley believes the goals of public education should be global competitiveness. "When children in America go to school six hours a day, that's 30 hours a week they get 25 hours of instruction." That's only about three full working days, he says, far less than kids are getting in other rising countries, especially in Asia.

Mayor Daley also sees an important role for charter schools. "You can't have a monopoly and think a monopoly works. Slowly it dissolves. And I think that charter schools are good to compete with public schools." Nobody says there's something wrong with public universities facing competition from private ones. "I think the more competition we have, the better off we are in Chicago."

But the mayor won't support vouchers. "School choice is hard. You're going back to arguing," he says, trailing off without making clear whether he means the politics. But he does think it's notable that, while federal money and Pell grants can be used to finance an education at a private college, federal money can't be used to help students get a private education at the K-12 level.

Ron Huberman, Mr. Daley's former chief of staff and head of the Chicago Transit Authority, is anything but an education bureaucrat, and that's just what the mayor wants in the man he named to replace Mr. Duncan as chief of Chicago schools. Too often in the past, before the mayor took over, the city would bring in schools chiefs who seemed to be riding an education lazy-susan from school to school. "We'd give them big bonuses to come here and then when we'd fire them they'd go to other school systems."

Mr. Huberman's selection may have caused consternation in the education bureaucracy but, "this is a manager, this is a CEO," says Mr. Daley. He means an accountable leader.

With the economy sliding, the projections of city revenue aren't good. Sales tax revenue is slipping along with property taxes battered by reassessments. Mr. Daley recently declined to enumerate which Chicago projects could be "shovel ready" for federal stimulus dollars, but he has said there is a list. So should the federal government be bailing out the states and cities, I ask?

"You have to make some tough choices," he says. "Last year the federal government put 75,000 people to work, in the meantime we're cutting back, we're laying off. . . . You can't have an economy of all government employees." One important kind of stimulus in addition to jobs and infrastructure, he says, is for "the private sector to invest where it not only creates jobs over a number of years, but gives them opportunity to grow in a difficult market."

"I don't look to Washington having all the answers," he continues. "because they print the money and they are basically in debt. And then you take state governments which are enormously in debt now. And so you have to think outside the box."

Along those lines, Mr. Daley has launched a controversial plan to raise capital by leasing public assets, including Chicago's Midway Airport, a major toll road called the Chicago Skyway, and parking garages and parking meters. The mayor's plan has so far pulled in $6 billion -- a model that other states and cities or even the federal government may want to consider. It's an alternative to taxes as a way to raise money, Mr. Daley has suggested. Besides, the "government can't manage things," he says, adopting a tone surprising from a lifelong Democrat. "You can see the Post Office, you can see the railroad. I've always said that, you have to be much more creative in these very serious financial problems we have." Nor is he opposed to a federal role to ensure "honesty and integrity" in the bidding process.

As for Chicago, he says, "You can put all the people who have been laid off in the financial industry back to work because they need good financial analysts both for the city and for the bidders. It's an economic opportunity."

That's how Mr. Daley sees his city's Olympics bid as well, which many believe has been strengthened by global enthusiasm for Mr. Obama. While some in Chicago are concerned the Olympics could end up putting taxpayers on the hook for spiraling costs and useless infrastructure, the mayor insists that won't be the case. "Mistakes were made in the past where built huge white elephants way out in regards to the Olympics and can't use them now, because they don't have enough population and enough events. We looked at that. . . . We're not building any new white elephants."

The event would be an opportunity to showcase the city that Mr. Daley has turned into a gleaming tourist destination, investing in everything from better street lamps and bus stops to more trees and flowers around downtown. Millennium Park and Navy Pier have become major hubs for concerts and theater, adding to Chicago's renewed reputation as a cultural bridge between the coasts. At this stage of the process, he notes, the city's bid for the Olympics "is not just Chicago anymore. It's the United States of America."

Ms. Levy, based in Washington, is a senior editorial writer for the Journal.