The Book Club

Good Housekeeping

Dear Jacob,

I really want to return to your point about Daley recognizing that municipal services are at the core of any successful municipal government. Cohen and Taylor seem to grudgingly acknowledge that Daley made extraordinary improvements to the city’s basic services. I say “grudgingly” because of the way they attribute motive to the mayor. “It is just as likely that his furious efforts to clean and repair were a manifestation of his extraordinarily controlling personality,” Cohen and Taylor tell us. While most people who knew him would certainly acknowledge that Daley had a controlling personality (incidentally, most successful elected chief executives seem to share that trait), does anyone really believe that personality explains Chicago’s budget priorities? Cohen and Taylor go on by suggesting that if it isn’t Daley’s personality that explains his policies, then certainly “Daley swept and paved for political reasons.” Improving city services was simply good politics, since it helped expand the patronage system. If Daley had spent the city’s tax dollars on services without any visible or positive effect, then that would be a good reason for criticism. By Cohen and Taylor’s reasoning, any elected official who pursues policies that solidify their political support has done something corrupt or evil.

Cohen and Taylor also seem surprised that services were reported to be better in the downtown business district and those wards with strong political attachments to the machine. In this regard, Daley is being criticized for being responsive to his constituents and understanding that city governments are dependent for most of their revenue on those who contribute most to the tax base. Cities do not have the luxury of engaging in serious redistributive policy if they want to remain fiscally stable, because they are weak players in the federal system. As most mayors now understand, the business community holds the trump card. When businesses choose to leave, the city’s tax base is weakened. Unfortunately, the poor do not have that power. In this regard, Daley was a 1990s mayor in the 1960s and 1970s. Today, the standard for evaluating city governments is generally based on the efficiency and effectiveness of their housekeeping services (a term Daley coined) and responsiveness to the business community.

What is the relationship between government and politics? The political system should function in a way that keeps elected officials responsive to the demands of their citizenry. At the same time, elected officials have a responsibility to set a policy agenda that the public can reject or accept. Daley understood both the formal-legal system of government in the city of Chicago and the informal power that could be gained from a loyal and predictable electoral base. Cohen and Taylor suggest that Daley remained chair of the Cook County Democratic Party organization after he became mayor because it was the more powerful position. This point really demonstrates a fundamental lack of understanding of the relationship between the power of the machine and the power of the mayor’s office. Daley understood that these were mutually reinforcing positions. The mayoralty provided direct access to the jobs, which were critical to the machine’s patronage network. At the same time, patronage jobs provided bureaucratic accountability in Chicago, something that most other mayors did not have because of municipal employee unions and civil service laws. The party also gave Daley clout in the state capital and in Washington. Most other big city mayors had been left fighting a losing battle with the larger suburban delegations in their state legislatures.

Daley is also criticized by Cohen and Taylor for forging bonds with labor and supporting Bill Dawson’s efforts to create a black machine. It is certainly true, as Cohen and Taylor point out, that Daley brought participants into Chicago’s government only if they accepted the rules of machine politics. But why should this be grounds for criticism when it is the only way mayors can win in the political arena of America’s great cities. It is far more amazing to me that Daley’s coalition actually included labor and business, white ethnics, and blacks.

Daley’s early support may have come from traditional machine patronage networks, but by the end of his mayoralty his electoral victories depended upon the citizens of Chicago who were satisfied with city services. I was involved in a survey conducted at the University of Chicago during the 1975 mayoral primary. Daley had serious independent opposition and won the primary by 56 percent of the vote. He later won the general election by 78 percent. It is hard not to interpret that number as a popular mandate. Only 20 percent of our sample reported that they or a family member were employed by Chicago or Cook County. The strongest determinant of support for Mayor Daley in the primary was satisfaction with the way the city works, and this was true for all racial and socio-economic groups. The findings are reported in the June 1983 issue of Urban Affairs Review.

I think we would both agree that Cohen and Taylor tell an incomplete story of Chicago during the Daley years and provide a one-dimensional picture of Richard Daley as mayor. Perhaps, had the title of their book been “Daley, Chicago, and the Question of Race in American Politics,” it would have been easier to be more positive about their work. Certainly, the book is beautifully written and reflects serious research. As it stands, the authors’ subtitle implies a broader project. “Mayor Richard J. Daley, His Battle for Chicago and the Nation” suggests a volume that would grapple with the broad questions of race and the economic decline of America’s central cities. Despite their aspirations, Cohen and Taylor provide us with little insight into what was unique about Daley’s Chicago as compared with other American cities and the extent to which Daley’s regime made a difference to Chicago’s economic viability.

Finally, I have been considering your characterization of Daley as an ethnic separatist who was most comfortable in his exclusionary neighborhood. Cohen and Taylor describe Daley’s ideology as “flinty conservatism.” I think that Daley was a New Deal liberal. He was a champion of the ethnic working class and made political concessions to blacks only as part of a political calculus. Daley, like the father of New Deal liberalism, Franklin Roosevelt, never had a real civil rights agenda.

I have really enjoyed our correspondence. I look forward to reading your continuing insightful analyses of American politics in Slate.

Warmest Regards,