In 1969, Richard M. Daley entered politics as a newly elected delegate to the Illinois Constitutional Convention.
He’s now the nation’s longest-serving urban mayor, and a Chicago icon on par with the Hancock building, Wrigley Field and another red-cheeked, syntax-challenged guy named Ditka.
But Daley is now 67. He’s wrestling with the lowest approval ratings in his mayoral career, a city government hamstrung by the recession, a failed Olympic bid and a tide of ill will rising over his moves to privatize city services.
Is this the twilight of the Daley years? And if so, who is Chicago’s next mayor?
Few would have posed those questions just a few years ago. But Daley will soon need to decide whether he’s a candidate in the February 2011 election – a move that would keep him in office well into his 70s.
“My own view, if I had to guess, is that he will run,” says Marty Oberman, a former alderman prominent in independent politics. “That’s who he is. He runs for mayor.”
But Oberman and others say Daley’s age, coupled with his low approval ratings and the changing demographics of the city, may make him vulnerable in a way that he hasn’t been before.
“With each passing year, the population is shifting to younger people, to young professionals, to career-oriented people who aren’t from Chicago,” he says. “The whole Daley phenomenon is not something they’re as wedded to as old-timers. Incrementally, it applies to fewer people each year.”
Dick Simpson, another former alderman who now heads the political science department of the University of Illinois at Chicago, says the mayor still has a major weapon left in his arsenal: money.
“My assumption is that he still has, if he runs, vast resources. He can easily raise more than $7 milllion,” says Simpson.
Daley’s patronage army would also discourage potential opponents from testing the waters.
“It’s down from his father’s 35,000 to something like 5,000,” Simpson says. “But it’s still much more than anyone else’s.”
In the past, those strengths have limited the competition to the rare politicians who relish an almost-certain defeat.
If the 2011 election proves to be more hotly contested, it will be because Daley’s current situation attracts stronger candidates.
“There aren’t a large number of people of mayoral timbre,” says Simpson. “It has to be someone who’s run before.”
Among those who might fit the bill would be City Clerk Miguel del Valle, County Clerk David Orr, and U.S. Reps. Jesse Jackson Jr. and Luis Gutierrez, Simpson says.
Of those, Jackson could make the most formidable candidate – but only if he’s able to clear his name in the House ethics investigation stemming from former Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s attempt to fill the Senate seat now occupied by Roland Burris.
“It’s casting a question mark until he’s cleared,” says Oberman.
If there is a strong opponent for Daley, that candidate will have his work cut out for him.
“Someone’s going to have to cut through the sense that you can’t beat City Hall here,” says Oberman. “It’s largely a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
But with the right coalition – including black and Hispanic voters, good government groups and voters upset about everything from taxes to the Olympics and crime – a solid candidate might have a chance.
“It would come down to them all gelling around some meaningful opponent,” says Oberman.
Marilyn Katz, a Daley ally whose public relations firm does work for the city, says the backlash against the mayor is related to the economy more than frustration with him personally.
“Everybody in the nation feels insecure about the future,” she says. “The question is the same for the whole country,”
She expects the rising economic tide will lift Daley, too.
But will that encourage him to run again? Or might he decide to spend his seventh decade relaxing?
She noted that working late into life is something of a Chicago tradition. Daley’s father died in office. Ruth Rothstein, former leader of the county health system, stayed into her eighties.
Rev. Arthur Brazier, a well-known civic leader and pastor of Apostolic Church of God in Woodlawn, just retired at age 89, she says.
“I think the best among us work until we’re bored,” she says.
Simpson says he predicted Daley would bow out before the election he most recently won.
That’s why he’s not guessing what will happen this time around.
“It’s a long way off,” he says. “A few scandals could make a difference.”