daley_1_250Richard M. Daley

Following in his father’s legendary footsteps, Mayor Richard M. Daley—2010 laureate of the J.C. Nichols Prize for Visionaries in Urban Development—stepped into his own shoes in 1989 to become the nationally known and acclaimed mayor of Chicago. When he stepped down in mid-2011 as the city’s longest-serving mayor, Richard M.—heralded as “the king of America’s mayors”—brought to a close Chicago’s Daley dynasty, an era that experienced Daley “imperial” rule for 42 of the previous 55 years.

The U.S. Conference of Mayors recognized his service to the nation by conferring upon him its Award for Distinguished Public Service on January 19, 2011.

Of course, he had his critics and his problems —hiring and contracting scandals, none of which touched him personally; opposition to his strong stand on gun control; complaints from neighborhoods that they were being neglected in favor of downtown development; continuing economic and racial disparity; high infant mortality rates in poor black communities; struggles with a weak fiscal situation; and accusations of practicing “big tent dictatorship,” among others. But every mayor who innovates, ?reforms, and tries to create ?positive change gets criticism. ?So what’s new?

Put another way, the pluses of the Daley years far outweigh the negatives. With a combination of visionary leadership and political skill, Daley brought the city back after an interregnum during which it was paralyzed by political infighting, racial antagonism, and administrative mismanagement.

Consider this: according to the New Yorker, under Daley’s leadership the city grew in population, income, and diversity, becoming “a post-industrial capital of innovation,” or, as one observer noted, “a city of elegant shoulders.” Urban columnist Neal Pierce has written that a major Daley accomplisment was to create a “vibrant new century economy,” transforming the “hog butcher to the world” into a “‘hot’ modern-day urban center of advanced financial, legal, and specialized services to the Midwest and wider world.”

An interesting aspect of his mayoralty was the way Daley monetized city assets. Under Daley’s leadership, the Chicago Skyway was leased to a private group for 99 years in return for over $1.8 billion. The city’s parking meter system was leased to a private firm for 75 years to the tune of $1.16 billion. And Midway Airport was leased for 99 years to a consortium of private investors for $2.52 million. This may be well and good, but if the capital infusion is only used to pay off debt, as was the case with the Skyway money, the long-term systemic problem with the tax system is not addressed. (As of 2010, the city was facing a $655 million deficit, the school system was $1 billion in the hole, and property taxes were higher than ever.)

Speaking of schools, Daley accomplished something many urban mayors would like to—he gained control of the school system and the ability to appoint its CEO and commissioners. He pushed to decrease the dropout rate, increase the number of charter schools, expand after-school programs, and strengthen school libraries.

He believed in the efficacy of collaboration and spearheaded the formation of Chicagoland’s Metropolitan Mayors Caucus. It included 273 mayors all working together in partnership for the common good.

Daley was a leader in the environmental movement—a “green” mayor committed to sustainability, energy efficiency, measures to address climate change, and TLC for the city’s 570 parks. He put a green roof on City Hall and supported the creation of 7 million square feet (650,000 sq m) of other green roofs in his city, as well as the planting of 600,000 trees. Meigs Airfield on the downtown waterfront was turned into green park space with a prairie preserve and bird rehab center. And he led the initiative to build the world-famous Millennium Park, a “spectacular use of public space,” according to U.S. Conference of Mayors CEO Tom Cochran.

When he spoke to ULI’s Daniel Rose Center for Public Leadership in Land Use, Daley wowed his listeners with an impressive off-the-cuff speech covering issues ranging from transportation to education, job creation to infrastructure, and fiscal policy to environmental policy. One of those attending, Alex Garvin, said later, “Mayor Daley gave the finest 25-minute speech on cities by a politician that I have ever heard—no notes, no pictures, just persuasive observations and good sense.”

For noteworthy achievements in “successful community building” during the 21 years of his mayoralty, the Urban Land Institute presented Daley with the Nichols Prize in 2010—a fitting tribute to one of America’s greatest mayors.