Has Daley Lost His Clout?

The betting in Chicago is that Rahm Emanuel may get the incumbent’s backing in the race for mayor. But Richard Daley’s machine isn’t what it used to be.

10.09.10 8:21 PM ET

Famous for his scowling, vein-bulging rants, Mayor Richard M. Daley of Chicago held the power to dispatch foot soldiers, as one strategist put it, “with the twitch of an eyebrow.”

Now, in a wide-open race to succeed the boss, some mayoral contenders are vying for support from the man atop the throne. Turns out it might not be worth so much. Now that Daley is on his way out, even his loyalists might not be inclined to bow and scrape, much less hustle around the precincts for him.

“Daley’s support used to mean dollars in the bank and troops on the ground,” said Bernie Stone, who has been an alderman for 37 years. “Now it doesn’t mean dollars or troops.”

“For the first time in a generation,” said Chris Foltz, an aide to an alterman mulling a mayoral bid, “people don’t have to fear the Daley Machine looking over their shoulder.”

It is a new day in Chicago, as one strutting alderman put it. Underlings who once feared the Daley lash are now talking of liberation.

“For the first time in a generation,” said Chris Foltz, an aide to Alderman Robert Fioretti, who is mulling a mayoral bid, “people don’t have to fear the Daley Machine looking over their shoulder.”

Scott Waguespack, one of the few aldermen who dared to incur Daley’s wrath even before the mayor announced he was bailing, described “a changed atmosphere” in City Hall. Politicians are suddenly emboldened to speak their minds.

“In the past, the message was, ‘This is the way it is—deal with it,” said Alderman Waguespack. “Now people are saying, ‘Hey, Daley’s a lame duck.' ”

But he is scarcely a dead duck, not in a city where some people of a certain age still speak in reverent tones when invoking the memory of his late father, Mayor Richard J. Daley.

“Don’t fool yourself,” said Paul Green, a political science professor at Roosevelt University, noting that Daley has not yet relinquished the levers of power. “Daley matters. He’s still mayor until May. And a lot of things can happen between now and May.”

Some whispers around City Hall suggest that the boss favors former White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel. A former Daley fundraiser, Emanuel won a congressional primary in 2002 in large part on the strength of an infusion of Daley campaign volunteers.

But there are plenty of allegiances to go around. Sheriff Tom Dart, who is considered one of the leading candidates, could also lay claim to Daley’s favor, having worked as an organizer for the mayor. For that matter, his father, Bill Dart, was a lawyer for Mayor Richard J. Daley.

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Yet another mayoral hopeful, Gary Chico, has served in high posts in the Daley administration. Daley has lately singled out Chico for praise.

The importance of political backing in the new Chicago era, whether it comes from City Hall or the White House, remains to be tested. President Obama, who is still a figure of enormous pride in his old town, has effusively praised Emanuel in what seemed to amount to an endorsement.

While Emanuel’s ties to Obama “will carry some weight,” said Congressman Danny K. Davis, who is mulling his own bid for mayor, “it won’t carry the day.”

He added: “In the African-American community, Rahm Emanuel is not going to be seen as a surrogate for Barack Obama.”

For his part, Daley has insisted he will make no endorsement in the race. Many analysts smirk. They believe the mayor’s preference will become obvious in not-so-subtle ways.

“He’s got a stake in this,” said Monroe Anderson, a former press secretary for the late Mayor Eugene Sawyer. “He wants to protect his legacy. And he doesn’t want someone coming into office who is going to trash him.”

Even before Daley stunned this city by bowing out of the race, his stock had declined. A Chicago Tribune poll in July found that only 37 percent approved of Daley’s performance in office, while 47 percent disapproved.

With incumbents everywhere running scared or dropping out, and with Chicago deeply in debt, Daley’s stock has taken a hit. His reputation for making the city livable has been damaged by rampant gang violence, seemingly intractable school woes and a sharp increase in parking fees that has left ordinary Chicagoans outraged.

Once admired as an efficient autocrat, Daley’s outbursts of temper have increasingly come to be regarded as petty and bullying. At a press conference this summer to display guns confiscated by the police, Daley became incensed by a reporter’s question. The mayor grabbed an old rifle and talked sarcastically about his notion to shove the gun “ up your butt” and fire off a few rounds.

Even by Chicago standards, the macho display was widely regarded as crossing a line.

Some aldermen have already likened Daley’s heavy-handed ways to Emanuel’s brash manner and made it plain they do not want another leader who will push them around.

“There are people who have had their arms twisted on occasion,” said Don Rose, a political strategist. “Some of them remember it quite well. They don’t like it. And they don’t want it to happen any more.”

Dirk Johnson is former Chicago bureau chief for Newsweek and The New York Times.