Credit: Sun-Times Media

On March 16, 2011, just two months before he left office, Mayor Richard M. Daley held a press conference in a vacant lot at 76th and Ashland. The event ended up illustrating many of the complexities and contradictions of his 22 years in power, the longest tenure of any Chicago mayor. The lot, which took up most of a city block, had once been home to industrial warehouses and small manufacturers, but the businesses had left and the empty buildings were razed. Like other parts of the south side, the Auburn-Gresham neighborhood had suffered for decades from high unemployment and crime.

But Daley was there with good news. Standing near a display of shiny red apples and green and orange bell peppers, the mayor announced that Walmart would open two new stores in the city by 2012, one of them at that very spot. He promised that the stores would sell fresh produce and bring thousands of jobs.

The announcement was met with applause from a group of neighborhood block club leaders who’d been urged to attend by 17th Ward alderman Latasha Thomas, a Daley loyalist. The timing of the event wasn’t a coincidence, as Thomas was fighting to keep her seat in a runoff election.

Daley was in a combative mood himself. He reminded everyone that he had been fighting for six years with unions and other critics of Walmart. While they had pushed the company to pay workers a “living wage,” Daley depicted them as opponents of economic development and civil rights.

“Why was it, during this whole debate, all right to build in the suburban areas, but there was an objection to build in the city when it came to the African-American community, Hispanic community, or the inner city?

“Walmart is a good corporation, not a perfect corporation,” Daley continued. “No one’s perfect here anyway in life. And that’s why we have the pastors, and that’s why we pray.”

It was the latest example of how, even in his last days on the job, the mayor was deeply passionate about the future of the city, but dismissive—even vindictive—toward anyone who raised questions about his policies. Daley had deep networks of support in Chicago’s neighborhoods, including the black areas where he’d started with little, though some of that was because he had stamped out the opposition.

And ultimately he had no better answer than anyone else for the rust belt problems weighing down the segregated south and west sides. New jobs of any kind were welcome, but Walmart could not replace the well-paid manufacturing and steel mill work that once existed where its stores were being built. Daley could only pretend otherwise.

For a full generation, like his father before him, Richard M. Daley was Chicago. His reign has long inspired debate: In order to improve the city’s international standing and stop the flight of the middle class, was he right to focus on rebuilding downtown? Or did that amount to pulling the plug on the city’s poor and working-class neighborhoods, leaving behind a bill that’s yet to be paid?

The answer is arguably both. Yet a new biography of Daley portrays him as the figure who made Chicago a center of international commerce and culture, but largely bypasses the communities and people he ruled over with unchecked power.

“His legacy would not only include finishing the unfinished business of the Daley family—improving race relations, public schools, and public housing—but also the transformation of Chicago into a global city,” Keith Koeneman writes in First Son.

Koeneman is a first-time author who writes about politics for the Huffington Post. He deserves credit for making the first attempt to chronicle Daley’s career and its lasting meaning, and First Son is a well-researched and readable work. But Koeneman’s assessment is flawed.

This is initially evident in his analysis of the period that led to Daley’s election as mayor. Daley was the Cook County state’s attorney when he decided to get into the 1983 mayor’s race against incumbent Jane Byrne and Congressman Harold Washington. The racial dynamics of the time have been well documented: after decades of segregation and neglect, black voters rallied behind Washington’s promise to fight discrimination while Byrne and Daley split the white vote.

But Koeneman has a new take, arguing that while Byrne and Washington played off racial animosities to rally supporters, Daley remained above the fray.

Once Washington was elected, white aldermen revolted, refusing to advance any of the new mayor’s initiatives—something that hadn’t happened under a white mayor for decades before and hasn’t happened anytime since. Yet Koeneman maintains that Council Wars were simply the result of Washington’s failures as an administrator and a politician. “He did not understand—or, perhaps, did not care—how power worked in white Chicago,” Koeneman writes.

This is what can politely be called revisionist history, especially when Koeneman bolsters his argument with a quote from one of the chief obstructionists, Alderman Ed Burke, who now claims that the divisions had nothing to do with race at all, but Washington’s unwillingness to compromise. Koeneman doesn’t cite a single African-American source.

The account of Council Wars only takes up a few pages in First Son, but it’s important because Koeneman uses it to set up his portrayal of Daley as city savior. Washington died of a heart attack in 1987, and two years later, with the black community divided between two candidates, Daley won the special election to replace him.

Daley surrounded himself with a diverse group of advisers, including the brilliant young media strategist David Axelrod, and went at his dream job with tremendous energy and confidence. But the first scandal hit within months: it was discovered that a lucrative towing contract had been handed to some of Daley’s friends. Such deals “left a portion of the voting public with the impression that Daley favored his buddies and allowed corruption in Chicago,” Koeneman writes—a more than forgiving way to describe an administration whose contracting and hiring misdeeds culminated with dozens of federal convictions in the 2000s.

More significantly, Daley worked to consolidate his power in his first years in office. First Son notes that by the time he was elected mayor, Daley had little interest in working with the old Democratic patronage machine his father had run so effectively. Court rulings and infighting had sapped the machine of strength, and Daley didn’t trust many of the old party warriors who’d sided with Byrne.

So he and his aides set up their own political armies. As Koeneman details, they employed roving bands of city workers and for-hire mercenaries in white neighborhoods, and in the growing Latino areas they unleashed the Hispanic Democratic Organization, which quickly became a potent patronage operation known for taking out independents who didn’t have jobs to trade for political support.

What Koeneman omits is perhaps Daley’s most significant and controversial political triumph: how he won over—and neutralized—opposition in Chicago’s black neighborhoods. When he first came into office, Daley reached out to key black ministers and let them know that they could come straight to City Hall if they needed anything. It was a gesture of reconciliation—and a brilliant way to undercut independent black aldermen. Eventually most aldermen got the message, and those who came aboard found that their wards received better city services as well as campaign workers at election time.

After Daley annihilated Congressman Bobby Rush in the 1999 mayoral election, there were no serious challengers left. Locking up the black vote made Daley invincible, and he knew it.

None of this is to say that Daley was only a political animal. Through a combination of good leadership and good luck, he oversaw a period of reinvestment and new confidence in Chicago. Koeneman hits on all of his major policy initiatives, each of which could be worth a book itself: taking control of the school system, with mixed results; dismantling public housing, and with it dangerous clusters of poverty, but with inadequate planning for what would happen to residents afterward; selling the parking meters, the cost of which we’re still trying to figure out; and the construction of Millennium Park, which Koeneman views as the most visible symbol of Daley’s success at turning Chicago into a global city.

By 2005, even some of Daley’s longstanding allies were weary of his domineering style. When Walmart moved to open its second store in the city, the “living wage” battle broke out. It was the most high-minded and bruising of the Daley era. On each side were multiracial coalitions of aldermen, unions, community leaders, and clergy who maintained that the city’s economic future was at stake. The fight culminated with council passage of a “living wage” ordinance in 2006, followed by Daley’s veto of it—the first and only veto of his career.

Other cities have debated the impact of big-box stores on wages and independent businesses—New York City still won’t let Walmart open there. Yet Koeneman dismisses what happened in Chicago as a “parochial” dispute: “Global businesses like Walmart needed to pay low wages in order to stay competitive, but labor unions still acted as if the US economy was shut off from the rest of the world.”

Koeneman forgets that much of Chicago remains shut off from the global economy—and out of the public eye altogether, except when hit with another explosion of violence. This too is part of the legacy of the Daley era, even if much of it is due to forces beyond any mayor’s control.

Daley, of course, won reelection to one last term in 2007, and Walmart has since opened new stores in the Gold Coast, Lakeview, Chatham, and the southwest side. The lot at 76th and Ashland remains vacant, though the company says it’s hoping to open a store there next year. Meanwhile, Daley’s successor, Rahm Emanuel, is planning to close six schools in the surrounding neighborhood by that time.