Mayor Richard M. Daley has never had less control over the City Council.

That’s not what most people heard just a few weeks ago, in mid-September, when the local press was hailing Daley as a masterful politician. He had just issued the first veto of his nearly two decades as mayor, and his opponents in the City Council had failed to come up with the votes to override it. Not only did Daley succeed in killing the big-box minimum-wage ordinance the council had passed over his objections this summer, he also managed to revive the myth that he has nearly unchecked arm-twisting powers. According to this line of thinking, the emperor didn’t just win the big-box battle–he conquered his opponents, coercing three aldermen to switch sides and join him.

But it may have been a costly win. Many members of the City Council are increasingly bitter about Daley’s style and increasingly comfortable with the idea of defying him. They’ve been put off by his use of race as a wedge to divide the council–“It was a political campaign a la George Bush and Karl Rove,” said 38th Ward alderman Tom Allen, once one of Daley’s reliable northwest-side supporters–and they don’t think he’s been on the right side of issues like the big-box ordinance and the smoking ban.

“People in the council are not really happy,” said 25th Ward alderman Danny Solis, the council’s president pro tempore and a close Daley ally (the mayor appointed him to his post in 1995). “A lot of people feel they haven’t been recognized for their loyalty. There’s a strong sense that they’re being taken for granted. I think it’s an attitude the mayor has to change so the council feels better respected.”

Heightening the tension is the municipal election in February. This time around, thanks to federal investigators and a court-appointed monitor over city hiring, the mayor won’t have as many jobs to give out or as many patronage workers to do campaign work. This means aldermen no longer need to fear as many repercussions for crossing Daley, but it also leaves those with weak political organizations trying to figure out how to fend off challengers on their own. “I’m sure many aldermen are vulnerable, including myself–I have three opponents already,” said the 50th Ward’s Berny Stone, who’s been in office since 1973. “I don’t think I’ll be beaten, but it’s a pain having to face opponents.”

Last week’s City Council meeting was pretty sedate, but there were still some signs of election anxiety. At one point finance committee chair Ed Burke, sponsor of an ordinance that would require the city to fund live podcasts of council meetings, was interrupted by 42nd Ward alderman Burton Natarus. “It’s the 75th anniversary of Dick Tracy!” Natarus shouted without warning. He said he was introducing a resolution commemorating the famous comic-strip detective. “I have a lot of Dick Tracy magazines,” he said proudly.

“Comic books,” Mayor Daley corrected him.

Richard Mell, the longtime 33rd Ward alderman, hastily rose to his feet. “I’m asking Alderman Burke to remove my name from the ordinance asking that this be televised,” he said. If voters had seen Natarus’s Dick Tracy outburst, he said, “none of us would be allowed to come back.”

Daley agreed. “Wait to do it until after the election,” he said.

Aldermen may take the mayor’s advice on this, but they won’t on plenty of other issues. The big-box fight convinced most of the council that, politically at least, he’s not the man they thought they married.

Daley said early on that he opposed the ordinance, which required giant retailers like Wal-Mart and Target to pay workers at least $10 an hour plus benefits by 2010. But neither he nor his lobbying staff tried to quash it or forge a compromise. “It was a mistake on his part–and it gave the unions an opportunity to lock up certain aldermen,” said Stone. A supporter of the ordinance when it was first introduced in committee, Stone became one of its most passionate foes, saying it didn’t cover enough workers and wouldn’t hold up under legal scrutiny.

With Daley out of the picture, community organizations and service-sector unions furiously lobbied aldermen for the ordinance while Wal-Mart, the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce, and other business groups campaigned against it. Both sides accused their opponents of buying off community leaders and aldermen. Both sides told aldermen they would challenge them at election time based on how they voted. The ordinance sailed through 35-14 as Daley looked on idly.

That’s when the most important part of the fight broke out. The lobbying by unions and business groups didn’t stop, and in fact turned even more political: in some wards, well-funded activists from both sides conducted computerized phone polls gauging ward support for the aldermen, making many nervous.

Sixth Ward alderman Fredrenna Lyle, who backed the ordinance, says, “There was a telephone poll in my ward asking people, ‘Do you support the big-box ordinance? Do you support Alderman Lyle’s position? Would you vote for her?’ That concerned me, because I didn’t know where it was coming from at first.” Lyle now believes Wal-Mart supporters were behind the poll.

Business leaders, meanwhile, increased their pressure on the mayor to use his veto power. Wal-Mart and Target announced they were suspending plans to add more stores in the city, while the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce contacted Daley’s chief City Council lobbyist and “let him know the business community was coming together and was willing to educate aldermen,” said chamber president Jerry Roper.

At the end of August Circuit Court Clerk Dorothy Brown announced her candidacy for mayor, and U.S. Representative Jesse Jackson Jr. said he was forming a mayoral exploratory committee and lining up a slate of aldermanic candidates. Counting political activist William “Dock” Walls, who’d already announced that he was running, that made three African-American Daley challengers. While Daley refused to confirm that he was planning to run for reelection, CHA chief Terry Peterson, who is black, stepped down to run the mayor’s exploratory committee.

So it didn’t seem coincidental when Mayor Daley announced plans to veto the big-box ordinance, or when he changed his reasons for objecting to it. Up until this point he’d argued that it would kill job growth and economic development; suddenly, at a south-side rally the day before the September council meeting, he called it a matter of racial justice. “How come it’s all right for the north side and the southwest side to get big boxes, but all of a sudden when you talk about economic development in the black community, there’s something wrong there? There’s a double standard,” Daley said.

It was essentially the same speech 29th Ward alderman Isaac Carothers, a firm Daley loyalist, had delivered on the council floor in July. “All the vacant land in this town is on the west side or the south side. We don’t have no Target. We don’t have no Home Depot,” he said. Big boxes are “an economic engine for those who need it the most. But when it comes to the west side, ‘Let’s gamble.’ This comes from people who have never been in the community.”

Daley’s racial talk infuriated aldermen who supported the ordinance–and a lot of other people too. “My phones lit up–people flipped out,” said Lyle. She told the mayor’s staff they had made a big mistake. “I said, ‘I’ve never been out here yelling against the mayor. However, tell him that if he ever uses race again, he’s on his own. I mean, if the south and west sides are wastelands, why didn’t you do anything about them when you were the one in charge?'”

Still, by the September council meeting it was clear that ordinance supporters wouldn’t be able to muster the 34 votes needed to override the veto. One of the original aye voters, the First Ward’s Manny Flores, was conveniently out of the country, in China meeting with business leaders. Solis, 12th Ward alderman George Cardenas, and 16th Ward alderman Shirley Coleman announced their intentions to switch sides. And during the meeting, 46th Ward alderman Helen Shiller, the onetime independent who’d skipped out on the first vote, said she planned to side with the mayor this time.

In their speeches to the rest of the council, all of the converts took pains to explain that they’d decided the wage increase wasn’t worth the possible loss of new jobs that might result. But each also bent over backward to justify helping out the mayor.

For months, Solis had been mentioned as a possible successor to imprisoned former city clerk James Laski, but the alderman had told reporters he was no longer interested in the appointment and insisted that it had nothing to do with his big-box vote. Now Solis said he had voted for the ordinance the first time around because dozens of his constituents had called his office asking him to. Since then, however, he had studied it more and decided it would slow economic development. “It would be very simple to sit down here and hide, but that’s not leadership,” Solis said. “I don’t agree with the mayor on everything, but I do on this.”

Unions and other activists may target Solis in February–more than 100 have already visited his office to express their displeasure. “Some of them were quite loud, and one even gave me a little sprinkle of saliva,” he told the council. But “after all the work I’ve done in my community, I say, if you want to run against me, bring it on!”

“Bring it on!” echoed ordinance foe Dorothy Tillman, the Third Ward alderman, from her seat. “Bring it on! Bring it on!”

Cardenas spoke next, though he had almost nothing to say about the ordinance itself. Elected in 2003 with help from Daley’s Hispanic Democratic Organization, Cardenas let everyone know that he thought the mayor deserved credit for getting Chicago looking so good. “The city’s skyline is beautiful,” he proclaimed. “Over the last 17 years there has been tens of billions of dollars of reinvestment in our communities. The mayor’s judgment has been sound, and I have chosen to trust in that judgment.”

Noting that she had a long career of supporting labor, Shiller said she wanted to be loyal to her allies but the ordinance might threaten the Wilson Yard development in her ward. She added that she didn’t think the ordinance would really lift wages or protect union jobs at companies competing with big-box retailers. “Why settle for illusionary victories?” she said. “Today, with a very heavy heart, I will be voting to sustain Mayor Daley’s veto.”

Two months earlier Coleman had delivered an eloquent speech to her colleagues about how she would have benefited from higher wages when she was a single mother on welfare. This time she spoke directly to Daley. “Mr. Mayor, I have had to do a lot of soul-searching before deciding to support you with this veto.”

Coleman didn’t need to mention that the daily papers had reported that one of her good friends, a developer who’s given thousands of dollars in gifts and donations to Coleman and her church, was being sued in federal court for fraud, or that she was widely considered to be in trouble in the upcoming elections. She said that Wal-Mart had promised to consider opening a store in her ward, and that when she was on welfare, she at least had the chance to walk to work. “My community has told me that it wants to be able to walk to work. Mr. Mayor, I’ve been approached and told that, yes, the unions are going to come after me. But something is better than nothing.”

Other aldermen gave speeches explaining their positions. Mary Ann Smith, alderman of the 48th Ward, said it was a “sad day” because “I have never, ever doubted the ability of this mayor to make decisions for the city of Chicago, but I will not change my vote.” No one, though, caught more attention than 21st Ward alderman Howard Brookins Jr. when he said, as an argument in favor of the veto, “I had someone call in and say, ‘I have six kids and I can’t afford to support them on less than $10 an hour.’ Well I’m here to tell you, I’ve been making six figures for a while now, and I couldn’t support six kids on that.” Several aldermen cringed.

The motion to override the veto received 31 votes (with 18 against).

Afterward, Daley was relaxed and happy. When a reporter asked him a question about Stone’s pledge to try to repeal the ban on foie gras, passed earlier in the year over Daley’s objection, the mayor turned smug. “That’s another one they’re going to take care of,” he said.

For all of the bluster, though, the mayor had managed to lose standing in the eyes of many council members. Neither business lobbyists nor the mayor’s own team had been able to win over any of the once-loyal aldermen from the white ethnic areas on the northwest and southwest sides. While Cardenas and Solis had cast their votes with the mayor, the rest of the Latino caucus had also held firm. To many aldermen on both sides of the big-box debate, Daley’s veto wasn’t so much a sign of strength as a last-ditch effort forced on him by local business leaders after he ignored the momentum to pass it in the first place.

“I thought with all of the resources and the blitz that went on there would be more people changing their vote,” said Allen. “In the end you still had 31 people voting against the mayor. Two years ago, if someone would have suggested this could happen you would have thought they were just nuts.”

Last week, as the council meeting wound down, Daley held a press conference with boxing promoter Don King and seven-foot-one-inch Russian boxer Nikolai Valuev, ostensibly so King could announce that he was helping the mayor promote Chicago’s bid for the 2016 Summer Olympics. Its main effect was to make the mayor look desperate for political allies.

King wore a pink shirt, an American flag tie, and a jean jacket with pictures of himself stenciled on it. His hair was as gray and tall as ever. He began, as many such endorsers do, with a dismissal of Daley critics who harp on his administration’s patronage scandals. “When you start talking about that highfalutin politics you lose people,” said King. “The proletariat doesn’t get all that. They care about neighborhood development, and that’s what you get here.”

The mayor stood to King’s side, his whole face arched into a grin. King praised the mayor for multicultural sensitivity and economic development. “We marched together in the Bud Billiken Parade. I saw all the shrubs and trees he’s planted. I saw the things that have been built here. I campaigned once for the late, great Harold Washington–and this mayor has picked up the mantle! Whether you like him or not, he gets things done!”

After a little more of this, Jackie Heard, the mayor’s press secretary, whispered in the ear of one of King’s aides, who then called out, “Don, we’ve got to go.”

“We’ll just do the best we can with God in front!” King said. “God bless America–”

“We have to leave.”

“–the greatest nation in the world!”

When King was gone, the mayor announced that he was backing a push in Springfield to win a $1 increase in the state minimum wage, to $7.50 an hour–another sign that though he may have won the big-box battle he isn’t immune to its pressures. He was flanked by blacks and Latinos–legislators, community activists, pastors, and a lone alderman, the 17th Ward’s Latasha Thomas.

“This will help women and minorities,” state senator Iris Martinez said of the proposed bill. “The real value of the minimum wage is the lowest it’s been since 1968. After having Don King here, the fight is on, and I’m ready to fight.”

Burke, one of the chief sponsors of the big-box ordinance, was told of Daley’s minimum-wage plan a few minutes later in his office upstairs. The 14th Ward alderman has supported Daley’s initiatives for years, but the two have never seemed to trust each other since facing off in the 1980 primary for Cook County state’s attorney.

Burke said he wasn’t impressed with Daley’s latest plan. “I don’t think it’s adequate,” he said. “But politics is the art of compromise, and something’s better than nothing.” These days, the adage even seems to be true for Daley.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Robert Drea.