The very first thing Mayor Daley will miss is his driver.
“You know you’re out of office when you sit in the backseat of a car and it doesn’t move,” quips former Illinois governor Jim Edgar.
Almost to a one, Chicago and Illinois ex-pols say they struggled to relearn how to drive and how to park. Jim Thompson, the state’s longest-serving governor, had to practice driving at the state fairgrounds. Former U.S. senator Roland Burris once became hopelessly lost in a Chicago parking garage.
But the more profound and persistent problems they faced upon leaving office were the very psychological ills that could hit Mayor Richard Daley hard, after 22 years as mayor and two prior decades in public office. It doesn’t help that his father died in office, before he could show the younger Daley how to adjust to life outside.
Though Mayor Daley didn’t comment for this article, the Reader solicited advice and anecdotes from seven ex-pols to help shed light on Daley’s impending transition. They said Daley will need to acclimate himself to a wholly unfamiliar emotional, intellectual, social world—more comfortable, less stimulating, in many ways easier and yet demanding of new skills and real wisdom.
To truly understand how a politician copes with life postpolitics, you must first comprehend the initial shock of getting into office, and understand the nature of wielding so much public power.
Scrootened every day
“Scrutiny?” Mayor Daley famously asked a gaggle of reporters back in his first term. “What else do you want? Do you want to take my shorts? Give me a break. . . . Go scrutinize yourself! I get scrootened every day, don’t worry, from each and every one of you.”
Edgar can relate to that. He learned early in his first term as governor (he served from 1991 to 1999) that his words would be heard far and wide, “even if I was just babbling.” He made a casual remark during what he thought was an informal conversation after a press conference, about how it would be better to raise the income tax than property taxes. “Next day, the headline is, ‘Edgar wants to raise taxes,'” he recalls with a rueful laugh. “When you leave office, nobody cares what you say about anything.”
Another of the obvious perils of public life is the loss of privacy. Part of that involves the constant expectation that a politician be ready to discuss any and all constituents’ problems. Soon after U.S. senator Peter Fitzgerald took office in 1999, he realized that “You just want to go to the Jewel to get milk, and people want to tell you about problems they’re having with the post office or the IRS. So you end up avoiding going out on your own.” Fitzgerald hardly has to deal with such entreaties these days.
A politician also runs the risk of losing control of his or her schedule, former Illinois comptroller Dawn Clark Netsch points out. “You have to learn to take hold of it, or you let somebody else take control.” Having that control back is one of the joys of abandoning political office.
Jane Byrne wasn’t overwhelmed by the adjustment to public life when she took over as mayor in 1979. She’d worked at City Hall for a decade “and been in and out of Mayor [Richard J.] Daley’s office continually,” she says. “So I took it as one step up.”
She was surprised, however, at how quickly the job removed her from reality.
“You go to work to do a job, and you don’t want to build all this floss around it,” she says. But even early on, she found herself unable to get honest critiques of her ideas: “It was ‘Whatever you want, mayor, whatever you think.’ That’s not what I wanted!”
Every day a joy, ‘even if it was not good’
“Everybody would love to be mayor of Chicago,” Daley once said.
Actually, there’s a lot to like about being any kind of politician—which makes any natural born politico’s transition to the quiet life all the more bumpy.
“I still miss it for cripe sake,” says Netsch, who’s been out of the game since losing the race for governor in 1994. The pain is still audible as she recalls, “The thing was, I really, really wanted to be governor.”
And Big Jim Thompson really, really loved being governor. What he liked most during his 14-year run was what many politicians like least: campaigning, marching in parades, shaking hands, “bounding up on people’s porches.”
Thompson loved campaigning so much he did it throughout each of his four terms, year-round.
He made splashy use of a helicopter, by which he frequently lowered himself into small Illinois towns unannounced. “We’d land, and I’d start walking down the main street shaking hands and knocking on doors,” Thompson recalls. “Pretty soon we’d see the local press and local politicians.”
Byrne’s love of the game was less chummy and more pugilistic. When she describes the job, she talks about how hard it was.
She was “beating the machine” and meanwhile being called a sellout for compromising with aldermen.
She faced savage opposition among the machine establishment. “Some people [in City Hall] had calendars showing how many days they would have to put up with me. They’d say, ‘180 days more,'” she remembers.
She desperately tried and barely succeeded at keeping the city out of bankruptcy, and wasn’t thanked for it. “Solvency—that doesn’t sell, they just assume it.”
And not a shoulder to cry on. “It was hard, and frustrating, but you couldn’t be a crybaby,” she said. “You couldn’t say, ‘He’s doing this to me’ or ‘Don’t you understand?'”
So perhaps it’s surprising to hear Byrne say, “To be honest with you, every day was kind of a joy, even if it was not good.”
But Netsch understands. In political life, “Every day is sort of a marvelous challenge in one way or another.”
That’s one of the things Daley likely will miss most.
‘You knew it was there, day after day after day’
“Things like this, you get embarrassed,” Mayor Daley said in the wake of the hired truck scandal that shook the administration. “Things like this, when it happens, you get mad. Things like this, you get disappointed, but then you do something about it. And I have challenges in my life, personal and publicly, and I will overcome these challenges.”
All challenges and no rewards. By the time Ed Kelly was unceremoniously ousted as committeeman of the 47th ward in 2000, that’s how the old pro had come to see his task.
“There’s always pressure to keep the organization going, get volunteers to work for the candidates you are supporting,” he says. As the machine fell apart thanks to the Shakman decree, which outlawed most political hiring, ward bosses like Kelly lost the power to trade jobs for votes.
“It became difficult because the jobs weren’t there anymore,” Kelly says. So despite bitterness that still surrounds his ouster, he has enjoyed retirement. “You’re glad you’re taking a rest,” he says.
What Netsch didn’t miss when she left office is “causing so much pain to people in Illinois by not paying our bills on time.” At the comptroller’s office “we were swamped with calls for mercy,” Netsch remembers. And occasionally there’d be a story of a pharmacy closing its doors because it hadn’t been paid by the state. Though her staff handled most of these calls, “You knew it was there, day after day after day.”
That part is easy to let go of.
Peter Fitzgerald has no trouble remembering the hardships of the job. He said one reason he decided to retire was so that he could start watching his ten-year-old play sports. “At one point I missed 11 basketball games in a row,” Fitzgerald recalls.
“I’ve always been happy doing whatever I have done,” Fitzgerald continues. In fact, he’s so happy running the Virginia bank that he started after leaving office in 2005 that he no longer reads the news beyond scanning the headlines. “Private life is much less hectic and just as intellectually interesting,” he says.
In that sentiment, he appears to be alone among his peers, who found postpolitical life at least a temporary letdown.
‘It’s hard to let go of power’
“I enjoy getting things done,” Mayor Daley said in an interview during his first term. “My philosophy is the edge, the edge of something. There’s where we have to go in local government, in not only the philosophy but the creativity in people around you. They have to go to the edge.”
Getting off the edge felt like getting near a ledge for Edgar, who entertained the idea of returning to elected office for several years after retiring in 1999. He ultimately declined those encouraging him to run for the U.S. Senate in 2003, and rehearsing a final declaration of the end of his political career, Edgar found he couldn’t get through the statement without crying.
“It’s hard to let go of power, to voluntarily step aside,” he says. “Life goes on without you, though it’s hard to believe it can. You’re not in the center anymore. People are not rushing to you to get your opinion. Your successor does things differently, and you take it personally.”
Roland Burris was babysitting his grandson when the Reader called. The three-year-old has had to adjust to his grandfather now being on the couch next to him. He points at C-SPAN and says, “Grandpa in the Senate!”
Grandpa, too, is a little bewildered as he watches C-SPAN. “It’s as if you were never there,” he says. Meanwhile, every morning he tells himself, “You’ve gotta get up and get going.” He’s making speaking appearances, overseeing the writing of his memoirs, rejoining some social clubs he once belonged to—and babysitting.
“I told my wife, ‘I gotta get a job!'” Nothing nine-to-five, he says, just an office to go to, “to allow me to be out of the house.”
Jane Byrne spent the first week after she was ousted as mayor in 1979 mentally marinating in regrets about campaign miscalculations and grieving the loss of her job.
“I’m thinking, ‘What should I be doing?'” she said.
Toward the end of that week, “about four in the afternoon,” she suggested to her husband (the late Jay McMullen), “Why don’t we go out to dinner?”
“I can’t believe this,” McMullen said.
As mayor, she’d eschewed as many dinners as she could.
“For years we could have gone to any restaurant in town and the owner would have been happy to pick up the tab,” McMullen berated her. “Now that we’re out on the street, you want to go out!”
“That made me laugh,” Byrne says.
‘When you get older all you really care about is family’
“I’ve given it my all. I’ve done my best,” said Daley in his retirement announcement. “Now, I’m ready with my family to begin the next phase of our lives.”
Between his wife Maggie’s health issues and his grandchildren, Daley will have plenty on his plate, Peter Fitzgerald predicts: “When you get older, all you really care about is family.”
Others aren’t so sanguine about Daley’s ability to gracefully turn away. Edgar advises the mayor to get out of town, or better yet out of state, for a while—to make it hard for reporters to reach him, and hard for him to watch his successor try out his desk chair and abandon his policies.
Edgar spent the first two and a half months of his retirement in Arizona; being in Illinois as George Ryan settled in “would have been unbearable,” Edgar says.
Burris thinks Daley will refrain from publicly second-guessing his successor Rahm Emanuel, and Ed Kelly hopes Daley finds pleasure and purpose, as Kelly has, in showing up-and-coming politicians the ropes.
“When you’re in the game for that long, you become a coach,” Kelly says.
Netsch has more detailed advice for Daley: “He ought to take a deep breath. Maybe pick up a book he’s been meaning to read. Go to the grocery store and see how real people live.”
Eventually, she says, he ought to find a way “to be involved in the city he loves, that doesn’t cause problems for his successors.” Comparing Daley to active ex-presidents like Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, she suggests that he could act, maybe on Mayor Emanuel’s behalf, as a champion of pet issues—lobbying for the expansion of O’Hare or building business ties between Chicago and China.
“He has a huge reservoir of goodwill in this city,” Netsch says.
He does not, however, enjoy a huge reservoir of goodwill from Jane Byrne, whose mayoral reign was effectively ended by Daley’s unsuccessful first candidacy, in 1983 (Daley and Byrne split the white vote, thus handing the race to Harold Washington).
She says she never retired from Chicago politics, and still considers herself a player, citing as an example her public objection to Daley’s overnight demolition of Meigs Field eight years ago.
“Do I just sit in the corner? No. I am watching everything.”
How does she think Daley will handle being out of power?
“I think it’s going to be very hard for him,” she says.
Does she have any parting advice for Daley, as he joins her in a two-person member Ex-Chicago Mayor’s Club?