Michael Scott was one of the first political operatives I met after I moved to Chicago. That was back in 1982, and I was writing for the Chicago Reporter. The editor, John McDermott, decided to have three reporters cover the three-way race heating up in the mayoral Democratic primary. The candidates were Harold Washington, Jane Byrne, and Richard M. Daley.
McDermott assigned Laura Washington to cover Harold Washington and Willie Cole to cover Byrne. He stuck me with Daley. I’m still jealous of Laura’s assignment. The Washington movement was more like a party than a campaign.
But Daley? He plodded around town like a workhorse, rarely deviating from his script—which, by the way, sounded a lot like the I-won’t-raise-your-property-taxes one he still uses today. He surrounded himself with cronies from the neighborhood, white Bridgeport guys who regarded outsiders with suspicion and who looked at me like I was some kind of alien. Frankly, I don’t blame them. Memories of the marches and protests against the segregationist school and housing policies of the first Mayor Daley were still fresh in the city’s mind, and I was a kid reporter from the do-gooder paper devoted to race relations.
Michael Scott was Daley’s deputy campaign manager, but as near as I could tell, the campaign treated him the same way they treated me. As the campaign’s highest ranking African-American he had a specific role to play: enlisting the support of black ministers. Before it was over about 150 of them would put their names on Daley’s brochures and in ads in the Defender. Not that it mattered. Most of their parishioners voted for Washington anyway.
Scott and the campaign’s other black staffers had a separate suite in the campaign office, at 127 N. Dearborn. When I dropped in I’d make a beeline for him, and we’d sit around talking politics and sports, our two favorite subjects.
At the time he was only 33, but he was already a prominent leader in the black community thanks to his involvement in social and economic development issues on the west side. Scott’s mother, Dion, had been part of the struggle in the 1970s that forced the first Mayor Daley to build Collins, the only neighborhood high school in North Lawndale. In 1980 Mayor Byrne had named him to the school board in an overture to the west side’s emerging political community. When she replaced him with a white woman from the southwest side two years later, it set off a protest that fired up the movement that led to Washington’s campaign. To a lot of people it was an inexcusable act of betrayal for Scott to attach his name and reputation to Daley.
The criticism never seemed to ruffle him. When I asked about the nasty things folks were saying, he scoffed. As far as he was concerned, it was all a game—they were posturing.
Scott’s decision to endorse Daley was a calculated risk. He thought black Chicagoans were naive to think Harold Washington could win. Young Daley was going to win this election because this was a Daley town, always was, always would be. And once in office young Daley would stay in office for life, just like his daddy. In time, Scott said, some of the same people who ripped him would thank him. He’d be their man on the inside of the Daley administration. I remember him telling me, call Grady Jordan—the principal of Collins—and he’ll tell you: I’ll never sell out my community.
Though Washington won that primary and went on to beat Republican Bernie Epton in the general election, Scott’s old friends and allies welcomed him back into the fold. “It was hard to stay mad at Michael—he was not a disagreeable guy,” Jordan says. “After Daley lost, I called him. He was so happy I reached out to him. I said, ‘Why don’t you come on down and watch a basketball game?’ We were playing Westinghouse. I said, ‘Go over and work for Ed Smith’s [aldermanic] campaign and redeem yourself.'”
Harold Washington even gave him a job, appointing him deputy director of the Mayor’s Office of Special Events in 1983. I remember seeing him at City Hall shortly afterward. As Scott made his way around the perimeter of the council chambers, Alderman Bill Henry, another west-sider, jokingly called him out: “Michael Scott—from the west side. The man’s got more lives than a cat.”
In 1987 Washington died of a heart attack. In 1989 Daley beat Mayor Eugene Sawyer in a special election and Michael Scott became the black community’s man on the inside—just as he had predicted.
Over the next two decades Daley made Scott president of the Park District board and the school board. He named him to the boards of the Regional Transportation Authority and the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority, which oversees Navy Pier and McCormick Place. Scott had so many different roles it sometimes it seemed absurd—like the time last year when he sat on the oversight committee that was supposed to negotiate a community-benefits agreement with the mayor’s 2016 Olympic bid committee. It was like having one lawyer represent both sides in a divorce. In the end, Scott and other Daley allies held a press conference to announce that a hollow community-benefits agreement, which offered almost no guarantees regarding housing, jobs, or, you know, benefits—was actually a great triumph for the community. I don’t know how any of them got through the press conference with a straight face.
“He was a functionary,” says Pat Hill, a longtime south-side activist. “But you couldn’t be too angry at him ’cause he helped too many black people.”
He took the hit for the mayor on many controversial projects, especially school closings. You’d see him telling a room filled with angry south- and west-siders: Don’t worry, in the long run this will be in your best interest.
Scott often operated in back rooms, and in 2006, we got a rare glimpse into one of them, when three west-side activists with a camera—Derrick Harris, Mark Carter, and Paul McKinley—burst in on a meeting Scott and schools CEO Arne Duncan were having with state senator Rickey Hendon and Congressman Danny Davis in the back of Edna’s, a west-side soul food restaurant. (I reported on the ambush in “The West Side’s Funniest Home Videos” in the Reader on March 9, 2006; last week the video surfaced on YouTube.)
At the time of the meeting, west-siders were protesting plans to close several schools, including Collins, which would be converted to some other use, possibly including a military academy. Davis and Hendon had been talking tough about standing up to the mayor on the closings, insisting that at the very least Collins couldn’t house a military academy. And now they were busted, caught red-handed in the middle of a private negotiation.
“Rickey, you was really upset at the Board of Education,” says McKinley in the video.
“You can kiss my ass,” says Hendon.
“Pull it right down and I’ll kiss it,” says McKinley.
Scott is the coolest cat in the room. To the invading activists he raises his coffee cup in a toast and says, “Welcome.” He even gets the last word.
“Some people say it’s a sellout meeting,” says McKinley, hounding Scott as he gets into his car.
“People say a lot of things,” says Scott, laughing. “They say you’re ugly—and I agree with them.”
A few days later, over the protests of students, teachers, residents, and Scott’s old friend Grady Jordan, Scott and the board unanimously voted to close several west-side schools, including Collins, which would be divided into two charter schools.
When I called Scott later to talk about it, he told me he’d been amused by the video. He said he didn’t see anything wrong with public officials having private meetings. It was all part of the process. In this case, Davis and Hendon got something for their efforts: no military academy at Collins.
I was shocked when they found Scott’s body facedown in the Chicago River, a bullet in his head. I never, ever imagined his life would end like that. The guy I met 27 years ago was so smooth and unflappable, scoffing at his critics and rolling his eyes at their accusations. Like Bill Henry said, Michael Scott had many lives. I figured he had at least a few more left.