First Son: The Biography of Richard M. Daley

First Son: The Biography of Richard M. Daley

by Keith Koeneman

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"Mayor Richard M. Daley dropped the bomb at a routine news conference at City Hall on Tuesday. With no prelude or fanfare, Mr. Daley announced that he would not seek re-election when his term expires next year. 'Simply put, it's time,' he said." New York Times, September 7, 2010

With those four words, an era ended. After twenty-two years, the longest-serving and most powerful mayor in the history of Chicago—and, arguably, America—stepped down, leaving behind a city that was utterly transformed, and a complicated legacy we are only beginning to evaluate.

In First Son, Keith Koeneman chronicles the sometimes Shakespearean, sometimes Machiavellian life of an American political legend. Making deft use of unprecedented access to key players in the Daley administration, as well as Chicago's business and cultural leaders, Koeneman draws on more than one hundred interviews to tell an up-close, insider story of political triumph and personal evolution.

With Koeneman as our guide, we follow young Daley from his beginnings as an average Bridgeport kid thought to lack his father's talent and charisma to his unlikely transformation into an iron-fisted leader. Daley not only escaped the giant shadow of his father but also transformed Chicago from a gritty, post-industrial Midwestern capital into a beautiful, sophisticated global city widely recognized as a model for innovative metropolises throughout the world.

But in spite of his many accomplishments, Richard M. Daley's record is far from flawless. First Son sets the dramatic improvement of certain parts of the city against the persistent realities of crime, financial stress , failing public housing, and dysfunctional schools. And it reveals that while in many ways Daley broke with the machine politics of his father, he continued to reward loyalty with favors, use the resources of city government to overwhelm opponents, and tolerate political corruption.

A nuanced portrait of a complex man, First Son shows Daley to be sensitive yet tough, impatient yet persistent, a street-smart fighter and detail-driven policy expert who not only ran Chicago, but was Chicago.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226449494
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 03/28/2013
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 400
Sales rank: 747,472
File size: 10 MB

About the Author

Keith Koeneman is a third-generation Chicagoan. He holds advanced degrees from Harvard University, the University of Chicago, and Northwestern University and writes on Chicago politics, history, and culture for the Huffington Post.

Read an Excerpt


The Biography of Richard M. Daley


Copyright © 2013 Keith Koeneman
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-44947-0

Chapter One


Lillian Dunne Daley gave birth to Dick Daley, an Irish-Catholic kid from Bridgeport, on May 15, 1902, during the third term of Mayor Carter H. Harrison II. During Chicago's "age of Harrison," the Irish quietly ascended to the top of the political ladder. For most of Dick Daley's life, the Irish would rise and rise and rise and then, finally, control Chicago politics. It was as if all of the ethnic groups in the city decided to play a real life, twentieth-century game of king of the hill. Like kids scrambling up a snowy, icy pile on the grade school playground—pushing, kicking, punching, crawling over the backs of each other to make it to the top—the Irish, German, Polish, and Italians, as well as a few tough blacks, struggled and struggled to overtake one another. The game would end with Dick Daley on top of the heap, surrounded by his Irish buddies. He was, at his death in 1976, king of the hill.

But that glory was far off in the future.

Turn-of-the-century Bridgeport was a gloomy, ethnic, working-class neighborhood. Industry had created its most prominent physical features: railroad tracks to the east, the Union Stock Yards to the south, and Bubbly Creek to the west. Each day, the neighborhood inhaled the nasty smell of the stockyards. The tangy odor of blood and manure overpowered newcomers, but many long-time residents ceased to sense it or told their children the smell was healthy. Bubbly Creek, a gaseous, waste-filled section of the south branch of the Chicago River, was equally repellent. In 1906, four years after the birth of Dick Daley, Upton Sinclair's famous expose of the stockyards, called The Jungle, described the creek as "a great open sewer."

Despite this tough environment, Dick Daley experienced many positive influences in his childhood, including good parents. His mom, Lillian Daley, was thirty years old when she gave birth to her first and only child. She always dressed her son in fancy clothes, an unusual luxury in working-class Bridgeport. Like many only children, throughout his life Dick Daley retained an inner sense of his own specialness, an immutable feeling that he probably intuited from his mother's great joy at his very existence. Even as a mature adult, he delighted in celebrating his own birthday, along with family, friends, and his city hall employees. Like many firstborn children, young Dick Daley was a "striver." He showed up on time, worked hard, respected authority. According to his grade school teacher, the nun Sister Gabriel, "[Dick Daley] was a very serious boy. A very studious boy. He played when he played. He worked when he worked. And he prayed when he prayed."

Daley's mom was the dominant personality in their household. She was a high-energy woman, possessed a good sense of humor, and displayed more charisma and aggressiveness than most women in the early twentieth century. On St. Patrick's Day, Daley's mom joked with her young son that she needed to go down to city hall to have her "behind painted green." Lillian Daley also regularly marched in parades for women's right to vote, sometimes bringing her son with her. The Nineteenth Amendment to the US Constitution granted this right to women in 1920, when Dick Daley was eighteen years old. His mom also was tough on him, letting her son know that she had high expectations for his career.

Daley's dad, Mike Daley, was a quiet and reserved man who worked as a business agent for the sheet metal workers union. Though a man of few noteworthy accomplishments, he was even tempered and a good listener. His son, who had fond memories of his father, would later emulate Mike Daley's reserve and ability to listen without voicing his own views. These traits—along with the energy, sense of humor, and charismatic aggressiveness he inherited from his mother—served Dick Daley well when he entered his career in Chicago politics.

The Bridgeport of Dick Daley's youth was an ethnic enclave, an Irish-Catholic village in the midst of a great, unforgiving city. This community had its own churches, schools, stores, and saloons. Like other of the city's south-side neighborhoods, Bridgeport was a miniature world of its own. As Daley aged, he learned that the Irish portion of Bridgeport contained a trustworthy clan: a small group of friends and relatives whom he always depended on for the support he needed. These people—the Irish-Catholics of Bridgeport—became Daley's tribe. He would never leave them.

Daley's family attended mass at Nativity of Our Lord parish, where he was also a student and an altar boy. An early photo showed him in his white vestments, with hands crossed and Bible between his thumbs. Young Daley had a round face, a serious look, and a disciplined stance but did not appear exceptional.

For most ethnic Catholic families of the time, the local parish represented both the religious and cultural center of the neighborhood, and the Daley family was no different in this respect. Between 1900 and 1930, student enrollment at Catholic elementary schools in Chicago tripled, surging from approximately fifty thousand to more than 145,000, as first-and second-generation ethnic Chicagoans registered their children. These parents looked to parishes such as Nativity of Our Lord primarily to train their kids in Catholic morality and proper social conduct. The second major attraction of parish schools for Catholic parents such as the Daleys was the schools' ability to transmit a specific ethnic culture. Nativity of Our Lord, which was founded by the Irish-born Father Michael Lyons, was an Irish-Catholic institution that sought to preserve the cultural heritage brought over from Ireland. The curriculum, which focused on penmanship, memorization, and rote learning, was of tertiary importance for many parents.

After graduating from Nativity of Our Lord, Dick Daley attended De La Salle Institute, a Catholic high school run by the Christian Brothers. De La Salle provided a solid, practical education that emphasized business courses, such as bookkeeping, business law, and typing. De La Salle was an all-boys, all-white, largely Irish school just east of Comiskey Park, home of Dick Daley's beloved Chicago White Sox baseball team. Like most of the other all-boys Catholic high schools at the time, De La Salle emphasized discipline, and the black-robed Christian Brothers who ran the school did not hesitate to punch a teenager who acted up.

Though De La Salle only opened its doors to white Catholics, the school stood in an impoverished neighborhood on the "wrong" side of the street that separated Bridgeport from the black neighborhoods to the east. This quirk of fate—in a city such as Chicago where nearly all the neighborhoods were ethnically and racially divided—unsettled De La Salle's teachers, students, and parents. According to an authorized school history, "The school was surrounded by tenements and by low life. It was a white school as an island surrounded by a black sea." By 1920, the neighborhood encircling De La Salle on the south side of Chicago would contain nearly 85 percent of the city's black population.

This sea of African-Americans in Chicago would grow larger and larger throughout Dick Daley's lifetime. Starting during World War I, blacks living in the Southern United States left their rural homes and headed for big Northern cities such as Chicago to escape Southern hostility and to look for jobs. Due to surging wartime production and a lack of new immigrants from Europe, Chicago factories hired blacks as permanent employees for the first time. This Great Migration of blacks in the United States lasted from 1916 until 1970, with its two strongest phases starting during the two world wars. Partly due to the availability of industrial jobs in areas such as the Union Stock Yards, the African-American population in Chicago surged from 2 percent of Chicagoans in 1915 to 38 percent by 1975.

The historical record indicates that Dick Daley found this demographic change deeply unsettling. Later in life he reportedly tried to use his political power to preserve a city where whites and blacks each stayed in their own neighborhoods. Seven years after his death, blacks interviewed in focus groups during a Chicago mayoral election expressed the view that Dick Daley used his power to create unjust policies because he "hated the goddamn niggers." That type of open racial controversy was far off in the future, however, from his De La Salle days.

In addition to attending school and working at part-time jobs, during his teenage years, young Dick Daley joined the Hamburg Athletic Club, only a short walk from his Bridgeport home. The Hamburg Club, like other such groups throughout the city, organized social activities and sporting events. At the club, Daley developed a reputation as a serious and competent manager of the baseball teams. He set up the matches, determined lineups, and coached the teams during the games. Club members apparently noticed Daley's skill and conscientiousness, electing him president of the organization in 1924, a position he held for the next fifteen years.

In addition to organizing sporting and social events, the Hamburg Athletic Club actively supported local politicians during campaigns, as well as functioning like a tough, turf-protecting local street gang. The club had an illustrious history as a training ground for successful Eleventh Ward Irish politicians such as Tommy Doyle and Joseph McDonough. Young, testosterone-filled club members were often willing to get out the vote during Chicago elections, applying physical force if necessary. Members of the Hamburg Club also used violence to enforce unwritten ethnic and racial boundaries, especially against blacks. This type of extreme parochialism likely contributed to the race riots of 1919, the worst such unrest in Chicago's history.

The race riots that summer started when a black kid in Lake Michigan made the mistake of swimming across an invisible racial barrier at the Twenty-Ninth Street Beach. Whites stoned him and he drowned, setting off intense racial street battles. Beatings, shootings, and arson raged for seven days on the south side, with Irish-American gangs playing a central role. The Eleventh Ward politician Joseph McDonough—patron of the Hamburg Athletic Club and soon to be Dick Daley's political mentor—actively inflamed the fears and angers of his Bridgeport neighborhood during the riots. The Irish-dominated Chicago police force, sympathizing with the whites, held back and let the racial battle rage, leaving thirty-eight dead and more than five hundred injured. For the rest of his life, Dick Daley—disciplined as ever—remained silent on what occurred in summer of 1919 when he was seventeen years old.

Dick Daley started at the bottom when he began in politics in 1919. His first position in Chicago's Democratic Party was as an Eleventh Ward precinct captain in the upcoming mayoral election. Like all precinct captains, the Democratic Party assigned Daley the responsibility of personally getting out the vote for approximately five hundred voters on specific city blocks in his neighborhood.

Though the Democrats lost this race to the Republican candidate Big Bill Thompson, during the 1920s young Dick Daley began his slow, steady rise in politics. When he became an Eleventh Ward precinct captain, he joined the Democratic Party of Cook County, which insiders called "the organization" and everyone else called "the machine." The Chicago machine was a political organization with a shared ethos that focused on winning political elections and maintaining the group's own power. In the machine, precinct captains reported to ward committeemen, who reported to the chairman of the Cook County Democratic Party. Despite this focus on hierarchy, within the machine there were many differences of opinion and personal feuds. These disputes typically were handled behind closed doors by pragmatic, nonideological men who focused overridingly on preserving their own power.

Dick Daley intuitively understood the way the machine functioned, and he quickly aligned himself with big Joe McDonough, the three hundred pound Eleventh Ward political boss from Bridgeport. McDonough, a colorful alderman in the Chicago tradition, was an outgoing man known for his large appetites and authentic concern for his constituents. Though he was an elected official and ran a real estate firm and a saloon, McDonough was not known as detail oriented. Savvy and street smart, the Bridgeport politician therefore made Dick Daley his personal assistant. As boss of the Eleventh Ward, McDonough could have picked nearly any young Irish Democrat he wanted, but big Joe must have seen qualities in Daley that eventually made the younger politician's reputation inside the machine: an ability to master detail, faithfully follow orders, keep his mouth shut, and work, work, work.

McDonough rose through the ranks of the Democratic Party and Daley rose with him. Daley's first job downtown was working in the Chicago City Council where he reviewed proposed bills and budgets for McDonough and other aldermen while also attending night school. In this position, Daley not only learned how the city council worked but also developed his lifelong low opinion of the ethics and talents of most Chicago aldermen. According to one neighborhood friend, "I always went out dancing every night, but Dick went home to study law books. He would never stop in the saloon and have a drink."

Though he avoided paperwork and most managerial decisions, big Joe McDonough made shrewd political alliances. The most important partnership was with Anton Cermak, the clever, deeply ambitious Czechoslovakian politician. Cermak became president of the Cook County Board in 1922, chairman of the Democratic Party in 1928, and mayor of Chicago in 1931. Though mean tempered and a poor public speaker, Cermak had the genius to build a disciplined, multiethnic political party. He started by organizing saloon owners and alcohol drinkers, most of whom were first- or second-generation Catholic immigrants from Europe. After earning the nickname "wettest man in Chicago," Cermak reached out to key Irish, German, Polish, and Jewish politicians to create a multiethnic coalition as his political army. Cermak also wrapped himself in the mantle of blue-ribbon good government reform and gradually instilled a results-oriented discipline in the Chicago machine. His favorite saying was "Only lazy precinct captains steal votes."

In 1930, Cermak's political organization backed McDonough for county-wide office as treasurer. Daley, along with the party's other precinct captains, worked for the team and got out the vote for big Joe McDonough. The potential election of his mentor meant more to Daley than the other political workers and he was known to lead campaigners in song, using his strong Irish voice.

McDonough won and brought Daley along with him as his deputy in the treasurer's office. In his new position, Dick Daley—conscientious and hard-working as ever—began mastering budgeting and municipal finance, as well as learning about the tight relationship between patronage hiring, campaign contributions, and running municipal government. McDonough did not frequent the treasurer's office—preferring the saloon and the racetrack—and Daley inherited significant responsibility.

In 1934, big Joe McDonough developed pneumonia and died. At the age of thirty-two, Daley had lost his key mentor in politics. Many attended McDonough's funeral at Nativity of Our Lord Church in Bridgeport even though his own obituary admitted that McDonough was no angel. McDonough's death, along with the assassination a year earlier of Mayor Anton Cermak, left Dick Daley's career prospects exposed. Apparently, Mayor Cermak was not angelic himself; nearly $1.5 million in cash was found in one of his safe deposit boxes after his death.


Excerpted from FIRST SON by KEITH KOENEMAN Copyright © 2013 by Keith Koeneman. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Cast of Characters


Part 1. A Kid from Bridgeport

1. Dick Daley

2. Every Happy Family Is the Same

3. Chicago Visions

Part 2. The Second Generation

4. From Father to Son

5. Darwinian Evolution

6. Mayoral Election of 1983

Part 3. Political Calculus

7. All Hell Breaks Loose

8. Restoration

9. Chicago, 1989.

10. A New Era

Part 4. Plugger

11. Crime and Grime

12. Takeover of Chicago Public Schools

Part 5. Civilizing Richie

13. Has Chicago Had a Sex Change?

14. Housing without Hope

15. Bill Daley

Part 6. Pride Is the First Deadly Sin

16. Crossing the River

17. The Two Faces of Richie Daley

18. Millennium Park

19. Corruption Tax

Part 7. Legacy

20. Global City, Parochial Council

21. One Too Many

22. Sisyphus

23. Bloodlines

24. Sunrise, November 29, 2011

Appendix A. Chicago Mayors since 1900

Appendix B. Election Results of Daley’s Political Campaigns

Appendix C. Timeline




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