Stay Connected


Advertise With Us

Learn More

Skip to content


Triumphant Boss Daley: He Loves Kids, Christmas, His Wife—and Power

Posted on

I picked up the pen to sign a proclamation and the pen was jumping all over the page,” Chicago’s doughty Mayor Richard J. Daley, 72, recalls. It was a stroke, a blockage in a neck artery. A few days after he was stricken last spring, he summoned his family to his hospital bedside. He was frightened; both his father and mother had died on their first trips to hospitals. Daley named his pallbearers and forbade a wake—”people tend to, well, overdo it at wakes, you know.”

Daley’s eyes brim with tears when he describes those days, but as he puts it, “The Lord had other plans for me.” After an operation to remove fatty tissue from the artery that was blocking the flow of blood to his brain, and four months of convalescence, he turned up again at city hall. Almost as bouncy as ever, he resumed command as the last—and seemingly the everlasting—of the big city bosses.

To prove the point, Hizzoner won an unprecedented sixth nomination as mayor last month, sweeping three opponents aside as if they weren’t there. Next month there will be a general election in Chicago, but it will be a mere formality: for nearly 50 years the city’s mayoralty has been decided in the Democratic primary. The Republicans reportedly got 47 refusals before they found a candidate to field in the April Fool’s Day election.

What prompted one woman to beat her husband to death with a baseball bat when he objected to her signing a Daley re-election petition? What persuaded 430,000 Chicagoans to go to the polls on a miserable, snowy day and vote another round for Dick Daley by a margin of nearly two to one? It isn’t charisma. Although “Da Mare” can turn on the Irish charm like a light bulb, millions of Americans remember him for his notorious shoot-to-kill orders during the 1968 race riots, or later that year his televised, snarling confrontation with Senator Abe Ribicoff at the Democratic Convention, when Ribicoff criticized his club-wielding police. (“It was a goddamn disgrace,” the mayor still explodes, in a rare public use of profanity. “They threw human waste at our policemen.”) Neither is it his rhetoric, which is limited mostly to platitudes delivered in gutturals only a throat specialist could love. It certainly isn’t the state of city hall or the police department, which under Daley have been riddled with scandal.

Nor have Mayor Daley’s own coat-tails been exactly spotless. Last year Daley and his wife Eleanor (“Sis”) were revealed as the secret owners of a real estate holding company, worth $200,000, that bought vacant lots at city auctions. Perfectly legal, sniffed Hizzoner. But critics said there seemed to be a conflict of interest. Eyebrows shot up again when Daley gave a $5 million city insurance contract, with commissions worth $150,000, to a suburban firm employing his son John Patrick. The mayor’s response: “If they don’t like it, they can kiss my ass.”

Still, Chicago has grown accustomed to his face, and Daley has grown accustomed to his job. “I love what I’m doing,” he says, “and I love this city.” He has passed up opportunities for higher office in Springfield and Washington (and an unnamed university professorship if he did not return to city hall after his sickness) to keep his grip on the nation’s smoothest-running political machine. During the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, his influence on Democratic politics was confirmed by a direct telephone line from his office to the White House.

If Dick Daley was not born in a smoke-filled room, it was an oversight of the Lord’s. He got his political education in the tough, Irish-accented South Side neighborhood where he was born and still lives, and where Chicago got its last three mayors. The modest Daley bungalow is straight out of Archie Bunkerland and is distinguished from its neighbors only by the no-parking signs out front. His furniture is covered with plastic, as protection from the ravages of 10 grandchildren, religious pictures hang on the wall, and on the mantle are the bronzed baby shoes of the seven Daley children. Sis Daley (“A great woman, a great mother,” says Daley) does all her own cooking, baking and shopping, and keeps out of the political limelight, although the mayor was delighted by her public remark on abortion: “I’ve always felt it was better to have the babies on your knee than on your con-science.”

The Daleys have no difficulty living within his $35,000 income, which will soon be raised to $60,000. Outside of children’s christenings in the basement, they rarely entertain. A close, trusted associate of the mayor, who has never been to the Daley house for dinner, estimates that only six people he knows ever have. Says the mayor, ending any inquiry: “We have always kept our home like a home should be.”

A pious Catholic, Daley attends mass most mornings before going to work. He is also a genuinely devoted family man who played Santa Claus for the children in his parish for years. “I had a rubber mask and I was always sweaty. But it was the greatest experience in the world,” says Daley. “The kids’ eyes all popped out. Its quite a revelation about human nature—all the joy kids are capable of, and how soon they become suspicious.” Daley himself saved Chicago’s Christmas parade when the downtown merchants decided to stop sponsoring it. He takes a childish delight in staging—and leading—the city’s endless parades honoring ethnic holidays. By next week the Chicago River will be dyed green, as usual, by mayoral ukase, and Da Mare will lead the St. Patrick’s Day marchers down State Street. He numbers 20,000 dependents in his family of political patronage beneficiaries, and his philosophy of governing has a Godfatherly ring: “If a fella in public life tries to do what’s right and gets the best advice he can, he should go ahead and not listen to his critics—some of whom never constructed anything anyway.”

Daley has lost 25 pounds since his operation, but still casts a portly shadow. He gets to work at 8 a.m. and leaves promptly at 5:30—as opposed to his old regimen of 6 a.m. to late at night. He seems mellower, but late in the day, especially, can become quite snappish. “I never go near his office after 3:30 in the afternoon if I can avoid it,” says a colleague.

Will his sixth term be Dick Daley’s last hurrah? “Well, you never know,” he says. “I thought about that last time (1971). I’ll let you know when the last time comes.”