Steve Chapman

It's been said that no man is a hero to his valet. Continuous, up-close exposure can eventually render anyone stale. After nearly 22 years as mayor, Richard M. Daley has definitely worn out much of his appeal to Chicagoans.

He's won six straight elections, the last two with more than 70 percent of the vote. Yet in the last poll before he announced his retirement Tuesday, only 37 percent of his constituents approved of his performance.

Daley is a man with a rich trove of personal flaws and policy mistakes, which have not become less irritating with time. But for many years, his achievements, real and illusory, were enough to make voters overlook his shortcomings.

They had reason to indulge him. When I arrived here in 1981, Chicago looked as though it was following in the path of Cleveland and Detroit: old industrial cities irreparably battered by the decline of manufacturing and the rise of the Sun Belt.

That year, The Chicago Tribune ran a series entitled "City on the Brink," in which reporter R.C. Longworth sketched a sad future: "Chicago's basic problem is that it is losing industries, stores and jobs. Because of this, it is losing tax money. Because of this, it won't be able to support itself, to pay for the service of a going city. And because of this, it will lose more industries, stores, jobs and taxes." An array of experts told him "there is no reason to think it will ever turn around."

But turn around it did, in a big way. While other places have stagnated, Chicago has thrived. While others have lost masses of people, Chicago has been stable in population. The searing racial polarization of the 1980s has eased so much that it's almost forgotten.

Says Longworth, now a fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and author of a book on the heartland economy, "Everyone in other Midwestern cities would trade places with us."

In an age of media-tested politicians who are better at sound bites than substance, Daley is an anomaly: an inarticulate politician with a homely countenance, a prickly disposition and an appetite for important but mundane tasks. Yet he has reigned like a monarch, largely unchallenged and unchallengeable.

His political success is due partly to his skill in accommodating a variety of interest groups, notably corporations and unions. He took great care to defuse opposition among African-Americans to make sure they didn't mobilize behind a black mayoral candidate -- as they did in electing Harold Washington (and rejecting Daley) in 1983.

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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