Richie Daley's party

Posted: Jul 03, 2005 12:00 AM

CHICAGO -- Last week's long-range confrontation between Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley and Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin was much more than a personal tiff involving two formidable Illinois Democrats who obviously are not fond of each other. It contrasted Daley's majority Democratic Party of bygone years with Durbin's minority Democratic Party of today.
When Daley in his June 21 press conference referred to Durbin's rancorous comments about the U.S. military as a "disgrace," he was only repeating in public what many old-line Democratic loyalists told me not for quotation. But Durbin's Washington party colleagues defended his comparison of the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo with the bloodiest genocidal regimes in history. Durbin was forced into a grudging half-apology later on June 21 only because Daley spoke out.

 Daley sees Durbin as typical of today's negative, Washington-oriented Democratic Party. Daley, a born and bred loyal Democrat, is a builder rather than a political hit man. During 16 years as mayor, he has presided over the transformation of a grimy Rust Belt city into a sparkling jewel on the lake.

 Daley has publicly stressed he is Durbin's "friend," but "friend" is an overused word in politics. In 1996 when trial balloons floated for Durbin as Al Gore's running mate, I ran into the mayor at a Washington reception and asked him about his fellow Illinoisan for vice president. He laughed it off, stressing that Durbin was out of the question.

 Daley spoke out June 21 in no small part because his 29-year-old son, Pvt. Patrick Daley of the U.S. Army airborne infantry, was visiting at home. Although Durbin now says he did not mean to criticize the Army by comparing interrogation at Guantanamo with mass murder by Hitler, Stalin and Pol Pot, that was how Patrick and his father interpreted it. The mayor's son, who reported for basic training last Dec. 29, resented what the senator said.

 If Daley and Durbin truly were "friends," they might have talked on the telephone after the mayor's press conference. Durbin's staffers, not the senator himself, telephoned Chicago to protest. Their boss, they claimed, on June 17 expressed regret if anybody misunderstood him. The mayor refused to retract, and the senator went on the Senate floor later that day, June 21, to offer his version of an "apology." Not until then did the two Democrats talk.

 Daley seldom speaks out publicly about his party. He did in April 1995 when I visited his office. He told me then that Democrats had become the party of "Washington," "the bureaucrats" and "the special interests," and now constituted the "pro-tax party." When I so quoted him in a column, however, Daley complained he had no idea his comments to me would be made public.

 On this, my first visit to the mayor's inner sanctum in more than 10 years, there was no chance for a similar misunderstanding. Daley press secretary Jacquelyn Heard was there this time and made clear our informal conversation was off the record. But what he said was, in many respects, a repeat of his remarks a decade ago. In his view, the Democratic Party had not changed for the better.

 I cleared some of his comments for publication. "All the Democrats [in Congress] say is 'No, no, no!'" the mayor said. "Why can't we have an energy program?" And later, in an almost word-for-word repetition of his 1995 comments, Daley told me: "We are a Washington party. We have no farm system. The Republicans do, and we don't."

 I was honored to be on a panel for the recent University of Illinois-Chicago forum commemorating the 50th anniversary of Richard J. Daley's first inauguration as mayor. His children venerate their father, but the family thinks Richie Daley may have exceeded Dick Daley in becoming America's most successful mayor. He has surpassed his father in winning support from blacks, businessmen and even Republicans in rebuilding his city. The Cook County Democratic machine is a shadow of its former self, and the current mayor has not followed his father's footsteps as a state and national power broker. But Democrats nationwide might well consider the occupant of Chicago's City Hall as a model.