Review: Washington, Daley, and Three Other Mayors, Chicago’s Modern Mayors, edited by Dick Simpson and Betty O’Shaughnessy

Chicago's Modern Mayors, edited by Dick Simpson and Betty O'Shaughnessy, covers a 40-year period during which Chicago, its people, and its region went through great changes under a succession of five mayors—Harold Washington, Eugene Sawyer, Richard M. Daley, Rahm Emanuel, and Lori Lightfoot.

For much of this period, I was a Chicago Tribune reporter covering the mayors and city government from the perspective of urban affairs, and, when I first saw the book’s cover, I found it somewhat jarring.

Oh, yeah, the quiet, rather inoffensive Gene Sawyer had been mayor. He’s easy enough to forget in the transition from Washington to the second Mayor Daley. 

Emanuel, brash and arrogant—yeah, he was mayor although I had the impression from the start that he was never going to stay long on the fifth floor of City Hall. He’s now the U.S. ambassador to Japan, and his name doesn’t come to mind much when I think about city government. Lightfoot who always seemed uneasy in the butt-and-ram of politics—she’s receding quickly in the city’s rearview mirror, less than a year after she left office.

Eventually, I realized that what I’d found jarring about the cover of the book was that it had all five mayors there as if they were equals. Yet, the fact is that Washington and Daley were in a class by themselves. The other three were relatively minor figures in the city’s history.

Chicago's Modern Mayors: From Harold Washington to Lori Lightfoot follows in the tradition of The Mayors: The Chicago Political Tradition, edited by historians Paul M. Green and Melvin G. Holli. The first edition of that book, published in 1987, highlighted 13 of the 23 mayors from 1871 through 1983, leaving out 10 of the lesser lights. The fourth edition, published in 2013, included chapters on Sawyer, the second Daley, and Emanuel.

Chicago’s Modern Mayors reexamines four of the mayors covered in that fourth edition—Washington, Sawyer, Daley and Emanuel—and is the first to take up Lightfoot. Following the Green-Holli pattern, Chicago's Modern Mayors provides a chapter of roughly 30 to 40 pages on each of the five chief executives. O’Shaughnessy writes in an introduction that the authors were asked to answer three main questions: How did the mayor win the office? Did the mayor have a rubber-stamp City Council or a more independent group? What was the mayor’s legacy?

Four of the chapters are written by pairs of scholars, but the one on Sawyer is by former Tribune reporter Monroe Anderson who served as his press secretary, and it’s the liveliest of the bunch. In fact, Anderson has written the Sawyer chapter for two other books of this sort as well—The Mayors and also Restoration 1989: Chicago Elects a New Daley, also edited by Green and Holli.

In Restoration 1989, Anderson opened his chapter with the statement: “Eugene Sawyer got a bum rap and a blunt shaft.” In Chicago’s Modern Mayors, he’s not quite as direct, but he makes it clear that Sawyer wasn’t treated fairly.

Sawyer ended up as mayor because of the fatal heart attack that Washington suffered in late 1987 in his City Hall office. During an acrimonious Council meeting, he agreed to accept the mayoralty with the backing of the white majority, leaving the ambitious alderman Tim Evans out in the cold. But, for the next 17 months, Evans and his allies, planning a mayoral campaign in 1989, worked to sabotage the Sawyer administration. 

As a lifelong journalist, Anderson brings verve and feeling to his tale of Sawyer’s time in office. And he makes the point that Sawyer, belittled as “Mayor Mumbles,” had been a nuts-and-bolts alderperson who gave the newly elected Washington a crash course on the workings of the Council. Indeed, Anderson writes that he took the press secretary job because Sawyer was “likable, genuinely nice, and down-to-earth.” 

Unlike Anderson, the authors of the other chapters, for the most part, weren’t participants in the story they tell. The one exception is Simpson who served on Lightfoot’s transition team. In addition to co-editing the book, he’s also the co-author with Marco Rosaire Rossi of the chapter on her.

The chapters on Washington, Daley, Emanuel, and Lightfoot are scholarly and generally even-handed. Simpson seems to remain impartial regarding Lightfoot, but I was surprised to see the authors of the Emanuel chapter—Kari Lydersen, a longtime journalist and journalism professor, and political scientist Daniel Bliss—go out of their way to pick sides in writing about Emanuel and his 2015 opponent Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, then a Cook County board member.

“Garcia had the populist and diverse appeal that Emanuel lacked… With his handlebar mustache, warm smile, and casual clothing, he cut a fatherly and approachable figure in sharp contrast to Emanuel. Always in motion, impatient, irritable, aggressive, and profane, the athletic and hard-driving mayor embodied the energy and determination one might want in a leader but lacked the empathy and humility necessary to serve a community in crisis.”

Washington and Daley

Much of Chicago’s Modern Mayors has to do with the everyday crises and issues of being a mayor, such as tax increment financing districts, police brutality, bond ratings, Council votes, and such.

Lightfoot’s most important legacy may be her reduction of aldermanic privilege, which had given Council members veto power over most city activities in their wards. The legacies of Sawyer and Emanuel are less clear.

Not so with the giants in Chicago’s Modern Mayors—Washington and Daley. 

Authors Xolela Mangcu and Gregory D. Squires note that, despite his truncated time in office, Washington, the city’s first Black mayor, not only brought into important government positions great numbers of women and minorities but also instituted reforms such as affirmative action in contracts and hiring, much of which became embedded in the workings of the city.

“Harold Washington’s legacy is wide-ranging and diverse. Perhaps in no other area has his influence continued to be felt more than by the cultural transformation of city government. The meanings, workings, and experiences of city government changed dramatically under his leadership, and those changes persist to this day. This is the context that allowed for the emergence of Lori Lightfoot as the city’s first African American women and gay mayor.”

Daley was Chicago’s mayor for 22 years, a year longer than his father had held the post. And the authors of his chapter—sociologist Costas Spirou and political scientist Dennis R. Judd—note: “Against all expectations, the second Mayor Daley presided over a period of political stability not seen since his father’s time.”

The main reason for that was that he and his political team put together a diverse electoral coalition while, at the same time, they developed close bonds with business leaders and civic elites.

“His political dexterity opened a space for him to build a ‘new machine’ capable of mobilizing the enormous resources necessary for a two-decade reconstruction of Chicago’s economy and physical environment.”

Nineteen of the 30 tallest downtown buildings were erected during his time as mayor, the authors point out. He steered the evolution of Chicago into a global city and won wide national praise. When Time magazine wrote a story abut the five best big-city mayors, Daley was listed first for having “presided over the city’s transition from a graying hub to a vibrant boomtown.”

Everything went south, though, in his final term in office when the city was battered by the Great Recession of 2008–2009. Daley balanced the budget, in part, by signing a 99-year lease with private investors for future revenues from the city’s parking meters in return for $1.16 billion, a widely criticized move.

Because of that troubled final term, Daley “is rarely mentioned at public events or in speeches; even when that happens, it generally comes with a negative spin,” write Spirou and Judd. Indeed, they describe him as “a virtually forgotten public figure.”

I’m not sure that I would agree with that. It is true that Chicago politics has moved in a much different direction, away from centralized electoral power and toward a great diversity of individuals and groups making alliances to accomplish goals.

Yet, just as Washington reset the city government to open it to “outsiders,” Daley reset the city landscape and culture as an attraction to visitors and new residents. Both men left marks on Chicago that have shaped it into what it is today.

Chicago’s Modern Mayors is available at most bookstores and through the publisher's website.

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Patrick T. Reardon

Patrick T. Reardon is a Chicago historian, essayist, poet and writer who was a Chicago Tribune reporter for 32 years. He is the author of nine books including the forthcoming The Loop: The ‘L’ Tracks That Shaped and Saved Chicago (SIU Press).