Chicago aldermen spent hours Wednesday offering homages to the departing Mayor Richard Daley, lauding his civic passion, political guts and even his my-way-or-the-highway tendencies.
The abundant praise from all but a few City Council members was hardly a surprise. During much of his 22-year tenure, Daley enjoyed the support of most aldermen, who in the face of his political strength tinkered with his agenda only at the margins.
"You've shown your leadership," said Ald. Rey Colon, 35th, who then referred to Daley's infamous midnight destruction of Meigs Field. "There's a time to listen and work things through the community, and there's a time to scrape those X's on the runway, and you've managed to teach us when it's appropriate."
Daley laughed heartily at the reference to his under-cover-of-darkness methods, which were heavily criticized eight years ago when he carved up the lakefront airstrip to make way for a nature park on Northerly Island — a pet project of the mayor and his wife, Maggie.
And so it went at Daley's last council meeting, as any perceived slight over the years seemed to be forgiven by independent-minded aldermen like Colon, one of only five council members to vote against Daley's much-maligned long-term parking meter lease as a short-term fix for a gaping budget hole.
There was much talk of the beauty of Millennium Park, but not its cost overruns; the cleanup and expansion of downtown, but not the still-troubling crime rates in poorer neighborhoods; and improved race relations and more equality for people regardless of sexual orientation, if not the scandals that have beset programs to give more city business to women and minorities.
And there was nary a mention of the federal convictions for rigging jobs at City Hall to benefit people who had done political work for the mayor and his allies.
Even Ald. Brendan Reilly, 42nd, who staged a pitched political battle against Daley's now-stalled effort to put the Chicago Children's Museum in Grant Park, struck a positive note, saying Daley made "excellent decisions" for downtown.
Ald. Joe Moore, 49th, the council's leading independent, also spoke highly of Daley, a politician he has often criticized in no uncertain terms. Moore called Daley a "transformational" leader who was "extremely fair" to all parts of the city.
"I know we have disagreed from time to time," Moore added. "That's part of the nature of the business. ... I think if you examine the record, you will find that we were in agreement far more often than we were in disagreement."
Despite all the apparent agreement, Daley later took issue with the often-repeated contention that the council was a "rubber stamp" for his proposals, saying he was engaging in heavy behind-the-scenes work to build consensus.
"It's leadership," he told reporters. "I started out, I didn't have the support of everyone. I worked it. You work people. You have to sit down, listen to them, what they want, how we can compromise."
The council, led by Ald. Edward Burke, 14th, presented Daley with a crystal bowl engraved with the city seal, Daley's years of service and the names of the 129 aldermen who held office during that period. Looking on were daughter Nora Daley Conroy and son Patrick. Maggie Daley remained in the hospital, suffering flulike symptoms not long after the replacement of a titanium rod in her leg, which was damaged by treatment for metastatic breast cancer.
Daley basked in the praise, smiling and laughing. He also talked about tough moments for his family during a wide-ranging, 17-minute farewell speech that touched on his father, the legendary late Mayor Richard J. Daley, and his son Kevin, who was born with spina bifida and died at 2 1/2.
He also talked of public service, media coverage, race relations, his takeover of the city's long-troubled public school system and how former President George W. Bush helped him change an embattled public housing system.
"This is the greatest job in America," the mayor declared, going on to use the unique idiom and oblique references that have endeared him to Chicagoans. "I don't care what anyone tells me. This is a great job when you have the passion.
"It's not about pollsters. It's not about telling you get a poll and tell you what to do. It's not about texting. It's not about e-mailing. It's all about what you have in your gut and how you feel for this city."
Ald. Patrick O'Connor, 40th, perhaps Daley's closest council ally, talked about the mayor's innate political sense, saying: "I've never met a guy who has a better instinct for what the average people in Chicago feel or think, will accept, want. It is second nature to you."
That, combined with his willingness to take risks, made Daley a unique leader, O'Connor said. He went on to recall Daley's response when he told the mayor the school takeover could end his career. "You said, 'This is what I'm in public service for. And if I can't do that for the children of Chicago, then I shouldn't be here.'"
Daley has less than two weeks before he hands the baton to Mayor-elect Rahm Emanuel. And the mayor acknowledged there'll be a void for him when that happens.
"In my 22 years, every minute I continually think about the city," he said. "I wonder what I'm going to do after May 16 in regard to not thinking about the city."
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