“I'm not the last of the old bosses. I'm the first of the new leaders.” Former Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley
While the nation’s attention this fall is focused on an epic battle for control of the U.S. House and Senate, one of the more important elections in the country is happening on a local level as citizens of the great city of Chicago prepare to choose a new mayor.
For the first time in more than two decades, the Richard M. Daley will not be on the ballot, and the big question facing voters is: who can fill the shoes of legends like Daley and the late Harold Lee Washington?
During my senior year in law school, I spent one of the most educational spring breaks of my life working for the charismatic Washington when he was a candidate for Mayor. Washington made history as the first African-American mayor of Chicago, but his election was nearly as notable for his ability to buck the party machine. During his years as a state legislator, a Congressman and as mayor, he was a tireless advocate for civil rights and for the people of Chicago.
Later in my career, I was privileged to work closely with Mayor Daley through our membership in the U.S. Conference of Mayors. We shared the special distinction of having served as mayors after our own fathers, and knew first-hand both the challenges and rewards. Daley deservedly has been recognized as one of the nation’s most effective mayors. He brought innovation to education reform with the city’s takeover of the Chicago Public Schools, he oversaw a boom in economic development and infrastructure upgrades and enhanced the city’s image worldwide. On a personal note, Daley strove to make the National Urban League’s annual conference there last year an enormous success, and I remain grateful for his efforts and overwhelming hospitality.
The next mayor of Chicago must build on the legacies of Washington and Daley. Chicago is a crown jewel American city. With more than 2.8 million residents, it trails only New York and Los Angeles in population. It’s one of the world’s leading centers of business, finance and culture. It’s got a breath-taking skyline featuring some of the world’s tallest buildings and, for us sports fans, according to The Sporting News; Chicago is the Best Sports City in America.
On top of that, Chicago has been a crossroads in the civil rights movement. It’s a quintessential multi-racial, multi-ethnic American city, and its diversity is its strength. The city has one of the nation’s oldest and strongest Urban League affiliates and has produced some of America’s most outstanding civic leaders including Harold Washington, Jesse Jackson, Carol Moseley Braun and President Barack Obama. It’s no wonder so many are vying to inherit that legacy.
And while President Obama’s former chief of staff seems to be capturing all the headlines, the list of candidates has grown to more than a dozen hopefuls, including a former U.S. Senator and Ambassador, a popular sheriff, several state senators and at least three current Congressmen.
The next mayor has a unique and unprecedented opportunity to lead Chicago into the 21st Century while expanding the legacy of its larger-than-life past leaders. There hasn’t been this much buzz about a leadership change in Chicago since 2004 when Lovie Smith took over as head coach of the Bears and Ozzie Guillen became manager of the White Sox, But that’s a whole different ballgame.
Marc Morial is the president and CEO of the National Urban League.