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4/2/03 John Kass

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Daley's abuse of power leaves marks on city
Published April 2, 2003

by John Kass

I've been trying to figure out Chicago's outrage over what Mayor Richard Daley did to Meigs Field, after he sent bulldozers at night to ruin the nice little lakefront airport.

And I started out to joke about how the savaging of a tiny airport upset so many. But then I realized that Mayor Little Big Man's destruction of Meigs isn't funny.

Yet his carving of the large ugly X's into the landing strip, his arrogance in brushing off questions, has accomplished something remarkable. He crystallized things for Chicago.

This is not a complicated story of insider deals, of contracts, connections, of documented paper trails.

Rather, it is simple, with photographs, something TV is interested in watching: the destruction of a valuable resource simply because it was in Daley's way, and because he knew no one could stop him.

Little Big Man finally revealed himself as the absolute boss ruling Chicago and Cook County with wrought-iron fists.

Most readers, and a few of his newfound critics, are bothered that he destroyed the airport at night. They're aggravated that he'd use a pathetic story--protecting Chicago from tiny-plane terrorism--as cover for vandalizing Meigs, which he has wanted to do for years.

Will it be another $500 million park--the bond financing arranged by the influential bond seller Tony Fratto, finally costing a billion in real money?

Or will it become a casino?

One thing it's not anymore is an airport. It was chopped up before the Friends of Meigs Field could get to a judge. But Daley is the one who elects judges.

Compared to other things he's done, Meigs is chump change, almost insignificant in dollars and in the exercise of power.

The other things weren't done at night. They were done during broad daylight, hundreds of millions of dollars worth of deals paid for by taxpayers.

The wrought iron from his pals, the concrete flower boxes, the asphalt, the gargantuan salt contracts, the salt spread so heavily each night in winter that city crews had to sweep the pasty choking stuff off the Loop streets in the morning.

The French bus shelter deal went through, with his allies on the CTA board attached. When Michigan Avenue merchants balked, they were threatened with blackmail by CTA boss "Honest" Frank Kruesi--their names and businesses were to be plastered on buses.

Or that goofy $600 million Soldier Field renovation--which squats rudely on the lakefront like a fat man trying to squeeze into a pair of tiny shorts.

Or the ridiculously expensive lakefront Millennium Park (Fratto's Field), the phony government minority contracts diverted instead to pink guys with Outfit connections, the car towing deals and so on.

Meanwhile, Daley's brothers get rich on zoning work and the political selling of insurance, and he sneers at those who dare question him.

Few do. Unfortunately, too many Chicago journalists, once considered tough, don't like to aggravate him with questions he doesn't want to answer.

What passes for TV news in Chicago isn't interested in covering politics like it once did. TV often ignores this newspaper's investigative reporting on City Hall and the gutsy editorials on the editorial page about political sleaze and costly layered deals of high-ranking cronies.

On Tuesday, though, even the once feisty Chicago Sun-Times, the Pravda of political Chicago, thought Daley had gone too far.

"Meigs maneuvers land Daley where critics want him," the newspaper headlined its editorial, apparently worried that he had clumsily exposed himself to some evil critic, whoever he is.

By using the awesome leverage of his control over local governments and the courts, by stoking public contracts and subsequent campaign donations to intimidate and buy off his opposition, he's the one boss.

He has co-opted not only the usual political hacks but, shrewdly, has also scooped up the once independent arts community, using organized subsidies, new theaters, grants for dancers, actors, artists, poets.

He has Jesse "The King of Beers" Jackson protecting his flank among blacks. His army of Latino patronage workers, the Hispanic Democratic Organization, weakens Spanish-speaking opposition.

And he remains white in the city of tribes.

Except for some of my colleagues at this newspaper, there is no real challenge to the manner in which he whips Chicago in line, with muscle and with fear.

If you don't believe the fear, ask any tavern owner or shopkeeper, cop, firefighter or city worker. Listen to the trembling voices of corporate business leaders when they're questioned about Meigs. They're terrified of angering him.

Yet for all of that, it has been his destruction of Meigs Field that has distilled one idea in many:

That Cook County and the people in it are his, that Daley can break his toys and leave them strewn on the ground, simply because he can.

jskass@tribune.com

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