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4/17/03 Economist "Baghdad by the lake"

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Dictatorial mayors

Baghdad by the lake
Apr 17th 2003 | CHICAGO
From The Economist print edition

Mayor Daley overreaches himself


A DICTATOR on the rampage; airfields destroyed; a pre-emptive strike; calls for outside intervention to bring democracy. It is not difficult to see why one cartoonist has lampooned Richard Daley's Chicago as “Baghdad by the lake”.

The row began last month, when Mr Daley, who recently won a fifth term as the city's mayor, sent, under cover of darkness and without warning, a squadron of bulldozers to rip up the runway at Meigs Field, a small airport on the edge of Lake Michigan mostly used by private pilots. When the sun came up the next morning the combative Mr Daley, dubbed “the Red Baron” in indignant aviation circles, declared that Meigs, which is just opposite the city centre, had posed a terrorist threat to the security of Chicago's skyscrapers.

Chicagoans have grown accustomed to strong-arm tactics by Mr Daley (who is the son of the equally mild-mannered 1960s mayor). But the midnight raid on Meigs set new standards of brashness. Mr Daley's commandos left 16 planes stranded on the airstrip, which is surrounded on three sides by water. Neither the Federal Aviation Administration nor the Department of Homeland Security was consulted.


Daley and the damage he did to Meigs


Now pilots are fighting back in the courts. A Cook County judge has given them some hope, rejecting Mr Daley's attempt to have a suit filed by “the Friends of Meigs” immediately dismissed. The pilots have also won a temporary restraining order that prevents further destruction at the airport. And a federal suit, filed by the much larger Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, is still pending.

The city's hitherto tame business establishment, which rather liked using Meigs, is miffed. Some members of Congress have suggested the raid might affect Chicago's future requests for federal transportation money. Worse, Tom Ridge, the homeland security czar, has expressed doubts that the airstrip was closed for security reasons.

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Friends of Meigs Field, Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (news release), mayor's office



As Mr Ridge rightly points out, Mr Daley's intention to close down Meigs predates September 11th 2001. The mayor, who has long wanted to turn the lakefront site into a park, even managed to get the airstrip closed for a time in 1996. In 2001 he agreed to keep it open as part of a deal whereby George Ryan, the Republican who was then governor, agreed to support an expansion of Chicago's main O'Hare airport. Mr Daley says that deal died when the O'Hare plan he still supports foundered in Congress last year.

Alas for the mayor, he may not get his lakefront park any time soon. The city is short of money, and the assault on Meigs could make the site less attractive to the businessmen who have helped to pay for other green projects. Many ordinary Chicagoans actually prefer a park to an airstrip serving a tiny elite, but the mayor's tactics have incensed them too. The uproar may die down; but the feeling at the moment is that the normally sure-footed Mr Daley may have overreached himself.

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