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03-28-2013 Meigs: 10 years later

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10 years later: The nighttime raid that destroyed Meigs Field

BY FRAN SPIELMAN City Hall Reporter/

March 28, 2013 1:58PM

Meigs Field ten years ago on March 31, 2003,
the day bulldozers dug out portions of the runway
and put large yellow X's on the end of the runway.
The yellow X tells pilots that the airport is closed.
Brian Jackson~Sun-Times

The mastermind behind it has moved to rural North Carolina to raise goats and make cheese. The field general works for an electrical contractor after being jailed for public corruption. And the boss who ordered it is now a retired mayor with a lucrative career in the private sector.

Ten years ago Saturday, Richard M. Daley sent in bulldozers under cover of darkness to carve giant X’s into Meigs Field’s only runway.

Daley initially claimed he did it to protect Chicago from a terrorist attack.

But he later acknowledged the obvious: He had wanted to convert Meigs into a park as far back as 1995 and seized the opportunity when he could, reneging on a handshake agreement with then-Gov. George Ryan to keep Meigs open until 2024.

The midnight raid ultimately forced Chicago to pay a $33,000 fine and repay $1 million in federal airport development grants to settle claims stemming from the demolition.

The city used $1.5 million in federal grants and airline ticket taxes to demolish Meigs. The Federal Aviation Administration could have imposed penalties of up to $4.5 million — three times the amount improperly diverted.

No event during Daley’s 22-year reign — not even the sale of Chicago parking meters, the unsuccessful bid for the Olympics or the parade of convictions tied to the Hired Truck, city hiring and minority contracting scandals — was more roundly vilified.

The Meigs debacle lifted the veil on Daley-the-bully, an arrogant and impetuous side of Chicago’s longest-serving mayor that those in the closed circle of politics had known about for years but average Chicagoans were probably not aware of.

Daley’s image took a beating — from the halls of Congress all the way to Hollywood, where the mayor’s actions were condemned repeatedly by actor and pilot Harrison Ford.

Daley would go on to win one more election after destroying Meigs, but his image never recovered.

Sources said the midnight raid was the brainchild of then-CTA President Frank Kruesi, Daley’s longest-serving and most trusted adviser.

It was Kruesi who hatched the plan to order in heavy machinery after dark to gouge out the runway, rendering it unusable to the private pilots and corporate CEOs who coveted their access to downtown Chicago.

And it was Kruesi who gave federal transportation officials working under then-President George W. Bush, a Daley admirer, an early heads-up to make certain there would be “no significant pushback.”

Kruesi and his wife, Barbara, Daley’s former scheduler, have retired to the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, where they’re raising goats and chickens and making cheese.

Kruesi could not be reached for comment. At the time of the raid, he played down his role in the debacle.

“I was involved with meetings, but others were, too,” Kruesi said at the time. “Who was involved and to what extent, when and so forth, the answer to that is, let it work itself out within the courts.”

Kruesi’s field general on that fateful night was John Harris, who hopscotched from deputy police superintendent to first deputy aviation commissioner to budget director under Daley before becoming chief of staff to now-convicted Gov. Rod Blagojevich.

That’s the job that landed him in jail for 10 days for doing the former governor’s dirty work in a series of shakedown schemes that included the former governor’s attempt to sell the U.S. Senate seat held by then-President-elect Barack Obama.

Blagojevich and Harris were arrested on the same day in December 2008, but rather than fighting the charges, Harris agreed to cooperate with federal investigators and testified against Blagojevich at both his trials, pleading guilty to lesser charges in hopes of a more lenient sentence.

Harris is now working for a prominent electrical contractor that was a fixture at O’Hare Airport while he was running the place.

He refused to comment on the 10th anniversary of the Meigs destruction. But Harris was once so proud of his role in supervising the destruction of Meigs, he had a picture on his office wall that showed him standing in the middle of the runway on that fateful night.

Daley, who empowered Kruesi and Harris, has moved on to a lucrative retirement that includes work at an investment company he formed with his son, an association with a prominent Chicago law firm, a guest lecturer position at the University of Chicago, and a seat on the board of the Coca-Cola Corp.

The former mayor was traveling in China and unavailable for comment about the 10th anniversary. Before leaving office, the mayor insisted he had no regrets.

“Mayors all over the country wish they could close a piece of property like that on the lake. ... Chicago is the envy of the world. We’re the only city going almost from Evanston to Indiana that’s purely open space and recreation for people. No other city has this. ... I think it’s the greatest thing I’ve ever — one of the great things I’ve done besides the public schools,” Daley once told the Sun-Times.

“It isn’t [for] the few with the airplanes. ... It’s [for] the people right here in Chicago. This is their lakefront. ”

Asked then why the raid needed to be so secretive, Daley said, “There would be lawsuits galore. That’s why. They’d be in federal court trying to monkey up the water.”

Steve Whitney, president of Friends of Meigs Field, said he will never forget that Sunday night a decade ago.

Whitney said he threw on his coat and raced down to the museum campus to see Daley’s bulldozers gouging out the runway of the airport he loved. He still has “shaky cellphone video” taken from the grounds around the Adler Planetarium that night.

“It was illegal. It was done under cover of darkness without proper notice. And it was actually dangerous that they did that. There were planes that were inbound that morning. It was an awful thing. Meigs was a very valuable asset to both Chicago and the aviation system. It was essentially stolen from the aviation public,” Whitney said.

“The reason he did it that way was because he knew he had to cheat to win. If he had given proper notice and the aviation community had an opportunity to oppose it, he would not have been successful in closing it. The fact that the mayor would do something illegal like this was shocking. But, in a sense, it wasn’t because the mayor had gotten so desperate and obsessed with this concept. He said it was terrorism, but he always wanted to close it for a park. And frankly, the park is not that much to write home about. After 10 years, it’s kind of disappointing.”

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