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Thursday, November 17, 2011

This Is What a Leader Looks Like

Say what you will about former Mayor Richard M. Daley of Chicago (1989-2011) and his strong-arm tactics, but you’ve got to admit that the man has vision and an ability to execute it.

This short, stocky, never-say-die, Irish Catholic grew up on the Southside of Chicago and learned the means and meaning of public service from his tough-guy father, Mayor Richard J. Daley (1955-76).  He is one whiz-bang leader and his 22-year tenure—the longest of any of the city’s mayors—proves it.

Dubbed in 2005 as one of the “Nation’s Top Urban Executives” by Time magazine, Daley has improved Chicago’s schools, revitalized the downtown, reduced crime, diversified the economy and helped the city become one of the most environmentally-friendly cities in the world.  He has earned an international reputation as an innovator in urban development, fiscal policy and government stewardship and many of his forward-looking policies have been emulated in cities around the globe.

These days he is a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the University of Chicago's Harris School of Public Policy; a member of the International Advisory Board for the Russian Direct Investment Fund; and a senior adviser to JP Morgan Chase, where he chairs the new "Global Cities Initiative" that helps cities to identify and leverage their greatest economic development resources.  He also co-chairs the U.S. State Department's "100,000 Strong Initiative Advisory Committee" that supports the U.S. government's efforts to send American students to study in China.

He spoke to 2,000 people at the Economic Club of Southwestern Michigan held this week at Lake Michigan College in Benton Township, which is ironically located just next door to Benton Harbor, the first city in the state to be taken over by an emergency financial manager.  (EFMs are governor-appointed bosses who have absolute power in order to fix a local government or school district that is experiencing severe financial difficulty.)

Daley wooed his mostly conservative audience as he described the strategies behind his achievements.  He is no policy wonk but instead a smart, straight talking, future-oriented thinker.  Someone even asked him to consider running for president.  After his speech I heard one man say to another that Daley “didn’t sound like a Democrat.”

Actually, Daley appears to be a hybrid of the country’s two major political parties.  What distinguishes him is that he is a man who loves his city and aggressively looked for ways to make it a beautiful and good place to live as well as an economically viable place to do business.  He quickly recognized he couldn't depend on the federal government or anyone else to knock on his door to help.  So he reached out to both the public and private sectors as well as to officials in the suburbs and surrounding cities to form various coalitions that “focus on what unites us.”  Some people have characterized him as a model 21st century leader.

“Cities and regions must develop a vision and work relentlessly to achieve it,” he said.  “That way we can leverage our influence nationally and globally.”

He pointed out that working separately in “silos” is no longer effective because the competition is too stiff.  Pitting one city against another works against each other's interests.  He is especially keen on regional collaboration and declared the Great Lakes region as “one of the most dynamic regions in America.” 

For example, Illinois, Wisconsin, Indiana, Michigan and Ohio produce more products than Canada, Italy and Spain combined, he said. 

Even the Chinese are impressed with the economic diversity of the Midwest—especially in agriculture, water and manufacturing—and they see Chicago as a gateway.

This may all seem counter-intuitive as people still insist on calling this region “the Rust Belt” due to its decimated industrial base.  Daley quoted Economist magazine which indicated in 1981 that Chicago was a “backwater” that had become “economically invalid” and was “losing its industry without a replacement.” 

However, the economy has returned and it is “buzzing with life,” he said.  “We wrote a different ending.”

Likewise, Daley pointed out that the decisions and investments cities make today will determine what the region will look like 25 years from now. 

“We must not be afraid of the future,” he said.

Among those decisions is an investment in infrastructure, which is old and outdated.  However, financing such multi-billion dollar projects will require public-private partnerships that pool their resources.  He illustrated this strategy with the lease of the Chicago Skyway that was worth nearly $2 billion and used to repay the city’s debts. 

Secondly, he said citizens have a moral and legal responsibility to educate every child. 

“Education promises a strong economic future for them, which is the essence of the future of America.”

In 1995 Daley asked the state legislature for responsibility over the Chicago Public Schools despite his political advisers’ warnings that it would be a career-ender:  the Democrats would trash him to protect the teachers’ union and the Republicans would claim that government couldn’t manage the schools. 

Under the “Modern Schools Across Chicago” program, he renovated 19 schools and constructed 48 new schools, which were financed with city redevelopment funds from Tax Increment Financing districts--and no state or federal funds.

Q&A session
He also encouraged the revisions of basic programs in reading, writing and math as well as the creation of charter schools, military academies and math/science academies.  To prepare children for future job opportunities, he instituted language programs in Arabic, Chinese and Russian.  Likewise, he changed the “culture of education” by emphasizing technology and building 50 libraries.

Inherent in this strategy of providing quality education is the idea that “talented people make other talented people around them.”  He aimed to make Chicago a mecca for talent so that citizens could deal with its many urban problems as well as to make a place for itself in the global economy.

Seeing to it that people have jobs is the clarion call for today’s economic woes and Daley stressed that to repair the economy, communities must also consider the assets they have.  Water is the chief asset of the Great Lakes region and protecting it is essential both in attracting people to the area and in using it to economic advantage.

“You have to understand the complexity and the interconnectedness of the whole system,” he said, pointing out that the Great Lakes involves hundreds of cities, several states, Canada and that it affects the nation as a whole. 

Water is also crucial to agriculture, one thing the Chinese readily recognize--and don't have in abundance, he said. 

“Cities and regions can lead the way by being green,” he said, even though he admitted that the environmental challenges facing cities are overwhelming as urbanization grows toward 70 to 80 percent worldwide. 

“There are huge economic and social problems and we have to get something from each city, meet with them, learn from each other, and come back with ideas.”

For example, in 2003 Daley co-founded with Toronto’s Mayor David Miller the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Cities Initiative, which is a coalition of U.S. and Canadian mayors that advance the protection and restoration of the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River.  By integrating their environmental, economic and social agendas, local governments are helping to sustain a resource that represents approximately 20 percent of the world’s surface freshwater supply, provides drinking water for 40 million people, and is the foundation upon which a strong regional economy is based. 

Everybody benefits,” he said, “cities, townships, counties, regions.”

In 1997 Daley was also involved in gathering 273 mayors in the Chicago area to form the Metropolitan Mayors Caucus and tackle such critical issues as economic development, school funding and tax reform, workforce readiness, energy reliability and security, air quality, funding for transportation and other infrastructure, housing, and emergency preparedness.  In this way they were able to speak with a unified voice to the legislative chambers of Springfield and Washington.

Daley urged caucus members to follow three major tenents: 
  • If we don’t work together, we will slowly die on the vine. 
  • No one gets all the rewards; rather, everyone gets a piece of the pie. 
  • By using the linkages you have, you don’t have to start a project from scratch all over again. 
“We know that the metropolitan areas that work together will be the ones that succeed in the global economy of the 21st Century,” said Daley.  “We need to look at America differently, otherwise we will look to the past, which is not relevant to the global economy of today and the future.”

Mayor Daley poses with members of the audience
In helping to secure that future, Chicago leads the way in protecting the environment with green roofs, a public transit system that offers efficient alternatives to driving, a bicycling program with more than 165 miles of bike-ways, and energy efficiency programs to help Chicagoans save thousands of dollars.

To make these strides he gathered 230 suburbs with the city as well as representatives from business, higher education and advocacy groups to write and execute the Chicago Climate Action Plan

Dozens of experts and a nationally recognized research adviser committee also took part in discussions as did leading scientists who described various scenarios for Chicago’s climate future and ways these would impact life in the city.

“We didn’t blame anyone,” he said.  “We all worked together to solve the problem.”

As mayor, Daley has changed the conversation in the city and put it on a new path towards economic growth and a high quality of life.  What has driven him in this quest is his commitment to public service.

Politicians should act more like “public servants” rather than “ideological warriors,” he said.  He worked with Presidents Clinton, Bush and Obama to help his city—something he learned from his father who supported all the presidents regardless of party and who respected the office of the presidency. 

Likewise, Daley conducted himself as mayor of all Chicagoans regardless of whether they were Democrats or voted for him.  He also appealed to President George W. Bush for money in numerous rebuilding projects and received more federal dollars from him than any other president.

Everyone wants President Obama to be FDR, he said.  At the same time they try to dilute the power of the presidency.  Everyone is caught up in this and they seem willing to give more power to the bureaucracy, which makes for a less effective president. 

Government regulations are another sore spot for Daley, especially when it comes to environmental regulations.  He admitted the Industrial Revolution created a great deal of pollution.  At the same time it put people to work who also became a part of the middle class. 

Regulations are needed but what we really need is an energy policy, he said. 

Like most politicians, and Daley surely is one, his tenure was not without controversy.  There were patronage issues, privatization deals that fell through, the takeover of a lake shore airport, a parking meter rate hike once it was in the hands of a private company and a $655 million debt.  On the social front he tried to heal race relations but tore down "the projects" where many poor African Americans lived.  He was outspoken for his support of gun control and same-sex marriage; he opposed the war in Iraq. 
He doesn’t appear apologetic or remorseful for these things but rather confident that his achievements will have lasting effect and inspire other cities to move forward toward their own futures.  

“We in the United States have got to get back to believing in ourselves,” he said.  “We can create an America that is better than the last century.” 

It strikes me that this is the kind of leadership and spirit we need in our politicians. 

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