How Daley's Minimum Wage Victory Could Mean Defeat

  • Share
  • Read Later
Over his 17 years in office, Mayor Richard M. Daley has lorded over the Chicago City Council with such power and certainty that it is big — really big — news when aldermen dare say no to an ordinance he is pushing; or, for that matter, yes to an ordinance he had lobbied against. In fact, of the roughly 5,000 votes between April 2003, when the current council took office, and the end of last year, there were only 29 divided votes.

So at a time when the mayor was already considered vulnerable because of federal corruption investigations at the doorstep of his office and potentially tough running mates in next February's election, it came as quite a slap to his standing when the council signed off in July on a bill to raise substantially the wages and benefits of workers at such big-box retailers as Target, Wal-Mart and Home Depot. The vote — 35 to 14 — was such an aberration that Daley had to resort to a tool he had never been forced to use before: the veto. However well-meaning it may have been, Daley argued, the measure would disproportionately hurt the black worker by keeping capital out of poor neighborhoods and cut into the city's overall financial well-being by shutting out retailers that generate some of the highest revenues — and taxes — of any business.

And on Wednesday Daley showed that he can still flex muscle like his legendary father, when the council failed to override his veto, killing the living wage ordinance for now. Those aldermen who did switch sides secured the victory (the 31 votes to override — versus 18 who backed it — were three shy of what was needed), and said they had simply changed their minds. But City Hall insiders said there was no doubting Daley did some nudging to wrestle the necessary votes from the trio of politicians usually thought to be in Daley's camp. "Everyone wants a living wage, but it has to be statewide," Daley said after the council vote, stressing that issues of hiking wages and benefits should be the purview of state and federal officials — a noticeable shift of thinking for Daley, who usually boasts about piloting the big programs such as housing and education on his own.

The measure's backers, including co-sponsor Freddrenna Lyle, have suggested the ordinance could end up on a referendum in the February elections, and co-sponsor Joe Moore has promised to breathe life into an even wider plan covering more businesses as early as the next council meeting in October. Groups such as the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, which joined in a massive rally at City Hall Wednesday, have promised to take the fight to state and federal officials to increase wages across the board.

Still, the minimum wage standoff was viewed by almost everyone through the wider prism of Daley's political future. Dick Simpson, the chair of political science at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said that Daley's power is waning at a critical time. "He can still raise millions and has thousands of patronage workers," Simpson says. "But he doesn't have the kind of control that he had before."

Daley hasn't officially announced his candidacy for a sixth term, but he has sounded very much the candidate in recent months. He has talked up his record of taking over and improving one of the nation's most troubled school systems, as well as its pathetic public housing system by wrecking the high rises that imprisoned so many in poverty for so long. He also hasn't missed many opportunities to tout the city's fallling crime rates, especially murder, or his campaign to turn Chicago into the envy of many cities for its greening efforts.

Leading up to this week, Daley had dropped hints that he was ready to pull rank over the council. But it was far from clear that he would actually spend such political capital at a tenuous time in his career. His patronage chief was convicted earlier this year for doling out political hires, and rumors have swirled that the probe by U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald was edging even closer to Daley himself, who has always steadfastly denied any wrongdoing. Aides say he's in the clear, safe, and eminently electable.

"The mayor won today," Simpson of UIC says, "but the surprising thing is that 31 aldermen voted against the mayor here. The aldermen are more afraid of the community groups than they are of the mayor. He won nearly every vote that came before the council during this council's term, but already this year there have been at least six divided votes."

Just last week, Democratic Congressman Jesse Jackson, Jr. announced — finally — that he is doing what everyone expected: exploring a run for the top job in America's third largest city, a job that has been held by a Daley for 38 of the last 50 years. Also in the running is Dorothy Brown, the popular clerk of the Cook County Circuit Court, and rumored to be in a bid for the job is Democratic Congressman Luis Gutierrez.

But observers believe it is Jackson, the son of the civil rights leader and former presidential candidate Jesse Jackson, who poses the greatest threat to Daley. He is more moderate than his often fiery father, and he is thought to have solid backing in both the black and white communities (Daley has traditionally polled very well in the black community, as well). Well spoken, full of charm, he has deftly avoided scandal and has challenged Daley on some of the more divisive issues in this city in recent years, including the living wage ordinance, which Jackson supports, and the possibility of a third airport in the suburbs Jackson represents, which Daley opposes. And if Jackson can pull it off, then Daley might finally know a little bit of what it feels like so often for many of the minimum wage workers the retail measure was aimed at — out of a job and unable to call the shots.