Daley era ends: Business leaders brace for free-for-all

Thursday, September 09, 2010

Some of Chicago's top business leaders, shocked by Mayor Richard M. Daley's decision not to seek re-election, are bracing for a political free-for-all they fear could stall prized business projects like expansion of O'Hare International Airport.

“I think it's going to be fairly destabilizing for the city at a time when I think we need stability the most,” said Jim Farrell, chairman of the Commercial Club of Chicago. “So I think we've got some particularly difficult times ahead of us.”

“It's a huge change, a huge loss,” added George Ranney, president and CEO of Metropolis 2020, a non-profit that promotes regional cooperation among city and suburban governments. “I think these next months are going to be very important for the business community to get their thoughts on the agenda.”

Although business leaders and Mr. Daley have not always been in sync — consider the 2003 overnight closure of Meigs Field — executives generally have grown comfortable with the advantages of having a long-serving incumbent in the mayor's office.

Now, they worry about a repeat of the kind of political upheavals that followed the death of Richard J. Daley in 1976, the surprise election of Jane Byrne in 1979 and the death of Harold Washington in 1987.

“I am absolutely floored. I expected him to run again,” Harrison Steans, a banker and civic leader, said of Mr. Daley's decision.

Mr. Farrell, a former CEO of Illinois Tool Works Inc., said he is concerned about the outcome of Mr. Daley's incomplete efforts to improve the quality of education at Chicago Public Schools.

The same goes for the mayor's attempts to come to grips with a ballooning, $655-million city budget deficit — measures that included layoffs, furloughs and other cutbacks — he said: “He has some definite opinions about that I think by and large were on the right track.”

After Mr. Daley's announcement, business leaders aren't sure what they'll get when a new mayor is inaugurated next spring.

Mr. Ranney sounded an optimistic note, pointing out that Mr. Daley's soon-to-be record tenure created momentum on significant initiatives, like Metropolis 2020's call for increased regional cooperation, that will be hard to dissipate.

“I don't think it's a situation like it was back in the '80s, when what the city needs to do is unclear or up in the air,” he said.

Still, Jerry Roper, president and CEO of the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce, lamented the lack of any clear successor to Mr. Daley. “It’s sort of a like a business without a succession plan,” he said. “Everything we teach entrepreneurs is not there.”

Ron Gidwitz, a businessman who ran for governor in 2006, credited Mr. Daley’s ability “to pull a diverse city together” and noted, “What follows the election will be a jockeying for power, a challenge to the authority of the new mayor, whoever he or she is.”

Mr. Gidwitz declined to rule out a run himself. “I doubt it,” he said of a potential candidacy. “At this point, I’m helping (GOP gubernatorial candidate) Bill Brady. But who knows?”