Foie gras ban shows Daley's losing his grip
Copyright by The Chicago Sun Times
April 30, 2006
BY FRAN SPIELMAN City Hall Reporter
The City Council opened itself up to ridicule last week when it banned foie gras, a liver delicacy most Chicagoans have never tasted and cannot afford.
But the vote that made Chicago the nation's first major city to ban rich man's chopped liver was about more than misplaced priorities. It was about Mayor Daley's diminishing clout over a legislative body once viewed as his rubber stamp.
The Hired Truck, city hiring and minority contracting scandals have so weakened Daley -- and neutered the Mayor's Office of Intergovernmental Affairs that's supposed to lobby aldermen -- that the mayor can no longer afford to waste his diminishing political capital on the frivolous.
Never mind that Daley viewed the foie gras ban as a Big Brother intrusion and unworthy of the City Council's attention. The ordinance sailed through while the mayor waxed sarcastic on the sidelines.
'Picks his battles wisely'
"There was no involvement of IGA on that issue to even indicate to most of us what the mayor's feelings were. He did not expend any capital trying to stop it or, for that matter, most of the things recently," Ald. Freddrenna Lyle (6th) said.
"I agreed with the mayor. I'm not concerned about the foie gras issue because I've got children getting shot in the street. . . . Some fights aren't worth fighting."
Ald. Pat O'Connor (40th), the mayor's unofficial City Council floor leader, tried to put the best possible face on the latest example of Daley's detachment from the legislative branch of government.
"The mayor picks his battles wisely. While he may not agree with something like foie gras, if less than 1 percent of the people in Chicago eat it and not too many more even know what it is, why would you waste political capital on that type of confrontation?" O'Connor said.
There was a time when Daley ruled the City Council with an iron hand through political enforcers Tim Degnan, Degnan's successor Victor Reyes, and Ald. Pat Huels (11th), the Daley floor leader who was forced out during a 1997 ethics scandal.
The mayor wouldn't tolerate dissent. He was determined to pitch a shutout on every vote. Those who dared to oppose the mayor's programs or speak out against him on the City Council floor were targeted for defeat by the Reyes-led Hispanic Democratic Organization or other pro-Daley political armies.
But that was before the Degnan- and Reyes-led Office of Intergovernmental Affairs -- Daley's liaison to the City Council and General Assembly -- found itself at the center of the city hiring scandal.
Daley's former patronage chief Robert Sorich and three others with ties to the mayor's home 11th Ward are about to go on trial on charges that they engaged in a "massive fraud" to rig city hiring and promotions over more than a decade.
Legislative agenda 'in disarray'
With federal prosecutors breathing down the city's neck and a federal monitor overseeing city hiring, one veteran alderman said, "IGA has been neutered. They can't give us anything. They can't take anything away. The core of their existence is gone. Now the City Council has to learn how to walk."
Under new IGA director John Dunn -- "a nice guy who nobody talks to" -- the office that's supposed to push the mayor's legislative agenda is "in disarray," said another alderman, who asked to remain anonymous.
"In the past, when they asked you to do something or vote for something, you'd ask something of them. Now, they can't give you anything, so they don't ask you, either. As a result, these things [like foie gras] start taking on a life of their own," the alderman said.
It's not the first time that has happened in recent months -- and it won't be the last.
In the battle over a proposed anti-smoking ordinance, Daley waited to seal the deal until it was clear that Health Committee Chairman Ed Smith (28th) and O'Connor had already lined up enough votes for an all-inclusive ban. In the past, Daley has used his power to snuff out anti-smoking ordinances.
Detached and preoccupied by the scandals, Daley was also a bystander in the just-averted fight over an honorary street designation for slain Black Panther leader Fred Hampton. That's even though it threatened to divide aldermen along racial lines in ways not seen since the 1980s power struggle known as Council Wars.
Aldermen blaze new trails
And Daley was long gone from last week's City Council meeting when aldermen, fuming about a hiring probe now spreading to the City Council, decided to hire their own attorney to intervene in the Shakman case to take a stand against a federal hiring monitor who they say has overstepped her bounds.
Now, Finance Committee Chairman Edward M. Burke (14th) and more than 30 of his colleagues are threatening to blaze another trail -- by establishing a wage and benefit standard for Wal-Mart and other "big box" retailers.
Daley made his feelings on the subject well-known before leaving for a trip to Israel and Jordan that will take him away from Chicago during the Sorich trial and the close of the legislative session.
"Once you start mandating that, where do you stop?" Daley said.
A more important question is whether a mayor who is clearly losing his grip on the City Council has the political muscle -- or the political will -- to stop it.