May 23, 2001

Phil Kadner

Daley's O'Hare strategy a political masterpiece

Wednesday, May 23, 2001

Remember the moment in "The Natural" where Robert Redford's character crushes a ball so hard that it smashes the stadium lights?

That's the sort of clutch political performance Mayor Richard M. Daley has turned in on behalf of Chicago's O'Hare International Airport.

Despite his poor grammar and rough-edged persona, when it comes to cutting deals for his city, Daley is "The Natural."

Consider the events of the past six months.

Republican George W. Bush defeats Al Gore in the presidential race. Daley's brother, William, is Gore's campaign manager. This is the same brother who as commerce secretary under Bill Clinton used his influence to prevent the Peotone airport from being built.

With Bush in and Clinton out things are looking pretty bad for the mayor and pretty good for a new airport in Peotone.

In addition, Republican George Ryan, who campaigned for Peotone during his own election battle with Democrat Glenn Poshard, is governor of Illinois.

Daley doesn't panic.

He meets with President Bush, who comes out of the meeting and says he's learned a few things about politics in Illinois.

U.S. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) claims that delays at O'Hare are causing a national aviation crisis.

As Ryan begins buying land for his Peotone airport, two Iowa senators announce that they will propose legislation taking away the governor's power in local aviation matters. Congressional hearings are slated in Chicago to find out exactly what is going on here.

Then a group of downtown Chicago corporate leaders pay for full-page advertisements demanding the expansion of O'Hare airport.

U.S. Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.), long silent on the third airport controversy, suddenly says Ryan and Daley need to sit down to work out a mutual agreement on new O'Hare runways and an airport in Peotone by July 1.

All this time, Daley has not once indicated publicly that he wants new runways at O'Hare.

Although he has 14-years worth of reports from city aviation consultant Landrum & Brown on his desk, the mayor's office claims he doesn't even have a plan for building new runways.

The Chicago Tribune, which has been blasting Daley for years over patronage at O'Hare, suddenly demands massive expansion at the old airport.

For more than 10 years, Daley has fought a guerrilla war to keep Republicans from building a new airport at Peotone.

His people in the city's aviation department have repeatedly said that O'Hare didn't need any new runways and that it could handle any increase in flights until the year 2012.

Yet, when the governor asks to see an O'Hare airport expansion plan, he is ridiculed by the news media.

Daley doesn't have to say anything. He only has to stifle a laugh during public appearances.

This is Michael Jordan stealing the ball from a baffled Karl Malone, streaking downcourt and scoring a basket for the NBA title while shoving a defender out of the way so deftly that you can only see the maneuver on instant replay.

Gov. Ryan still doesn't realize he's been had.

It's not his fault. Ryan is a self-made man. Daley was to the manor born.

Like all the great ones, he makes the impossible look effortless.

O'Hare is the crown jewel of political clout in Chicago. It provides thousands of jobs for patronage workers, produces millions of dollars in campaign contributions from corporations and means billions of dollars in construction contracts for the mayor's friends.

How much will expansion cost? Some folks say $6 billion, others say $10 billion, still others claim the final tab could reach $15 billion?

How long will it take? Lawsuits from surrounding communities and environmental groups could delay the project for three years or more. And then, there will be the inevitable construction delays. It has taken the city years to build Millennium Park.

Flight delays. Of course, there would be delays.

What about ground traffic? If O'Hare increases in size, can the roads handle a 25 percent to 50 percent increase in automobile traffic?

No one cares.

Daley's political magic borders on witchcraft.

Lights are exploding all over the ballpark. The guys in the opposing dugout are watching in gape-mouthed, disbelieving awe.

Daley is tagging all the bases and he never even bothered to look up.

The Natural knows by the sound when he's hit one out of the park.

Phil Kadner may be reached at or (708) 633-6787.

[Chicago ATC News]