Carol Felsenthal
On politics

Bill Daley’s Exit Isn’t Puzzling, It’s Predictable

If you know Bill Daley’s history, it comes as no surprise that the ex-candidate decided running for governor (and holding the job) would be too much work.

Photo: Jose M. Osorio/Chicago Tribune

Bill Daley prepares to the media at the Union League Club in Chicago, on Tuesday, September 17, 2013, to explain his abrupt decision to quit a challenge to Gov. Pat Quinn in next year’s Democratic gubernatorial primary.

Reporters tend to like Bill Daley. Not me.

While writing a profile of him almost a decade ago, I found Daley remarkably thin-skinned. He agreed to give me interviews, but as I pursued both the personal and the political—as profile writers do—he called my editor to complain, as soon as I started to ask about his first marriage to Loretta, the mother of his three children. Later he screamed at me, on the telephone, when I wrote, accurately, that his son had been a lobbyist for Fannie Mae.

And now, stunned at the news that Bill Daley has quit the race for governor, so many reporters have asked, “Is there a skeleton in his closet?” Maybe. But probably not.

I was surprised when he got into the race for governor of Illinois, but not surprised when, late Monday, he got out. He explained that when he looked ahead at the next five to nine years, the work required to put Illinois on a sound financial footing—with its soaring unemployment, sinking credit rating, $100 million pension mess, towering pile of unpaid bills totaling $7.5 billion—just didn’t seem like something he cared to do.

The word “entitled” comes to mind, for the youngest of the seven children of the late Mayor Richard J. Daley and his wife Sis. So does the word “spoiled.” If your teenager committed to a team, and that commitment impacted other players or potential players, and then, well into the season, he said, “It’s just too hard, it’s not good for me, I’m sick of riding on that bus to away games,” then you’d probably want to have a conversation about follow-through and commitment.

Now, at 65, officially a senior citizen, Daley wanted an elective office as a capstone to his career. So he announced that he was going to challenge Pat Quinn and perhaps Lisa Madigan for the democratic nomination. But after reconfiguring the race by entering it, he decided that the work required to get the job, stay in it, win reelection, was just too grueling.

He understood that Governor of Illinois was a resume line that would be a necessity were he ever, say, to be tapped as VP. But he also understood that he had waited too long.

The Daley name, which had so reliably sent job offers his way, had become more of a liability than an asset. The very sound of it evoked his brother’s boneheaded parking meter deal, and his nephew’s looming trial on involuntary manslaughter charges in the death in 2004 of young David Koschman.

He was accustomed to getting good reviews, especially while his brother Rich was saluted as “the best mayor in America.” But suddenly, with Rich out of office and the testimonials over, the reevaluations of the Daley mayoral years launched, and Bill was getting some lousy press. His critics, he knew, would be waiting in line to give not-for-attribution interviews. The stories were already circulating that Bill took a hard hit in The Message: The Reselling of President Obama, the forthcoming book by MSNBC.com executive editor and former Newsweek White House correspondent Richard Wolffe on the 2012 Obama campaign.

In January 2011, when Obama, relying on recommendations from Rahm Emanuel and David Axelrod, appointed Bill Daley his Chief of Staff, his advance notices were superlative. But now comes Wolffe describing Daley during his brief tenure as a “walking disaster” and noting that Daley “. . . was supposed to be a management expert, with both private-sector leadership skills and a genial personal style to match. . . . His working relationship with the rest of the West Wing was little short of dismal.”

Wolffe deconstructs two Daley blunders—one involving negotiations with Republicans on the debt ceiling and the other involving negotiations with John Boehner over scheduling an Obama speech to a joint session of Congress. Wolffe concludes that Daley “was considered hopeless and lost by Obama’s aides.”

The prospect of slugging it out in a nasty primary—featuring the rumpled, cheap-suited Quinn ridiculing the manicured, monogrammed Daley in his expensive suit and Hermès tie—was not a pleasant one. Just last weekend, Quinn cast Daley as one of those millionaire evil bankers who “helped drive the American economy into a ditch and created the Great Recession.” And what if he bested the hapless Quinn—who, remember, was pegged as the least popular governor in the country in a poll last year—but ended up losing to a Republican in the November general election?

Friends of Bill Daley described the Midwest chairman of JPMorgan Chase sitting in his huge office at his perfectly organized desk, schmoozing candidates, would-be candidates, and political operatives about the nitty gritty of strategy. It’s one thing to advise someone else while relaxing in temperature-controlled luxury; it’s another to have to hit the potholed road yourself. Especially when the road led to cut-rate hotels in cities and towns he’d never heard of. And all those strangers’ babies to kiss, unclean hands to shake. All that sweat and work only to be stuck, if he pulled it off, with a bunch of state legislators in Springfield.

I learned in writing about Bill Daley that he is a man who likes his routine and his sleep—he quoted to me his father’s admonition, “nothing good ever happens after midnight”—and he told reporters specifically on Tuesday, “I’ve lost sleep” worrying about the decision to put all that effort into what Daley sees as a miserable, unmanageable, bottomless task.

Donna Brazile, Al Gore’s campaign manager in the 2000 presidential race, worked with Daley at the Nashville strip mall where the campaign had been moved. She told me that Chairman Daley ran the campaign “like a board meeting.” He was in at 8 or 9, out at 5, never without a suit and tie.

Daley has been an effective behind-the-scenes player, if you don’t count the Al Gore presidential campaign and the agonizing recount in which Daley was outmaneuvered by Jim Baker. He helped older brother Rich get the job as Cook County state’s attorney; he helped Rich get elected mayor; working with his indefatigable deputy Rahm Emanuel, Daley efficiently and smartly managed the campaign to ratify NAFTA for Bill Clinton. He won raves as Secretary of Commerce in the second Clinton term. He was said to work 14-hour days. He shook up a sprawling, jerry-rigged department and cleaned up its impossibly messy balance sheets. He was a staffer in the campaign of Jimmy Carter; he worked for the losing campaign of Walter Mondale in 1984; the aborted campaign of Joe Biden in 1988. He was a player in both Clinton/Gore campaigns.

When Lisa Madigan looked like the biggest threat to his quest to become governor, he scolded her publicly, saying that he would never have thought of elective office while his brother was mayor—and neither should she while her father was Speaker of the Illinois House. Not true. He had considered running for governor in 2002 against Rod Blagojevich—Alderman Richard Mell, then working to install his son-in-law as governor, threatened to “dirty up” Bill with talk of the separation from Loretta—and in 2010 against Pat Quinn, but he never pulled the trigger. In 1995, he considered running for the U.S. Senate. And earlier, in 1980, long before Rich became mayor, he had toyed with running for Congress. The conventional wisdom held that Bill was not willing to take the chance on losing.

And why would he? He had grown accustomed to being appointed, anointed to lofty positions. A John Marshall Law graduate, and young friend of House Ways and Means committee chairman Dan Rostenkowski, Daley strolled into a partnership at Mayer, Brown & Platt, where he was hired to develop the firm’s “government relations” (i.e., lobbying) department and to represent companies that dealt with the powerful congressman. Daley was hired as president of SBC in late 2001 to lobby regulators and politicians. From there he went to Chase. The appointments kept coming, like Christmas. When Bill Clinton promised to appoint Bill Daley secretary of transportation and Tom Brokaw announced it on the evening news, but instead Clinton gave it to Federico Pena, Bill was presented with a consolation prize, a lucrative seat on the Fannie Mae board—and, later, the commerce job.

And then, in 2013 having finally taken the plunge, he quit—after only 98 days in the arena. On the way out, he petulantly jabbed Pat Quinn—lobbing putdowns that are sure to be the stuff of Republican commercials. Democrat Bill Daley has upped the odds that the state’s next governor could be a Republican.

His parting shots at Quinn were so nasty as to be almost Nixonian, or, if not quite that bad, worthy of a sullen teenager. He predicted that Quinn will lose to a Republican—Quinn “will not be the next governor of Illinois.” He promised that he will not endorse the man who will could be the only Democrat in the primary, but refused to promise not to endorse a Republican. And how about his other prediction—that he would have beaten Quinn in the March 2014 primary? Voters south of I-80 putting a Daley in charge of the state? Doubtful. (The Tribune’s John Kass suggests that Daley might have trouble getting “many votes south of Archer Avenue.”)

In his explanation to Tribune reporters Rick Pearson and Bob Secter, on why he was leaving the race, Daley used and reused and used again the word “me.” Anyone who has spent much time with a toddler will recognize the syntax.

“But the last six weeks or so have been really tough on me, struggling with this. Is this really me? Is this really what I want to spend my next five to nine years doing? And is this the best thing for me to do at this stage of my life? I’ve come to the conclusion that this isn’t the best thing for me.”

If he wondered whether he had hurt the careers or livelihoods of his “shocked” staff, he didn’t say. He had announced his campaign manager two weeks ago—a month, according to his own account, after he had begun contemplating dropping out. If he wondered what other Democrats—Kwame Raoul? Toni Preckwinkle?—might have jumped into the race if he hadn’t indulged his whim, he also didn’t say.

He said he wanted an elected position as a capstone to his career. Instead, he’s stuck with quitter as his capstone—and dilettante. According to Pearson and Secter, Daley “. . . vow[ed] never to seek public office.”

If he wants a role in the Hillary Clinton campaign and/or administration, or if he covets another cool cabinet job, he probably just shot himself in the loafer—or the golf shoe. He’ll have plenty of time for the latter.

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