The grandson of Irish immigrants, Daley was the nation’s dominant big-city mayor in the second half of the twentieth century and a major force in the national Democratic party. Launching his political career in 1936, Daley was elected to the Illinois House of Representatives and then advanced to the state senate in 1938, where he served as Democratic minority leader from 1941 through 1946. He was also the deputy controller of Cook County from 1936 through 1949 and was named Illinois state revenue director in 1949. In these positions, Daley gained a keen understanding of government and a mastery of budgets and revenue sources.
Daley moved into the Chicago Democratic machine’s hierarchy in 1947 with his election as ward committeeman of the Southwest Side’s Eleventh Ward. Working behind the scenes, he engineered the ouster of Col. Jacob M. Arvey as Democratic chairman following Republican victories in the 1950 elections. In 1953, Daley took over the chairmanship of the Cook County Democratic Central Committee, which he forged into the strongest political organization in the country. As party chairman, Daley challenged and defeated Mayor Martin Kennelly in the 1955 Democratic primary and then won the first of six mayoral terms in the general election.
For twenty-one years, Daley presided over city government and the Democratic organization in his dual role as mayor and party chairman. He cultivated alliances with organized labor and industry that contributed to Chicago’s renaissance at a time when other northern industrial cities were declining. He helped build the world’s largest airport and tallest office building, a lakefront convention center, a governmental complex that would later bear his name, a Chicago campus for the state university, expressways, and mass transit lines.
Daley was among John F. Kennedy’s key supporters in the 1960 presidential election, providing him with the delegates who helped him win a first-ballot nomination and a massive Chicago vote that delivered Illinois for Kennedy in his narrow victory over Richard M. Nixon. Daley hosted the 1968 Democratic National Convention at President Lyndon B. Johnson’s request. Daley’s national reputation was seriously tarnished as the result of violence between anti-Vietnam War demonstrators and Chicago police. Ironically, Daley had been a private critic of the Vietnam War and had urged Johnson to withdraw U.S. forces. In 1972, Daley was dealt another blow when the Democratic National Convention refused to seat his Illinois delegation because of noncompliance with new selection rules. In 1976, Jimmy Carter said that Daley’s endorsement clinched his first-ballot nomination for the presidency, but Daley failed to deliver Illinois for Carter in the election.
Blacks were a major component of the Daley coalition, providing him with his winning margin in his two closest mayoral elections. But his relationship with them deteriorated in the turbulent hours after Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination when Daley issued a shoot-to-kill order in the wake of riots and looting on the city’s West Side. He later resented the challenge to his authority as party chairman by black Democratic politicians.
A series of court rulings against political patronage diminished Daley’s clout in his final term, and his political organization declined further in the decade after his death. Richard M. Daley, his eldest son, was elected mayor of Chicago in April 1989.