It's 1979 and weeks of continuous storms had dropped a record seven feet of snow on the city. CTA trains ground to a halt, figuratively frozen in place on the rails. Main streets were a nightmare, clogged by snow and stalled cars, blocking CTA buses. Most side streets impassable. O'Hare Airport was a mess.
I'll never forget then-mayor Michael Bilandic standing in O'Hare with hundreds of lost, delayed or abandoned bags piled up in the concourse behind him. In this setting, he virtually denied that there was a problem. Anyone who had stepped foot outside his house for the past month knew that it was a crock.
In the Democratic primary, he faced Bilandic had won the Democratic primary big time, but in the general election he faced his fired consumer affairs commissioner, Jane Byrne. No one gave her a chance.
Except the voters. In one of the most stunning upsets in Chicago history, Byrne retired Bilandic and proved that when voters get angry enough, the Chicago Machine is vulnerable.
Flash forward to this week, and see Mayor Richard M. Daley facing the cause of Chicagoans' anger that just won't go away: the privatization of the city's parking meters to a company that wasn't up to the job. Now, Daley is facing the press on a cold day and he's being pressed by reporters about angry motorists who could pay for parking because the meters were frozen.
"There's frozen parking meters, frozen water hydrants, frozen doors, frozen cars. They're all out there," [Daley] said. The old parking meters also froze, Daley said, insisting the problem isn't linked to the pay boxes that have replaced meters around the city. "No, no, they've always frozen," he said.
My life in Chicago dates back to the early 1940s, and I don't believe I've ever encountered a frozen parking meter. More often I'd encounter one that just didn't work. Something tells me a lot of other people have had the same experience.
Which brings us back to Bilandic. In defending his own performance, Bilandic's big mistake was not admitting the problems were so big that the city had virtually come to a halt. People would have understood if he had said, "We're faced with unprecedented problem, which--if we had anticipated them--we could have handled better. I'm sorry for that, but here's what we're doing...."
I was covering the CTA then for the Chicago Sun-Times, and its management also tried to downplay its problems. It failed to clear the tracks of snow in a timely way; it gave away it's big snow plow to a railroad museum. It's failure to acknowledge the reality that everybody was facing every single day for weeks on end just made people angrier.
Daley is repeating the same mistake. Every new problem with the parking meter deal just makes people angrier, and appears to make Daley look like a bigger boob. Yes, everyone says that Daley, if he decides to seek re-election, is invincible. But if he keeps this up...who knows?
Chicago Tribune contributing op-ed columnist and author of forthcoming historical novel, "Madness: The War of 1812." Reporter, editor and columnist for Chicago Sun-Times and Chicago Daily News. Freelance writer and editor.
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