It was a far cry from the typically cocksure Mayor Richard M. Daley, the savvy Chicago ambassador courting CEOs and world-class architects, or the hard-knuckle retail politician pressing the flesh in his family's blue-collar neighborhoods. A week after two of Daley's top officials were charged with mail fraud in a widening federal corruption probe, the Cook County Republican Party had gone so far as to offer a $10,000 reward to anyone who could provide information leading to the conviction of the mayor himself, and suddenly he seemed a bit like a wounded animal, ready to lash out or, alternatively, plead for sympathy. "It was deeply offensive to me [and] my family," he told reporters after a city council meeting last week, his eyes tearing up and his face turning red. "I understand that things get really dirty and ugly and messy, but this crosses the line." In an exclusive interview with TIME, Daley sounded a defiant tone: "I have 38,000 people. I don't micromanage them. I don't feel personally responsible."
For most of his 16 years in office, Daley has seemed responsible for everything in Chicago, good and bad. Despite his own fair share of embarrassing scandals, the son of legendary Mayor Richard J. Daley has largely managed to avoid his father's notoriety for cronyism and back-room dealing, a record of corruption that led to a federal ban in 1983 on almost all politically motivated hiring in Cook County. Instead Daley has won praise for spurring economic development, reducing crime and trying to reform public housing and education--which earned him a place as one of America's Best Mayors in TIME earlier this year. But now it seems that legacy may be in jeopardy, and some political observers question whether Daley can win re-election in two years.
The allegations of patronage--which include rigging of applicant test scores, falsifying records and recommending the hiring of, among other apparently unqualified people, one dead man and one drunk--are just the latest serious charges of wrongdoing leveled at Daley's administration. U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald (who is also investigating the leak of CIA officer Valerie Plame's identity) has helped convict more than 20 city employees of taking bribes in exchange for contracts in the city's Hired Truck program, which doles out transportation work to private companies. When announcing the recent indictments, Fitzgerald, who has also charged that a heroin ring was operating out of a city water-filtration plant, said he hoped that his probe would shake a city hall "where people are being scored not on the merits but by whom they know or what clout they have." (His office refused last week to comment further.)
Daley dismisses the scandals as a few isolated incidents rather than evidence of any "systemic" problem. But even many supporters find it hard to believe that Daley, who practically has patronage in his blood and is known as a hands-on boss, had no idea what was going on. "I like him. It's just that he has this blind spot when it comes to corruption. I don't think he ever realizes the seriousness of it," says Joe Moore, a Far North Side alderman who was elected to the city council two years after Daley took office. In recent months Daley has at least tried to appear to be doing business differently. He fired a handful of his top aides, brought in a new chief of staff and proposed that an independent panel handle city hiring.