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Perry on Politics: Mayoral soft spots

Published by James M. Perry on .

By James M. Perry

Mayors are real people, dealing with everyday problems, from Big Bill Thompson to Richard J. Daley in Chicago and from Fiorello H. LaGuardia to Edward Koch in New York City.

I've had a soft spot for most of them -- David Lawrence in Pittsburgh, Richardson Dilworth in Philadelphia, and Tom Bradley in Los Angeles, among them.

New York City, though, is the hotbed for mayor's races, and they're having a wild one this year.

Now that Anthony Weiner, the former congressman with the sex hangups, has dropped out of sight in the public-opinion polls, quinnbantamthe leading contender for the Democratic nomination seems to be Bill de Blasio, the city's elected Public Advocate, a seemingly unique position about which I know almost nothing. His closest rival is City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, who went to my alma mater, Trinity College, whose mascot is a bantam, a chicken really. She appeared at Trinity home games as the official mascot (above right), dressed as a chicken. I tend to think someone willing to do that can't be all bad.

Former Comptroller Bill Thompson is in third place, not far behind.

They're all running to succeed Michael Bloomberg, surely the richest mayor anywhere, any place, any time. I'm familiar with rich U.S. senators -- they all seem to be millionaires -- I'm not familiar with billionaire mayors. New Yorkers, after watching him for 12 years, still seem a little ambivalent. Me too.

Chicago's Boss Daley, perhaps the most famous (or infamous) mayor we've ever had, lived modestly for all the 21 years he ruled Chicago in the city's Bridgeport neighborhood on the working-class South Side. But the Boss was not exactly lovable, daley-at-1968-conventionnot, at least, to those among us who covered the chaotic 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago, when Daley's cops seemed to lose control and whack every anti-war protestor they could run down. One night, having heard enough catcalls from the convention floor, the Boss packed our seats in the press gallery with loyal workers from the Sanitation Department. They did their best to drown out the catcalls.

Historians of big-city politics almost universally love Fiorello ("Little Flower" in Italian) LaGuardia, the fellow the airport's named for. He served for 12 years, from 1934 to 1945. He was a wonder, but not exactly what he seemed. His father, Achille, was an Italian (but no longer a Roman Catholic); he led an army band in Prescott, Arizona. His mother, Irene Coch, was Jewish. LaGuardia himself was, of all things, an Episcopalian!

His entry in Wikipedia nails it:

LaGuardia was a domineering leader who verged on authoritarianism but whose reform politics were carefully tailored to address the sentiments of his diverse constituency, He defeated a corrupt Democratic machine, presided during a depression and a world war, made the city the model for New Deal welfare and public works programs, and championed immigrants and ethnic minorities ... He secured his place in history as a tough-minded reform mayor who helped clean out corruption, bring in gifted experts, and fix upon the city a broad sense of responsibility for his own citizens.

I have two fond recollections of the man. In the first, he's in the United States Army Air Service in World War 1 flying rickety Italian Caproni three-engine (Fiats) bombers on the front between Italy and Austria. In the second, he's mayor and there's a strike of all the city's major newspapers. He shows up at a radio station and reads in that squeaky voice the Sunday comics to the kids listening in. Then he pauses while reading Dick Tracy and asks, metaphorically, "Why, (police Commisioner Lewis) Valentine, is Dick Tracy so thin and our policemen so fat?"?

It's true. We've never had a mayor like him.

James M. Perry, a prominent veteran political reporter, is contributing regular observations for post-gazette.com. Mr. Perry was the chief political correspondent of The Wall Street Journal until his retirement. Prior to that, he covered national politics for the Dow Jones weekly, The National Observer.

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