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Gary Younge
Shady Chicago: it's his kind of town

Mr Daley said that for security reasons he no longer wanted aircraft flying over the city centre, and if it was good enough for Disneyland it was good enough for America's third largest city.

"If Mickey and Minnie can have a no-fly zone, then Chicago should too," he said.

When his detractors pointed out that other no-fly zones introduced earlier that month over New York city, Washington and Disney parks had been enforced openly and with less skulduggery, it became clear Mr Daley had tired of negotiating. He had just been re-elected with the kind of majority - 79% - Kim Jong-il would have been proud of. Like the explanation the former president Bill Clinton gave for his affair with Monica Lewinsky, Mr Daley did it because he could.

This is the kind of behaviour that Chicagoans either love or hate about their mayor - a man whose father held the same job for two decades and whose name, for better or for worse, is synonymous with the city.

"That was just so Daley," said Jean Burke, who was born and raised in Chicago, smiling about the Meigs Field incident. "A lot of people thought, 'yeah'. These little executive planes weren't flying in for us. He stands up to the people who are making decisions that are not for Chicago's benefit."

Others agree it is typical, but do not see that as a compliment. "I don't think he can really deal with process," said Steve Rhodes, a senior editor at Chicago magazine. "He doesn't respect process. What he did in Meigs Field was to prevent any debate about the future of the airport. It's pretty childish and intolerant if you think about it."

Yesterday Mr Daley stamped his legacy on the city for generations to come with the opening of Millennium Park on the banks of Lake Michigan. Taking up more than 10 hectares (24 acres) of land where a railyard used to be, the Chicago Tribune called it the city's "biggest, boldest, outdoor cultural project in more than a century". It includes an underground theatre, an outdoor music hall designed by Frank Gehry, a range of modernist fountains and sculptures - including a 110-tonne polished-steel piece by the British artist Anish Kapoor, cafes, an ice rink, a shower room for cyclists and a number of parks.

"Who wouldn't want this in their city? It's amazing," said Sarah Kopinscky, climbing over the yellow tape early yesterday morning to get a closer look.

But if it is an impressive monument to the creative use of civic space, it is also a landmark to Mr Daley's excess, inefficiency and, some contend, the corruption that pervades his administration. It was called Millennium Park for a reason - it was supposed to be finished by 2000. Instead it was four years late and, at $475m (£250m), came in at more than three times the original budget.

"It's late, over budget, was not the subject of any public policy debate and involved questionable contracts," said Mr Rhodes. "It's almost everything you need to know about Daley."

So if yesterday was Mr Daley's finest hour it also struck at the most troubled period of his 15-year reign. Last week the Chicago Tribune published an article branding the city "one of the most corrupt cities in America, if not the most corrupt city in America". The Chicago Sun-Times, a local tabloid, said Mr Daley's responses to a string of scandals had "failed to convince anyone of anything except his sensitivity to character issues and charges of mob influence".

The most revelatory was the exposure of $40m of contracts issued in a public works project. The hired truck programme rented trucks from 165 outside companies to use for developments such as the construction of the Millennium Park. According to the Sun-Times investigation, named Clout on Wheels, the beneficiaries included James Inendino, a convicted mob loan shark serving a six-year prison sentence for swindling the suburb of Cicero out of $75,000 and cheating on his taxes.

Another company was owned by the mother-in-law of Mark Gyrion, Mr Daley's cousin who works in the city water department. Meanwhile John Daley, the mayor's brother and the head of the finance committee in the city's Cook County board, admitted he had sold insurance to three of the companies involved in the hired truck programme.

Nobody has alleged that the mayor has personally benefited from these deals. Mr Daley said he was "embarrassed, angry and disappointed" when he heard of the scandals. But his critics say they are all evidence that bribery, connections and cronyism remain the grease that oils the machinery of the city.

Ask why Chicagoans put up with this and people shrug. "Daley loves Chicago. This is his city and he has no other ambitions beyond it," said Ms Burke. Like Millennium Park, many of his contributions are visible in the city centre. Over the past few years he has erected huge beds of tulips on downtown pavements where he previously placed an enormous array of brightly painted sculptures of cows. Two years ago he asked the population to read To Kill A Mocking Bird in the same week, promoted it in schools and bookshops and at public gatherings.

The Daleys have run the city for 36 of the last 49 years, and have got it down to a fine art. "There is no effective political opposition to Daley," said Salim Muwakkil, a Chicago-based senior editor at the magazine In These Times. "He has already coopted any potential opposition within the Democratic party or the African American community, and that's the only place you're going to find anyone that can really challenge him."

Mr Rhodes said the mayor's ability to survive scandals and thrive was "part of Chicago's culture". "It's like we all need a giant civics lesson. And the Millennium Park is typical. People are already saying 'This is so cool'. Soon they'll forget how much it cost and how late it was and what went on behind the scenes. They'll say, 'it doesn't matter, it's a great park'. But you know what? It matters."

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