Mayor Ray Nagin was not there for Daley's address, having returned to New Orleans early to oversee emergency operations in response to Hurricane Lili. But Nagin had his own taste of Daley's magnetism the night before, at a private dinner that Daley hosted for Nagin. The two men sat across from one another and talked non-stop for almost three hours.
Nagin can learn a lot from Daley, and New Orleans can learn a lot from Chicago. The latter was pretty much the point of the trip. The former was a fortuitous bit of lagniappe.
Chicago today is not just a city on the rebound. It's one of the world's great cities, and getting better all the time. Daley deserves much of the credit. In his speech to the New Orleans delegation, he laid out the Daley regimen for success.
"Start with education," he says. A city with failing public schools will never progress. More specifically, cities without good public schools will never attract and keep middle-class families.
In Chicago, the mayor is responsible for public education. That happened on Daley's watch. How it happened wasn't pretty -- he had to let the school system fail completely (go bankrupt, in effect) and then "buy" it out of bankruptcy via legislative act. That meant tossing out the union, the bureaucracy and the board and starting all over -- a tall order for a Democrat.
In New Orleans, former Mayor Marc Morial initially touted education as the basis for his third-term ambitions, but it soon became clear that he hadn't thought things through. Not beyond getting control of the contracts, anyway. Nagin has been low-key on the subject so far, but the MetroVision workshop participants made "reinventing education" their top priority after hearing Daley's speech. If MetroVision is serious about that idea, more visits to Chicago are likely.
"Invest in your airport" was another Daley lesson. "If you're not international, you don't matter."
Chicago, like New Orleans, has "runway issues" with its neighbors. A big part of the solution, Daley says, is trust. Workshop participants made transportation and aviation the group's number-two priority. The solution will likely require state action, as is the case with education.
The third lesson gleaned from Chicago is a tall order: clean up the city. Daley is a madman about the way his city looks. He has been known to get out of his car, pick up trash in front of a house, knock on the door and fuss at the occupant for leaving garbage in the street. "I don't tolerate trash," he says. Now Chicago doesn't either.
Nor should Nagin. None of us should, but that requires a change in the local culture from top to bottom. Cleaning up New Orleans became the third and final priority of the MetroVision workshop.
Every city is unique. New Orleans could never be Chicago -- nor should we try to be. On the other hand, we can learn a lot from Chicago about how to be a better city, and we won't have to sacrifice our uniqueness to do it. We just have to demand more of ourselves -- and stop trashing ourselves, literally as well as figuratively.
It won't be easy, but Daley and Chicago proved that it could happen.