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Daley conspicuously absent at opening of Northerly Island nature preserve

He made it possible with his audacious and brazen decision to send a fleet of bulldozers into Meigs Field under cloak of darkness to carve giant X’s into the lakefront airport’s only runway.

Yet, when it was time to cut the ribbon on the Northerly Island nature preserve that he and his wife had only dreamed about, former Mayor Richard M. Daley was nowhere to be found.

On Friday, Mayor Rahm Emanuel struggled to find the words to explain why his predecessor and political mentor was not invited to the opening ceremony at the $9.7 million park.

“He knew you were coming,” Emanuel told a Chicago Sun-Times reporter with trademark sarcasm.

Asked again why Daley was not there, the mayor said, “I don’t know. I don’t have an answer for you on that. As we said the other day and I can repeat: We couldn’t be talking about this if he had not had the courage to do what he did.”

But, shouldn’t Daley, of all people, have been asked to join in the celebration?

“There’ll be many more celebrations ahead of us,” he said.

Neither Daley nor the spokesperson for Katten Muchin Rosenman LLP, where the former mayor serves as of counsel, could be reached for comment.

To longtime City Hall observers, it seemed obvious why Daley wasn’t invited.

The former mayor’s presence would have diverted attention away from the nature preserve and toward the financial mess he left behind: the $30 billion pension crisis that has dropped Chicago’s bond rating to junk status.

Just this week, the Sun-Times disclosed that Emanuel plans to propose a record, $500 million property tax increase to stabilize police and fire pensions, eliminate the city’s structural deficit and end the financial gimmicks like “scoop-and-toss” borrowing that Daley used to “mask” the true cost of government.

“Everybody knows that the challenges we have fiscally today didn’t start four years ago. They started 40 years ago, built up. People didn’t want to confront it,” Emanuel said.

Twelve years ago, Daley famously ordered a midnight raid that demolished Meigs Field while most Chicagoans were fast asleep.

Daley initially claimed he did it to protect Chicago from terrorists in the wake of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

He later acknowledged the obvious: that he had wanted to convert Meigs into a park as far back as 1995 and seized the opportunity when he could, reneging on a handshake agreement with then-Gov. George Ryan to keep Meigs open until 2024.

The midnight raid ultimately forced Chicago to pay a $33,000 fine and repay $1 million in federal airport development grants to settle claims stemming from the demolition.

The city used $1.5 million in federal grants and airline ticket taxes to demolish Meigs. The Federal Aviation Administration could have imposed penalties of up to $4.5 million.

No event during Daley’s 22-year reign — not even the sale of Chicago parking meters, the Olympic debacle or the parade of convictions tied to the Hired Truck, city hiring and minority contracting scandals — was more roundly vilified.

Daley’s image took a beating — from the halls of Congress all the way to Hollywood, where the mayor’s iron-fisted actions were condemned repeatedly by actor and pilot Harrison Ford.

On Friday, Emanuel never once mentioned Daley’s name. But, he argued that the political heat generated by the midnight destruction of Meigs Field had set the stage for Chicago’s latest treasure.

“While bulldozing the airport was referred to as ‘shock,’ seeing nature is the `awe’ part of this. Forty acres of incredible nature right here in our city,” the mayor said.

“Nowhere else in the country can you be within just literally a mile of a downtown central business district that’s thriving and have 40 acres of nature preserve where families of multiple generations can walk around and enjoy the beauty of nature.”

Meigs Field on March 31, 2003, the day bulldozers dug out portions of the runway and put large yellow X’s on the end on the runway.  | Sun-Times Library
Meigs Field on March 31, 2003, the day bulldozers dug out portions of the runway and put large yellow X’s on the end on the runway. | Sun-Times Library
Planes are shown stranded at Meigs Field. the day after bulldozers dug out portions of the runway to close the airport. Piles of runway rubble are in the background. | Sun-Times Library
Planes are shown stranded at Meigs Field. the day after bulldozers dug out portions of the runway to close the airport. Piles of runway rubble are in the background. | Sun-Times Library