Tim Degnan, Daley top gun and state senator, dies at 82

Tim Degnan a trusted point man, was key to Richard M. Daley’s political, policy success. As a lawmaker, he raised funds for the new Comiskey Park to keep the White Sox in Chicago.

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12.5.1983 Timothy Degnan

Timothy Degnan sought consensus between state and city officials to move Mayor Richard M. Daley’s agenda forward. He “really protected Daley’s priorities,” said political strategist David Axelrod.

Sun-Times archives

Tim Degnan, a former state senator and longtime top advisor to former Mayor Richard M. Daley, died last week at his home in Oak Brook. He was 82.

In a 1995 Sun-Times profile, Degnan was described as big-shouldered with a square jaw and a gravelly voice and looking like a character out of a John Wayne movie, chain smoking unfiltered cigarettes.

His understanding of the Chicago political machine allowed him to pierce beyond political noise and attack an issue with acute understanding, said David Axelrod, who served as advisor to President Barack Obama and was a strategist on six of Daley’s mayoral campaigns.

“He had these intensely sort of blue-green eyes that were like headlights that shone through the smoke,” Axelrod said. “He didn’t say much, would listen a lot and then ask the exact right questions to cut to the core of an issue. It was impressive.”

Degnan, who grew up on the Southwest Side, attended St. Ignatius High School, the University of Illinois and the Illinois Institute of Technology. He served as political director of Daley’s mayoral campaign when he was elected in 1989.

As director of intergovernmental affairs for the mayor, Degnan was Daley’s political point man, finding consensus between state and city officials to push the agenda forward.

“He was a really important figure in that administration. A guy who really protected Daley’s priorities,” said Axelrod. “He was a joy to work with.”

He wasn’t one for the limelight, and listened more than he talked, preferring to work behind the scenes. Few commanded more respect from Daley than Degnan, Axelrod said.

Degnan and Daley’s connection was forged early. Both grew up not far from each other in Bridgeport and belonged to already influential political families. Degnan’s father, Francis Degnan, was Streets and Sanitation chief when Richard J. Daley was mayor.

Degnan would later hold the same position as his father, heading the Streets and Sanitation department in 1979. He was elected to the Illinois Senate in 1980, and during his time there was the chief sponsor of legislation that provided public funds for the new Comiskey Park that kept the White Sox in Chicago.

When Daley was elected mayor in 1989, Degnan left the Senate, becoming part of the mayor’s inner circle.

He played an important role in obtaining state legislative approval for the $1 billion expansion of McCormick Place, raising more than $205 million in state funds for local street resurfacing, and forging a reliable City Council majority.

Cook County Commissioner John P. Daley, the 11th Ward’s Democratic committeeman and brother to the former mayor, said in the Sun-Times profile that Degnan’s strength was his ability to build a consensus. “He never gives his opinion right away. He finds out where everyone else is and tries to bring them together.”

During the 1995 mayoral primary, Daley had commitments of support from more than half a dozen African American alderpersons. But Degnan wanted them to get re-elected and was concerned that their re-election could be jeopardized by publicly endorsing Daley. He held the endorsements for the April general election.

“He understood government and he understood what Daley’s governmental goals were and helped that agenda move in Springfield, move in the City Council,” Axelrod said. “So, you know, he was important to the politics of Daley, but he was also important to Daley’s governmental success.”

The Degnan family continued to be involved in Chicago business and politics after Degnan left the Daley administration in the mid-’90s. Degnan’s brother was commissioner of the Chicago Department of Fleet and Facility Management. Degnan’s son Michael Degnan is the senior vice president of operations at Navy Pier.

Services for Degnan will be held Monday.

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