CHICAGO — The last time Chicago was left without a Daley at the helm, the next mayor was thrown out of office by voters angry because he couldn't keep snow off the streets.
The "City that Works" then became known as "Beirut on the Lake," its council dissolved into a racially divided stalemate as remnants of the once-mighty Chicago Machine stonewalled reforms pushed by the city's first black leader.
Within a few years of his election in 1989, Mayor Richard M. Daley brought that to an end by building his own machine — not with the patronage army his father used to amass and keep political power, but by sharing the spoils of city government, selectively doling out contracts and forcing factions to work together.
Daley's startling announcement that he won't run for re-election next year has Chicagoans wondering what the next era could bring.
If he didn't have the same kind of clout as his father — Richard J. Daley who was widely regarded as the 20th century's most powerful American mayor before he died in 1976 — the younger Daley was willing to flex his political muscles. He once ended debate about turning a small airport into a park by sending bulldozers in the dead of night to carve huge Xs into the runway.
"He had the political clout, the backbone to do that," said Dominic Pacyga, a Columbia College history professor and author of 'Chicago: A Biography.' "You're not going to have that kind of autocratic power with the next mayor."
On Wednesday, aldermen openly mulled their prospects, turning the hallways outside the City Council chambers into something of a job fair. Chicagoans contemplated that whomever is elected in February will not have Daley's power, even as his successor tackles the many challenges he is leaving behind, such as the city's financial straits and perceptions that the streets have become more dangerous.
At the same time, both aldermen and residents said they pined for a mayor who would consult more with constituents and champion improvements in all corners of the city, not just favored spots.
"I think a little dose of democracy will be very healthy for the city," said Alderman Joe Moore, who made a rare stand against Daley in pushing for a ban on use of foie gras in the city's restaurants.
Even the one possible candidate who is seen as perhaps a street fighter like Daley — White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel — isn't likely to walk in and have his way with the council.
"Rahm won't have that kind of clout," Pacyga said.
Chicago is more gleaming than when Daley took office 21 years ago, dotted with flower planters and boasting a new Millennium Park that won raves around the nation. But amid dwindling tax revenue, Daley also has privatized a major toll road and talked of doing the same with everything from Midway Airport to the annual Taste of Chicago festival. And there are a wide range of political agendas stifled by Daley's dominance that will surface once he leaves.
A day after announcing he would not seek a seventh term, Daley said he would not be "anointing" a successor. But hinting at what the next mayor might face, he recalled how hard he had to work to win over the black community after being elected with very little black support.
"I knew because they were going to judge me like Harold Washington," Chicago's first black mayor, Daley said. "I had to do everything possible to work with that community and convince them that I was going to be fair and would work with them on issues. ... They even thought I was going to cancel Martin Luther King Day."
Racial politics could raise its head again, with some alderman expecting a host of black and Hispanic aldermen to take a serious look at running.
"You need someone who can build a bridge," said Pablo Serrano, a 30-year-old community artist in the city's heavily Hispanic Pilsen neighborhood. "Race is a big issue. In a city as segregated as Chicago, it has to be transcended."
Once in office, a new mayor's biggest challenge may be pushing through an agenda without a big advantage Daley enjoyed: loyalty of alderman who owed him their jobs. Daley appointed 18 aldermen, noted Dick Simpson, a University of Illinois political scientist and former alderman.
"He has more dominance than any new mayor will have," Simpson said.
Observers say that will be both good and bad.
David Orr, the county clerk and a former alderman who was even mayor for a week after Washington died in 1987, said the city could finally get the kind of debate between mayor and City Council that has been lacking during Daley's tenure.
"There's nothing wrong with having the mayor and council battle over issues," Orr said. "If that would have happened we never would have had the parking meter fiasco," he said of Daley's pushing through the privatization of the meters, a move widely seen as a major blunder that could cost the city billions of dollars in unrealized revenue.
Others worry that without Daley's power and the willingness to use it, the next mayor may not be able to get adversaries to work together.
The Rev. Michael Pfleger, a Catholic priest on the South Side, said Daley successfully won City Council approval of construction of a Wal-Mart in the area was because both the retailer and small-business proponents who opposed it knew he was willing to push his clout.
"If you are going to take on Mayor Daley you better be able to fight (because) he is willing to go after what he believes in," Pfleger said.
Still, Pfleger noted Daley had respect on all sides and the priest worries the next mayor won't be able to walk Daley's tightrope.
"We can get a lot of community personalities and business banner carriers but if we don't have someone who is married to both ... we are in big trouble," he said.
Whatever happens, some residents have trouble imagining Daley won't be pulling strings and don't buy his contention that he will not, for example, throw his support behind any one mayoral candidate.
"He has his next person," said Carlos Miranda, a 62-year-owner of a grocery store in the city's largely Hispanic Pilsen neighborhood. "Chicago is good, but that's the way it's done."
© Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.