Tim Degnan, influential Daley aide, dies at 82 – Crain’s Chicago Business


“Although virtually unknown outside the city’s political establishment, the 54-year-old Degnan is the man to see at City Hall—a New Age patronage chief and political fixer who is both Daley’s main link to his Bridgeport roots and the principal connection between the mayoral inner circle and the often-torpid bureaucracy,” Crain’s said in a 1995 profile. “In a business that overhypes the concept, he is the ultimate loyalist, a contemporary of the mayor who has shelved his own ego and devoted most of his career to the Daley cause. Their wavelengths are perfectly attuned, their level of mutual trust absolute.”

After legislation died in Springfield that would have authorized expansion of McCormick Place in the early ’90s, Degnan wheeled and dealed, putting together a coalition of legislators that included two Chicago Republicans receptive to what City Hall could do for them.

“They pieced it together,” recalls Claypool. “That was a key moment, one of many.” 

The Daley-Degnan relationship was second-generational: They grew up a mile apart in the Bridgeport neighborhood when Richard J. Daley was mayor and Degnan’s father, Francis “Bud” Degnan, also worked for the city, rising to become commissioner of Streets & Sanitation.

Timothy Francis Degnan became an 11th Ward precinct captain, studied civil engineering at the Illinois Institute of Technology and, in the classic Chicago fashion, got recommended for a job with the city, in the fledgling IT department. Eventually, he moved to a house on the patriarch Daley’s block. He was on track to succeed his father at Streets & San, named acting commissioner by newly elected Mayor Jane Byrne in 1979, but was shipped back to data processing after reports that a bank he worked for loaned him money to cover gambling debts.

But the tide would soon turn.

Degnan helped engineer Daley’s election as Cook County state’s attorney in 1980 and then filled his vacated state Senate seat. When Daley was elected mayor at the end of the decade, Degnan followed him to City Hall.

“For the first five years of the Daley administration, he got stuff through the City Council that laid the foundation for the next 20 years,” says John Doerrer, who joined the administration and later held the same title as Degnan, director of intergovernmental affairs. “People forget that when Rich Daley came in, he had 26-24 votes”—a narrow council margin. Degnan “knew how to navigate that.”

William Daley, the mayor’s brother, told Crain’s in 1995: “Every chief executive, whether in business or politics, needs someone like Tim who anticipates the needs of the (CEO). Tim plays that role with Rich. They know each other so well. He’s loyal, but not to a fault.”

The gambling-debt coverage reinforced Degnan’s wariness with the media. Mike Royko had done a column on it, and Chicago Sun-Times political columnist Steve Neal wrote in 1992 that ”Degnan is so tightlipped that he gets lockjaw when asked about the weather.”

A rare public appearance came in 1991, when Degnan, Bedore and Kruesi called a press conference to try to defuse a feud between City Treasurer Miriam Santos and Daley over the mayor’s attempt to eliminate her ex-officio status on city pension boards.

After weeks of trying in connection with the profile, Crain’s loosened Degnan’s lockjaw—a bit. ”I try to be a good listener to people. Even though I’m from Bridgeport, I’m flexible,” he said of his negotiating style, which often meant staying silent during long meetings, asking a salient question and then ratifying a predictable consensus. “I like getting things done,” he said. “I like seeing the mayor accomplish things.”

Degnan also invested in a suburban construction supply business, which he insisted steered clear of city contracts. “Small business is a lot like politics: Have the product delivered on time and keep the cost down,” he said. The gambling issue “was a mistake I made a long time ago, and I learned from it.”

For the Crain’s profile, a colleague recalled Degnan’s blunt message to one bureaucrat: “Look, this is not on your schedule next year. This is on our schedule today.” Even Michael Madigan, the long-reigning House speaker, got that message. ”Tim walks up to me and says, ‘You wanna help us, right?’ ” Madigan told Crain’s in 1995. “He hands me a piece of paper (a draft of a bill). ‘See that word? Take that f—— word out of there.’ We did.” Madigan added, “His effectiveness lies in his simplicity.”

Degnan also vetted successors to Bedore and Claypool, including Paul Vallas—now running for mayor—who became budget chief.

Not everything went Daley’s or Degnan’s way, including doomed plans for a third Chicago airport at Lake Calumet.

“It’s just tough to go down that road and spend so much energy and see it come apart,” Degnan said for the profile. A Chicago casino was another failure. “There’s no question I think we could have done a better job with the casino complex. I second-guess myself once in a while on that opportunity,” he said.

After leaving City Hall in the mid-1990s, Degnan partnered with then-state Sen. Jeremiah Joyce as a political consultant, on campaigns that included Rod Blagojevich’s race for Congress in 1996. Degnan also worked for Northbrook-based construction supplier Glenrock until about 10 years ago, his son said.  ”He was still hands-on with it.”

Services are pending.

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November 22, 2022 at 06:53AM

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