Experience borne on big shoulders

Annapolis: A city official was Chicago deputy mayor during the chaos of the 1968 convention.

April 03, 2002|By Amanda J. Crawford | Amanda J. Crawford,SUN STAFF

When David Stahl entered Annapolis' City Hall four months ago as acting city administrator, he brought along more than a little know-how about municipal government.

Three decades ago, he served as deputy to a big-city mayor whose name is synonymous with hardball politics. And he played a supporting role in an urban drama that came to be one of the defining moments of the 20th century.

Next time you think of Mayor Richard J. "Boss" Daley and the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, think of Annapolis' David Stahl.

"He has had the experience of working in tough situations," Mayor Ellen O. Moyer said of her temporary right-hand man. "Whether you are a small village, a medium-sized town, a capital city like Annapolis or a major metropolis, you still have to deal with the same issues."

Stahl will lend his expertise from his time in Chicago and his more than 20 years of managing nonprofit groups to his chosen hometown until a permanent replacement can be found because, he says, the mission of local government is unparalleled.

"Local government has a unique opportunity and responsibility to help those who cannot help themselves," said Stahl, whose return to government work can be traced to his concerns over an unkempt waterfront park.

"When I was in the mortgage business, I knew if I didn't grant that mortgage, there were five other companies that would. In local government, you can go home at night and say, `If I didn't do this, no one else would.'"

You might call him a true public servant: The 67-year-old former mortgage banker, who made more than $1 million on the stock market in the 1990s, plans to donate his salary - which would amount to $102,000 annually - to local charities. Stahl, however, doesn't plan to stay an entire year.

He grew up in Park Ridge, Ill., where he met his wife of 45 years, then Carolyn Downs, in fourth grade. After earning a degree in business administration from Miami University of Ohio, marrying Downs and serving as a lieutenant in the Air Force, Stahl went to work at a Chicago mortgage company. He worked on John F. Kennedy's presidential campaign, and hungered for more politics.

It was Kennedy's famous inaugural address that urged the citizenry to "ask what you can do for your country" that inspired him to go into public service.

His father-in-law was Daley's friend and unpaid adviser. When Stahl grew frustrated in the private sector, his father-in-law helped him land a job working in urban renewal for the city. After three years, Stahl left city government to return to the mortgage company as executive vice president. Three years later, he returned to Chicago's City Hall, this time as special assistant to the mayor for housing.

It was in this position, Stahl said, that he did some of the most important work of his career, such as organizing summer programs for poor children and helping to build 30 inner-city swimming pools in one summer.

"Whenever there was a problem, I sort of got in there and solved it," Stahl said.

That tenacity soon landed him in a position where he would have more problems than he could imagine. Daley promoted Stahl, then 33, to be his deputy mayor in March 1968. Immediately, Stahl was thrust into the center of a dispute that would land him in history books.

The Democratic National Convention of 1968 was coming to Daley's Chicago. So were thousands of Vietnam War protesters led by Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, Tom Hayden and others.

Daley wanted to present only the best parts of his city to the convention's delegates. He worried that the protesters - who released mock agendas threatening to drop LSD in the city's water supply and seduce delegates' wives - might ruin everything. Daley made Stahl his liaison with the protest organizers, who had come to City Hall seeking permits to allow demonstrators to stay in city parks overnight during the convention.

"We had meetings at 4 a.m. in strange and wonderful places when they were gassed, and I'd never even smoked a marijuana joint," Stahl said, recalling the dozens of meetings with Hoffman and the others that summer.

It was in those meetings that Stahl, an unabashed liberal, said he realized the dilemma he was in as Daley's right-hand man.

"I had total consensus with them on the war in Vietnam," Stahl said about the group, whom he would later testify against in the "Chicago Seven" trial. "But where we disagreed was [that] I believed in government and they were fundamentally anarchist."

The city had decided that the demonstrators would not get the permits they requested. That decision - carried out by Stahl and causing demonstrators to accuse the city of "stahling" - would be blamed in part for the violence that ensued.

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