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No, Mayors Can’t Run the World

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books and culture

No, Mayors Can’t Run the World

In his new book, Rahm Emanuel touts his record but fails to account for Chicago’s ongoing struggles. February 25, 2020
Politics and law
Cities

Nation City: Why Mayors Are Now Running the World, by Rahm Emanuel (Knopf, 256 pp., $26.95)

In his new book, The Nation City: Why Mayors Are Now Running the World, former Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel argues that cities are supplanting polarized national capitals. In the years ahead, he believes, urban centers will continue to grow in power and influence. Yet Emanuel fails to account for his mixed legacy in Chicago. He touts his record, but it’s hardly a model for other mayors. 

Emanuel’s book begins with an immigration story. His maternal grandfather, Herman Smulevitz, migrated to the United States from Russia in 1917. The life of Big Banger—pronounced “Bangah” by Emanuel and his two brothers, who gave their grandfather the nickname due to his big presence and personality—is a classic American immigrant tale. Banger arrived penniless, but with some hard work and a little luck, he made it into the middle class.

Big Banger’s story allows Emanuel to describe his own Chicago upbringing and highlight cities as places of opportunity, a theme he carries into his discussion of education reform in Chicago, which he calls “by far the single most important thing I did.” Armed with state funding, he launched full-day kindergarten and pre-K, reformed teachers’ pensions, and extended the school day. For post-secondary schools, Emanuel started the Chicago Star Scholarship, which pays for qualified high school graduates to attend one of the city’s community colleges.

Emanuel proclaims the success of these initiatives but without offering much supporting evidence. Chicagoans are skeptical about Emanuel’s pre-K program, for example, with some worrying that it crowds out other nongovernment options. Some evidence suggests that pre-K can improve children’s outcomes in the short term, but its effects on broader academic success are less conclusive. Meantime, the Chicago Star Scholarship too often funds students whose academic qualifications would make them better suited for four-year universities than community colleges.

Emanuel also touts raising Chicago’s minimum wage and starting a jobs program for teenagers and young adults. He fails to mention, however, that a higher minimum wage reduces teen employment and harms neighborhoods when local businesses, unable to withstand the higher labor costs, shut their doors.

Emanuel also highlights the work of fellow Democratic mayors. His examples are progressive mainstays, from more public transit in Los Angeles to more bike paths in South Bend (yes, Pete Buttigieg makes an appearance). He also includes a chapter on Republican mayors, featuring Anaheim’s Tom Tait and Jim Brainard, mayor of Carmel, Indiana. Emanuel appears to have a soft spot for urban leaders who refurbish their downtowns or launch creative infrastructure projects, such as the 100 roundabouts that Brainard installed in Carmel. Emanuel acknowledges that different policies will work for different cities; but the goals, he believes, should remain progressive.

In Emanuel’s view, mayors can fill the void left by a polarized, gridlocked national government. Yet he wistfully notes the role that the federal government once played in urban policy, from the New Deal to the Great Society. His support of “nation cities”—large cities with economies to match—seems born from political pragmatism rather than a grand vision for the appropriate structure of government. He wants federal dollars to pay for parks, roads, schools, river walks, and the like, but he also believes that polarization in Washington prevents urban progressives from imposing their policies from the top down.

Cities can’t print money, for example, and borrowing limits prevent mayors from spending with impunity, as the federal government can do. Though mayors like Emanuel have long wish lists, financial challenges block their greatest ambitions. Decades of underfunded pensions have resulted in fiscal peril for America’s cities. And mayors can’t just raise revenue with more taxes, as they risk losing residents to more affordable locales. Progressives like Emanuel lament these constrictions, but they encourage cities to spend taxpayer money more prudently.

Emanuel also ignores how mayors possess little statutory power. Chicago has traditionally had strong mayors, but council-manager forms of government in some other big cities—including Charlotte, Phoenix, and Dallas—limit the power of the chief executive. And even in strong-mayor cities, local officials get their power from state government. Localities are the creations of state governments, and states can preempt local authority with legislation. This isn’t an issue for Chicago, considering Illinois’s politics, but mayors in states from Texas and Florida to Utah can push the progressive vision only so far. State officials inevitably push back.

Mayors shouldn’t be too eager to take lessons from Emanuel, at least based on what he did in Chicago. He signed significant tax increases, but since he left office last year, the city has faced an $800 million budget shortfall. Chicago’s traffic congestion ranks among the nation’s worst, and its metro region continues to bleed population, while Indianapolis and Columbus are thriving. Chicago’s problems are the result of decades of mismanagement that no mayor could fix in two terms, but the city has been run by progressive Democrats like Emanuel, pursuing a similar vision, since the Great Depression—so there’s good reason to believe that his broad views on government policy have something to do with the city’s condition.

Progressives will like Emanuel’s book; he speaks their language. Even as he criticizes polarization in Washington, he remains deeply partisan himself. That’s regrettable, since some of the stories he shares about mayors from both parties offer examples of good governance that future leaders could learn from.

Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

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