THE NATION CITY: Why Mayors Are Now Running the World, by Rahm Emanuel. Alfred A. Knopf, 2020.
The 2020 campaign season is upon us in splendor and glory. It is remarkable for several reasons, including the presence of two former mayors in the political mix. The office of mayor has rarely been deemed a steppingstone to the presidency. Calvin Coolidge and Grover Cleveland were former mayors, but neither really used that office as the foundation of a campaign. In 1972, John Lindsay ran in the Democratic primaries as the mayor of New York City. He had been elected mayor as a Republican/Liberal, a political designation that has now gone extinct. His campaign never gained traction. In 2008, another former New York mayor, Rudy Giuliani, launched a bid for the Republican nomination but stumbled in early primaries. I shall refrain from any other comments about Giuliani's post-mayoral career.
The current campaign brings us Pete Buttigieg, who served two terms as the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, and Michael Bloomberg, a three-term mayor of New York City.
As I write this, Buttigieg has done well in the opening nomination contests and Bloomberg is spending huge sums on a campaign that has for its strategy sitting out early primary contests, and banking upon Super Tuesday (March 3) for momentum.
I note this history because the traditional path to the White House is through a Senate seat, governor's mansion or military uniform. But one former mayor is now making the case for the importance of city leaders as potential national leaders to help our country solve its problems. The Nation City: Why Mayors are Now Running the World, by former Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel, is an argument that cities – rather than the federal government and states – stand as the new innovative wave in America. In his book, Emanuel provides a wide range of examples of how cities are improving education, transportation and economic growth. Illinoisans might not be surprised to read in Emanuel's book that he claims many of those accomplishments came during his tenure as mayor.
Emanuel's book also serves as a biography of a political career that found him serving in the administration of Bill Clinton, Wall Street, the U.S. House of Representatives, and back to the White House as chief of staff to President Barack Obama. He was elected mayor of Chicago in 2011 and reelected in 2015. In 2019 he declined to seek a third term of office. Regardless of accomplishments, it is clear that Emanuel's reelection in 2019 was not a given.
The presentation of Emanuel's case that cities are now the forefront in a political battle over governing is quite simple. First, he suggests that the federal government is dysfunctional and clearly unable to solve the critical problems facing our nation. Next, he sings the praises of local control and cites examples of mayors who have taken on serious problems with ingenious solutions. His examples include cities large and small as well as international. The wide range of problems to be solved include education, transportation, economic opportunity, growth and the environment. Emanuel cites examples from his administration and Chicago's experience.
He argues that cities are the proper government body to deal with many of the problems because they are closer to the population. They are the nation-states of the modern era. It is not a new argument, in fact it is quite old. It can be traced back to the city-states of Italy and Greece. Every day in Washington, D.C., there are politicians who preach the gospel of "local control" on issues ranging from health care to climate change.
So Rahm Emanuel really has not produced anything new in his case for city mayors as a new political force. The sad fact is that even if the message for a new political landscape is worthy of consideration, Rahm Emanuel is not the politician to be making it. During his tenure as mayor of Chicago, Emanuel was embarrassed by the handling of the Laquan McDonald case. His police department withheld a video that showed a police officer firing 16 shots at a young black man who posed no threat to officers. Emanuel fought the release of this video of the October 2014 incident until after his reelection in 2015. Emanuel also raised property taxes without actual solutions to Chicago's financial problems other than more state aid. He struggled with any meaningful solutions to Chicago's public school other than closing more of them. When Emanuel's second term ended, 62% of all Chicagoans and 70% of African-Americans disapproved of his work in office.
There is always a case to be made for competent local control of government to face difficult issues in American life. The Nation City has many good arguments in support of that case. But Rahm Emanuel's tenure as mayor of Chicago is not a shining example. His book is a good message with a bad messenger.
Stuart Shiffman is a frequent contributor to the book section of Illinois Times.