We’re in the midst of the inaugural Chicago Ideas Week, and the city is full of exciting people who live here, like Rahm Emanual and Jason Salavon, and people who flew in for the occasion, like Bill Clinton and Sandra Day O’Connor.
On Monday, I attended the kick-off event, a moderated conversation about American cities, governing priorities, and the modern mayorship. Thomas Friedman hosted, and Emanuel (Chicago), Michael Bloomberg (New York), and Kasim Reed (Atlanta) shared their thoughts.
Giddy like an actual schoolgirl, I took a lot of notes. Friedman is, as they say where I’m from, wicked smart, and all three of those dudes can hold their own. A few of my favorites themes:
- National vs. Local: If there’s anything three big city mayors have in common, it’s a dismissive attitude towards federal politics. Bloomberg pointed out that mayors rarely go on to national office, because “mayors get really good at making decisions.” He added that, as polarized as we are on a national level, “every time you make a decision you lose half of your constituency. Five decisions later, not even your mother is on your side.” Under those circumstances, better to avoid decisions all together. Friedman added, “Does it ever feel like we’re having an economic crisis, and they’re having an election?”
- Pragmatism: They all pointed out that practicality is not a trait that we cultivate in our national leaders. The pragmatism required of mayors was certainly emphasized (Rahm: “There’s not Democrat or Republican way to pick up trash.”) Bloomberg told a story about a Congressman who said “I’m in favor of the war, but not in favor of funding it.” He laughed, “A mayor would never say that. That’s like saying ‘I’m pro-choice, but not for women.'” The social issues that dominate the national conversation are small potatoes–rather, irrelevant potatoes–next to the tangible concerns citizens raise with the mayor. My house, my job, my kid’s school…
- Creating an Environment for Success: Education, education, education. Education is an economic issue. Companies don’t want to set up shop in areas without an educated work force, schools where their employees can send their kids, etc. The mayors all made it exceptionally clear that they cannot just create jobs out of thin air. Rather, they can create policies and incentives that encourage business and growth. Chief among them is ensuring an educated workforce. Reed pointed out that he wakes up every day asking himself if a kid with his background in today’s Atlanta (black, public school educated) could be the mayor when he or she turned forty. “I don’t think that’s possible with what we’re offering right now.” Emanuel also noted that there kids today who live “in” the city of Chicago, but for whom the resources and attractions it offers may as well be in Sri Lanka. How many CPS kids have never been downtown? Have never been to the Art Institute or the Field Museum?
There was a fair amount of lockerroom one-upmanship too (Biggest seaport? Biggest airport? Which city sees the most trains? GDP?) but Friedman kept it pretty well in check. One of my favorite phrases from the evening was Emanuel’s description of the mayorship. He called it “the most immediate, intimate form of governing.”
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