A Tale of Four Cities: Meeting the Mayors at International House


“Leading America’s Big Cities in the 21st Century,” an Institute of Politics seminar at the University of Chicago’s International House, brought together four mayors and moderator David Axelrod for an open-ended discussion of their cities’ challenges and achievements. Though Los Angeles’s Eric Garcetti and Atlanta’s Kasim Reed drew attention, the real focus was on New York’s recently elected Bill de Blasio and Chicago’s Rahm Emanuel. De Blasio, whose progressive mayoral campaign attracted coverage for its focus on income inequality, charter reform, and the city’s controversial stop and frisk policy, did not come into conflict with the more centrist Emanuel. Instead, the four big city Democrats (five if you count Axelrod) concentrated on where they agreed about education, crime, and the sheer joy of being the boss.

Each mayor began with what Axelrod described as an elevator pitch for their cities. Some soundbites and rhetorical strategies overlapped. Reed, who called Atlanta “a city that you can bring your dreams to” and praised its inclusiveness and civil rights legacy, was followed by de Blasio, who also spoke of inclusiveness and dreams, albeit with an emphasis on guaranteeing those dreams through the implementation of universal pre-kindergarten. Emanuel and Garcetti followed with a barrage of statistics confirming the specialness of their cities.

The topic of charter schools, another potential flash point, instead led to more agreement. De Blasio has been locking horns with opponents including New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and the Walton Family funded Families for Excellent Schools over his attempts to charge certain charter schools rent and prevent charters from moving into public school buildings. On the other side, Emanuel has faced consistent criticism for his pro-charter policies, including the opening of seven new charter schools while shuttering nearly fifty neighborhood schools. Asked point blank about charters by Axelrod, de Blasio stated that they were “part of the lineup” in education, arguing that his administration aimed to cooperate with charters while holding them to the same standards and ensuring inclusivity of ESL and disabled students. He and Garcetti both argued that the charter debate was a waste of time compared with other issues. Emanuel, though not pressed by Axelrod on charter schools, similarly argued that the debate on education was compromised by politics, which point de Blasio later echoed. In the effort to achieve quality and avoid failure, Emanuel argued, the means were less important than the ends.

Axelrod pointed out that, perhaps contrary to expectations, none of the mayors cited crime as a challenge. Asked if his reform of stop and frisk ran the risk of increasing crime, De Blasio argued that it restored trust between law enforcement and local communities, thereby improving the flow of information between them as well. Reed, Garcetti, and Emanuel all emphasized the importance of after school programs and similar interventions designed to keep teens from ending up on the streets. Garcetti and then Emanuel even shared similar heart-tugging anecdotes about, respectively, a tagger turned artist and a teenage basketball player. Less trite was Emanuel’s observation that he and his colleagues focused on education rather than crime precisely because the public schools have too often been a pipeline for the criminal justice system.

In the spirit of social media-friendly mayoral cooperation, the event’s Twitter presence peaked with an Oscar-style selfie of a group of University of Chicago students featuring Axelrod, Emanuel, De Blasio, and Garcetti. Another Twitter user had a different experience with “da Mayor”: @khasenfang reports that “Mayor @RahmEmanuel turned down my selfie request and then walked away.” Maybe Rahm’s less agreeable when his friends aren’t around.