RahmWatch: Emanuel at Daley’s Global Cities Forum

At first I tried to talk myself out of it. But in the end I couldn’t resist treating myself to an impromptu trip to the Windy City, to see Rahm Emanuel speak during the 6th Annual Global Cities Forum at the University of Illinois.

Last Tuesday, Chicago mayor Richard M. Daley hosted municipal leaders from more than 100 cities worldwide in an open discussion of the need for public-private partnerships, to help strengthen cities in the wake of our global economic crisis. In addition to Rahm Emanuel, guests included the mayors of such far-flung cities as Mexico City and Johannesburg, as well as prominent figures from the World Bank, Boeing, and other organizations.

Not only was this a cool event, but it was a rare opportunity to attend what was perhaps the first stop on Rahm’s as-yet-unofficial campaign for elected office (perhaps Chicago mayor?). Unquestionably the superstar of the day, Emanuel took part in the first panel, which also included Bertrand Delanoe, the eloquent and charismatic mayor of Paris; Michael Nutter, Philadelphia’s refreshingly plain-spoken mayor; and Motorola CEO Greg Brown.

Seated dead-center in the semicircle of panelists, Rahm first tackled the subject of the worldwide economic crisis. Noting that the median household income had decreased over the past 10 years, he stressed that governments need to “do more with less”; and he posited the creation of an “infrastructure bank” with public and private funds as one potential solution to the financial quagmire. Of course, since he’s not yet on the campaign trail, he did not provide details on the mechanics of such an arrangement.

Not surprisingly, he also emphasized the need to strengthen collaboration between federal and local governments. President Obama’s Chief of Staff pointed to the recent federal stimulus package — whose passage Rahm largely engineered — as a successful example of this ideal. Nonetheless he also carefully nodded to state and municipal sovereignty, noting that the “local level knows best” what it needs.

At least (unlike certain Supreme Court Justices) he’s no Luddite. Particularly welcome was Rahm’s acknowledgement of the importance of technology as a tool of empowerment whereby citizens can become involved and interact with their governments. (He admitted, however, that the federal government must improve its relationship with technology.) One point that I wish he had elaborated was his encouragement of a regional, rather than division-oriented, approach toward city governance. This sounds interesting, but I’m not quite sure what it means.

Of course, he wouldn’t be Rahm if he hadn’t also taken the opportunity to pimp his own professional achievements. Among the feats he ticked off were his passage of a community colleges bill; his work in Chicago city government and Hope VI housing grants; and his involvement with Race to the Top in Education, which he presented as a successful example of collaboration between Washington and the states.

It was hard not to notice that, while moderator Judy Woodruff (PBS NewsHour) addressed the other panelists as “Mayor” or “Mr.” so-and-so, she referred to the president’s Chief of Staff simply as “Rahm.” Apparently this is standard protocol with him, and it lends a populist touch to his persona. Throughout the event Rahm seemed at ease and gracious — for instance, quickly offering Nutter his own microphone when the Philadephia mayor’s mic failed. Good progressive that he is, although he tends to be carefully centrist, Emanuel also seems to be pretty well informed of cultural trends and the issues facing younger generations.

But now that I’m back in L.A., the question I had last month remains unanswered: will Mayor Daley step down as Chicago mayor and let his friend Rahm run? Did this Global Cities Forum represent Daley’s “passing of the baton” to the ever-ambitious Emanuel? Or will Rahm have to settle for a U.S. Senate run, instead?

Daley wasn’t talking. So I guess we’ll just have to stay tuned.

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