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On a Wing and a Mayor

Contra Rahm Emanuel, mayors aren't running the world—or saving it

We are surrounded on all sides by mayors: they clog our airwaves and the pages of our newspapers, they clutter our debate stages and swim across our TV screens. Out of small-town council chambers and metropolitan halls alike they crawl, slither, or trot like prize ponies onto the national scene to announce themselves as the forerunners of a new realpolitik, messengers sent from a grittier, more honest land. They have just come from shoveling a driveway, they say as they roll up their sleeves, or from balancing a budget—but boy, they aren’t tired at all. Like heroic plumbers they entreat us to watch as they kneel down and stick their heads into the under-sink cabinet of our government, tapping a pipe and saying, “Now there’s your problem right there.”

What do they want, these mayors? Power, of course. But why do they want it? Because Washington, as you might have heard, is broken: Congress can’t pass a bill to save its life, the executive branch sways and heaves with bloated bureaucracy, and lobbyists are always peeking over the balustrade or waiting around the corner. The only politician who can outsmart such a system, they say, is one with experience governing a system nothing like it—a city, that is, whether large or small, where politicians can’t hide behind empty promises and actually have to Get Things Done.

Nowhere has this rash of ambition been more evident than in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary, where the roster of candidates was cluttered with mayors and former mayors. The most distinguished of these small-town strivers, of course, was Pete Buttigieg, erstwhile mayor of an Indiana town with a population that could fit inside the University of Michigan’s football stadium. After entering the race with little money and less repute, not to mention a funny-sounding name, “Mayor Pete” soared to victory in the Iowa caucuses precisely on the strength of his mayoral image, his ability to integrate the cosmopolitan awareness of “college” with the earthbound wisdom of “town.” Sticking his nose into exchanges on the debate stage that did not concern him, he offered interventions like these:

Let me tell you how this looks from the industrial Midwest where I live. Washington politicians, congressmen and senators, saying all the right things, offering the most elegant policy prescriptions, and nothing changes.

Such is the creed of all mayors: other politicians may want to do things, they may even know how to do things, but I have done them, and having done things is the precondition for doing anything. It doesn’t matter how small those things were; it doesn’t matter if they were as inconsequential as installing “smart sewers” or as invidious as bulldozing dozens of homes or mismanaging a police department: what matters is that I have done them, that my career has taken place in a venue (no matter how small) where I could bend reality to my will (no matter how petty and narrow). And so, when other elder statesmen attacked Mayor Pete for his inexperience, he laughed them off: “Remember, mayors have to get things done. . . . We need to make Washington look like our best run cities and towns, instead of the other way around.”

They have just come from shoveling a driveway, they say as they roll up their sleeves, or from balancing a budget—but boy, they aren’t tired at all.

But it wasn’t just Pete: former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg also ran for president, as did current mayor Bill de Blasio, to say nothing of former mayors Cory Booker (Newark), John Hickenlooper (Denver), Julian Castro (San Antonio), and Bernie Sanders (Burlington). Even those mayors who opted not to run, such as Eric Garcetti (Los Angeles) and Mitch Landrieu (New Orleans), regularly had their names floated in the press as potential candidates. Had any of these men triumphed in the primary and gone on to be elected to the presidency, they would have been trailblazers in mayor history: only three presidents have ever held the title of mayor, and, tellingly, each did so for only a short while before leaping to a higher office. Grover Cleveland was mayor of Buffalo, which at the time had a population of around one hundred fifty thousand; Calvin Coolidge was mayor of Northampton, Massachusetts, a college town with a population of some nineteen thousand; and Andrew Johnson was mayor of Greeneville, Tennessee, with population of a few hundred. Granted, there is some evidence that mayors in other countries go on to have more illustrious careers—Boris Johnson, for instance, was once the Mayor of London—but in the United States they seem doomed to remain trapped in their own tiny spheres, forever jumping for a rope ladder that dangles just out of reach.

The history of the word mayor itself reproduces this funny little paradox: it’s a small word, yes, but it comes to us from the Latin major, the comparative form of magnus, which of course means “great” or “large.” A mayor is by definition a big fish in a small pond, the major power executive of a minor domain. The English office of “lord mayor” probably did not exist until the late Medieval period, descending from the feudal figure of the bailiff or reeve, who in that era served to administer the will of the noble family that controlled this or that shire. In France and Germany the offices of maire and bürgermeister are also modern inventions, attempts by the early state to impose a hierarchy on previously independent cities it had gobbled up. In the United States, the position of mayor was largely ceremonial until the 1800s, when large cities began to elect their mayors by popular vote and invest them with more political authority.

Over the next century the mayor became the proper chief executive of his city, a politician with the power to modernize welfare programs (Boston’s Josiah Quincy), rebuild an industrial downtown (Pittsburgh’s David Lawrence), or lead a city through an economic crisis (New York’s Fiorello La Guardia). Of course, mayors could wield this power for evil, as when Abraham Hall helped William “Boss” Tweed fleece New York City of taxpayer money, or when Richard J. Daley of Chicago told police to “shoot to kill” rioters in 1968. For better and for worse, the figure of the “strong mayor” became entrenched in modern politics, and we have lately experienced what might be fairly called a renaissance of mayor-worship.

This renaissance, alas, has not been confined to the debate stage. Just days before Buttigieg dropped out of the presidential race, former Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel published The Nation City: Why Mayors Are Now Running The World, a new gospel of mayors and their good works that, per its marketing materials, promises “a steely-eyed progressive approach to getting things done today.” Given that Emanuel opted not to run for a third term after he was revealed to have covered up the killing of an innocent black teenager by the police, the book feels a bit like a dispatch from exile, a treatise on the glory of the very office Emanuel has proven unable to occupy. But The Nation City also crystallizes the hypocrisy of our emerging mayorism: if, as Emanuel argues, mayors “are now running the world,” why do so many of them want to be something other than a mayor? If the local is the only sphere in which politicians can effect meaningful change, why are our best local leaders all scrambling to seek higher office?

Then again, Emanuel has always been known more as a talker than a thinker: he raised money for Bill Clinton and ran the phones for Barack Obama, but neither of those presidents ever gave him control of a policy platform or let him pick up a speechwriter’s pen. To the extent that The Nation City represents Emanuel’s work, this treatise more than validates their decision: it has no beginning, no end, and no argument, reading less like a book than an internal memo that fell off the copy machine and which some intern hastily tried to restore to its original order. Alternating at random between reflections on his tenure as mayor of Chicago and check-ins with the work of other mayors around the world, Emanuel reminds us every few pages that good mayors govern in “immediate, intimate, and impactful” ways. With the exception of a few negligible little issues like, say, “denuclearization, military concerns, major public health risks, and our big national entitlement programs,” he argues, “mayors effectively run the world now.”

Emanuel’s recap of his own mayoralty is notable only for its shamelessness. He praises the current head of Chicago’s school system, but neglects to mention that the last one resigned after covering up an ethics scandal. He tells us how he beat the teacher’s union during their historic strike in 2012, but neglects to discuss in detail his decision to close fifty schools in poor neighborhoods. He lauds himself for making investments in tourism, but neglects to include that Chicago’s black population is declining precipitously. And while he admits he has “a ways to go” with earning the trust of the city’s black residents, he doesn’t mention that he covered up a murder.

If the local is the only sphere in which politicians can effect meaningful change, why are our best local leaders all scrambling to seek higher office?

Such revisionism is only to be expected from a local politician who now seeks to repackage himself for MSNBC and The Atlantic audiences, but more telling are Emanuel’s paeans to his fellow mayors. In these sections, we find an unconditional endorsement of the our-town spirit Buttigieg brought to the debate stage: Houston’s Sylvester Turner is great because he fixed city pensions and kept the streets clean, while Mitch Landrieu is great because he too stood up to the firefighters’ union. Because labels are “largely meaningless,” politicians of both parties can embody the mayoral ethic: Democrat Greg Fischer of Louisville is praised for prioritizing “data, statistics, and branding,” for instance, while Republican Tom Tait of Anaheim is praised for his “platform of compassion” that encouraged residents to be nicer to each other, the result of which was that, according to Tait, “things got better, just anecdotally.”

Telling, too, is the absence of Chokwe Antar Lumumba, the radical mayor of Jackson, Mississippi—not exactly Emanuel’s style. Political values are of only secondary relevance to him, not so important that they cannot or should not be sacrificed if there’s an opportunity to get things done without them. Emanuel’s eight years in Chicago, he said, taught him that “cities were the last places where progressive politics existed,” and that politicians are at their best when they are “embracing reality and creating solutions that reflect where matters are headed.” This remains his counsel to others now that he has become unemployed.

Throughout the book Emanuel insists that can-do spirit could be an antidote to our ongoing federal ailments: mayors, he says, are coordinating to defend immigrants and reduce carbon emissions at a time when Congress is gridlocked and the president has planted his boot on the neck of progress. Yet he never pauses to consider just why mayors get things done in ways the federal government can’t, nor to digest the simple fact that local and national governments operate in radically different ways. Washington is not South Bend, nor is it Chicago: you cannot just order the snow to be shoveled and the streets to be swept. The hundred-pound tomes of administrative law, the matryoshka-doll agencies, the intransigence of Congress, the delicate upkeep of global power relations—getting things done in Washington is not the same as getting things done elsewhere. If it were, one can only imagine things would be a lot better by now.

Emanuel and Buttigieg alike would surely see President Trump’s bungled response to the coronavirus pandemic as further proof that we need a mayor-king: if we had a president trained in the art of accomplishment, a pragmatic mayor like Fischer or Edwards, then the government would act with more speed and far more competence to slow the progress of the disease. But there’s always the possibility that instead of taking decisive actions, a mayor would continue to commute to a Brooklyn YMCA while preaching social distancing, or find himself unable to do more than run around his Italian town yelling at people to stay home. Many of the problems facing our country of 329 million are simply not local problems, or at least not exclusively local, and local politicians will never be able to solve them—even if they aren’t cash-strapped and hamstrung by state and federal potentates. Emanuel, after all, counted “major public health risks” as one of the exceptions that proves the rule of mayoral supremacy.

Furthermore, the political wormhole created by the present crisis demonstrates that the new mayorism is little more than a politics of the least common denominator, no different from any other form of extreme pragmatism, any other system whose loftiest goal is to accomplish whatever everyone will agree to right now. When Emanuel talks about mayors “running the world,” he means doing whatever is possible in the present and forbearing to ask more of the future, lest a mayor fall short of his mandate to deliver results, at whatever cost and no matter what those results are. But if in the space of a few short weeks, a pandemic has shown that we can free inmates, stall evictions, suspend loan payments, print money, and mail checks, what good is a worldview whose concept of accomplishment ends at shoveling the snow, or excludes anything likely to rankle some feathers or upset some stomachs?