What Rahm Emanuel's Election Means for Cities Nationwide

Mayors say Chicago's new leader could provide them with valuable connections and provide a national voice on municipal issues.
by | March 11, 2011

Municipal leaders across the country say Chicago Mayor-Elect Rahm Emanuel will be a major asset to cities nationwide due to his insider knowledge of the federal government and its leaders.

Emanuel, formerly President Obama's chief of staff, may be the highest ranking federal official to become a mayor.

There is a precedent for federal leaders taking statewide office -- for example, Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels is the former director of the U.S. Office of Management and Budget, and Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback is a former U.S. senator -- but that rarely, if ever, happens at the local level.

Emanuel's election last month comes at a time when the relationship between the federal government and localities has become strained. Budget-cutting efforts by House Republicans target many of the programs cities cherish and could further drain already low coffers. Although President Obama is considered an ally to mayors, even his 2012 budget contains provisions that mayors have rallied against, including cuts to the popular CDBG program, grants for municipal wastewater and drinking water systems, and a program that helps poor people with heating and cooling costs.

Meanwhile, state and local leaders continue to battle federal environmental regulation they view as onerous and an obstacle to economic development.

But Emanuel could be in a unique position to provide an influential voice for cities and help them navigate the ins and outs of the federal government. "He has a lot of inside experience ... in terms of how to get things done and who to talk to," St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay says.

"I think that he will be a big advocate for cities [and] he'll be a tremendous resource for cities and the U.S. Conference of Mayors, working with us to fine tune and develop our agenda and message in Washington," Slay added.

Burnsville, Minn., Mayor Elizabeth B. Kautz, president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, says that her organization hasn't met with Emanuel yet but intends to reach out to the mayor-elect. Next month, the group is hosting a summit in Chicago. "The network that he brings to our table [is] of great value and a great asset to us," Kautz says.

Sitting Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley has been held in high regard by fellow mayors ever since he was first elected in 1989. They say he's provided them with guidance on important issues and served as a leading voice for issues they care about. He is considered a pioneer on issues such as urban design, brownfields renewal and city takeover of public schools.

Bruce Katz, director of the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution, called Emanuel's election a "major event" for cities. But he doesn't think Emanuel's experience as a federal leader is his greatest asset.

Instead, Katz gives the mayor-elect high marks for his views on economic development and understanding that international exports will be a driver for job growth -- a view Daley shared. "I think people think (Emanuel) gets the federal government and he'll somehow figure out how to link local vision to national policy," Katz says. "I think his most important impact in the near-term is he's going to be part of the pro-growth class of political leaders."

But Katz doesn't discount Emanuel's federal experience.

He explained that city governments are interconnected and function well across departments. That's not the case in the federal government, which is mired in a greater level of bureaucracy, but it's improving. Breaking those barriers will be integral to the federal government's efforts to provide meaningful aid to metropolitan areas going forward, and Emanuel could play a role in that movement, Katz says.

Serving as mayor involves a different skillset from Emanuel's last elected job -- U.S. representative for Illinois's 5th congressional district. "I think mayors have to prove themselves in ways that federal legislators do not," Katz says. "They run departments. They're executives as well as thought leaders. He's going to have to put his own unique, distinctive stamp on his mayoralty."

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