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Carol Felsenthal
On politics

Rahm Touts His Chicago Success to David Brooks in DC

A chipper mayor was full of good news in an hour-long talk with his old friend.

 Photo: The Brookings Institution

There was an overflow crowd Tuesday at the Brookings Institution, a liberal think tank in Washington, to watch New York Times columnist David Brooks, 52, Toronto-born, New York and Philadelphia-reared, but University of Chicago and City News Bureau educated, question Rahm Emanuel, 54.

The two are old buddies. While in Congress and the White House, Rahm fed Brooks scoops and tips and gossip.  After Rahm left DC for Chicago and the race for mayor, Brooks wrote a couple of embarrassingly smarmy celebrations of Rahm.

That said, Brooks’ questions were fine and sometimes funny—Brooks quipped that after Rahm became mayor, “I got calls about the amazing job he’s doing…Rahm was the source of all these calls.” Rahm, hyper-articulate and upbeat, was at his best explaining why there is no better job in the universe than mayor, and no city better to be mayor of than Chicago. He had lists and statistics and compelling personal examples to illustrate his fast-paced points. When he exhorted his audience of municipal policy wonks about the importance of investing in city kids—and giving them the opportunities that David’s three children and Rahm’s three have, as a birthright—Emanuel was downright eloquent.

Here’s a sample of some of Rahm’s more interesting facts/stats/boasts, all stuffed into an approximately 52-minute exchange.

  • “There are 100 cities around the world that drive the world economy…Chicago is one of those cities, second most competitive economy in all of North America and in the top 10 worldwide…the 23rd largest economy in the world.”
  • Rahm returned repeatedly to improvements he has managed in the community college system.  He explained that, before his arrival, the community college program was “the last stage of remedial education. They were fifth and sixth years of high school because the high schools weren’t doing their job.” Now, with specialized programs such as transportation and health care centered in particular colleges, “we’re giving them an education that assures them a job.”
  • He used as an example a young woman studying at Olive-Harvey to become a truck driver, but that was not her career goal, Rahm explained.  Her goal was to attend Malcolm X to study for a nursing job, but she didn’t want to go into debt, so her transportation job is a path to a job in health care.
  • He described the challenge of leading Chicago as more difficult because the city is not tied to a single industry, like New York to the financial industry, or like Los Angeles to entertainment. “Chicago is the most diversified of any of the major economies…We go in an ebb and flow…Our diversity’s our strength.” Chicago’s future, Rahm explained, is in research, job training, and transportation. The tech sector “was nowhere in Chicago” when he arrived, he said. It’s now adding 30,000 jobs and moving to 40,000, and we’re “on our way” to 80,000.  
  • He noted that 35 percent of Chicagoans have a “college degree or better. In the U S., it’s 27 percent.” That gives Chicago an advantage, he explained, because corporations are in a “massive race worldwide for talent” and they are going to go to a place where there is a “skilled and educated workforce.” He noted that “we have more alumni of the Big 10 universities than anywhere else,” and cautioned that if anyone in the audience happened to be in Chicago on Big 10 graduation day, don’t get on the highway to Madison or South Bend or Ann Arbor because “you’ll be road kill.” 
  • Asked by Brooks if it’s easier to help the lakefront than the neighborhoods because the affluent tend to cluster on the lakefront, Rahm answered that “if the downtown is not doing well, the neighborhoods won’t do well, and if the neighborhoods are not doing well, it doesn’t matter what’s going on downtown.”
  • After boasting that Chicago has “the fastest growing central business district in America by a factor of two,” he described that district as having a “two mile radius, but added, “if you go four miles, six miles out, you have pockets of poverty that are as bad as anywhere in the country.” His “biggest challenge?” Being able to answer in the affirmative to the question: “Can the city be affordable and livable for the middle class?”
  • Asked by Brooks about the “murder spike,” Rahm claimed, “everyday we’re making progress,” and that he had increased summer jobs by 150 percent, “the largest increase since the War on Poverty.” He focused on the success of the midnight basketball program and the fact that on its first night city officials “expected 800 kids and 2,500 showed up.”
  • He became emotional when he told the audience, “these are good kids, really good kids” who need “just a moment for somebody to care. “ He explained that “if we’ve done our job at school and at the places of worship,” if they see the excitement of downtown—whether or not they want to work there—“as part of their future, then we’re golden. If they see their future as what’s currently in front of them, than we have bigger problems than any mayor can solve.” 
  • He recalled going in an SUV with bodyguards and cops to Columbus Park to watch the first night’s game. He talked to one particularly “engaging”  young man who said that he lives with his mother. Emanuel was so impressed that he took out a card and wrote to the mother, “’one parent to another, you’ve done well.’  I know how hard it is. I’ve got a teenager at home, three of them.” He offered the boy, whom Rahm noted attended a charter school that was “all African American males,” a ride home. When they reached his flat, Rahm started to exit the SUV to walk the boy to the door. Before he could, the boy “put his hand on my hand and said, `Have a blessed evening.’ These are good kids, invest in them, give them a shot.  Government is not a good replacement for a parent, but if there’s a breakdown in the family, we have to step up and do our part to give these kids an equal shot as your children and my children are having.”
  • Asked by Brooks if Democratic mayors are moving to the left in alignment with the proudly leftist new mayor of New York, Bill DeBlasio, Emanuel said he doesn’t consider, for example, an improved kindergarten program “right, left, or center; it’s just good policy.” (Rahm touted the longer school day, universal kindergarten impacting 400,000 children, and 5,000 children going to full-day pre-K.)
  • He also described improvements in mass transit, claiming that he was “replacing” every bus and train, “rehabbing” every station. These are not, he repeated, “left or right or center, but a great economic strategy to move people from work to home and make us more economically competitive. I understand the desire to say, where does this idea fit between these two goal posts? I’m about getting the ball through the goalposts, not which side of the goalposts it’s on.”
  • Emanuel claimed that “every playground in the city of Chicago is being totally rebuilt, every one of them” and added that “friendships formed in neighborhoods happen in playgrounds, real bonding… it centers a neighborhood the way other things don’t.” (When Rahm mentioned that both he and Brooks had been “Saturday playground dads,” Brooks joked that he should “clarify” that both he and Rahm are in “shul” on Saturday mornings. “You can clarify that if you need to,” Rahm replied. “My rabbi knows I’m a lost cause on that.”)
  • The mayor also returned more than once to his summer of reading program, which, he said,  is now being copied by Los Angeles. A bit later he expanded the claim: “Half of the cities around the United States are copying this summer of learning.” He mentioned last summer’s challenge that if Chicago kids read 2 million books he’d do this Sunday’s “polar plunge.” “I’m asking for a recount,” he joked.
  • He described Chicago’s public libraries as “rated number one in America and third worldwide,” a source of summer learning that also encompasses Park District and museum programs. “We can’t afford three months off an education.” 

Questions from the floor included one from a George Washington University student who asked Emanuel for advice to someone aspiring to public service. He spoke of his immigrant roots and of the “obligation to give back. “He said he believed in “some form of [compulsory] universal national service,” elaborating that the country is “breaking up too much,” that we need “one unifying experience,” and “I don’t mean Facebook.” 

Another questioner asked what the “biggest character challenge” is for a politician. “We’re guilty until proven innocent,” he replied, seeming to be talking about his own experience when he added that people will blast pols for being “wrong,” for “not telling the truth.”  Turning to face Brooks, he added that the “post Watergate era” of cynicism has “ruined your profession and mine.”  

In answering an audience question about how a city mayor works with his counterparts throughout the metropolitan area, Rahm told of new areas of cooperation with Cook County and the considerable dollar savings that resulted. He added that the “old debate” pitted “Chicago against everybody else.” He called that “hogwash” and “yesterday’s politics. We are a regional economy. Chicago is obviously at the center but we have to be aligned.”

That prompted Brooks to clarify, “People in the suburbs don’t vote for you…You have to care about your voters.”

“You’ve probably been out of Chicago too long,” Rahm answered to much laughter.

He appeared more than willing to keep going—the famously impatient mayor never looked at his watch. He mentioned that he had appointed former Democratic/good-government alderman Marty Oberman to the Metra board, noting that Metra is essentially a “suburban operation,” serving people in Chicago going to suburban jobs and people in suburbs going to the city, but that they “put my guy from Chicago to head a suburban mass transit system.” Rahm repeated twice, as if he still couldn’t believe it, “I didn’t make a single call for Marty and he got it.”

The last three questions from the floor:

First, the Obama library: Is it coming to Chicago? Rahm answered that the city is taking nothing for granted, but that “we’ll remind [the President]” that Michelle’s from here, and that he taught here. “We’re going to make it so competitive that it will be an easy decision to make.”

Second, he said that he will support Hillary Clinton if she runs in 2016 and described it as “a one-person primary right now.” 

On the upcoming “polar plunge,” Brooks said that Jimmy Fallon has pledged to wear a suit and tie when he takes the plunge with Rahm. “What will you be wearing?” Brooks asked, “and where do we donate so you don’t come back?”

“I thought we were really getting along here, David,” Rahm said with mock hurt. “I will not be wearing a Speedo. I’ll be wearing appropriate gear. Can’t wear a wetsuit, can’t go up to my knees and run out. I’ll be wearing something that will make sure I get fully wet.”  

Carol Felsenthal is a lifelong Chicagoan and self-proclaimed political junkie. She writes occasionally for Politico Magazine and The Hill. Her books include biographies of Bill Clinton, Katharine Graham, and Alice Roosevelt Longworth. Among her many stories for Chicago are memorable profiles of Michelle Obama and Bruce Rauner. Follow her on Twitter at @csfelsenthal.

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