Tom Friedman, Kasim Reed, Michael Bloomberg, and Rahm Emanuel
At the Mayoral Evening: from left, New York Times columnist Tom Friedman, Atlanta's Kasim Reed, New York's Michael Bloomberg, and Chicago's Rahm Emanuel. For more photos, launch the photo gallery »


After last night’s Mayoral Evening at the Oriental Theatre, part of the first-ever Chicago Ideas Week, I took an instant poll of those sitting near me, asking which of the three mayors in attendance—New York’s Michael Bloomberg, Atlanta’s Kasim Reed, and our own Rahm Emanuel—was most impressive. The folks around me confirmed my opinion: Rahm was off his game; Bloomberg was persuasive; and Reed, the youngest and least known of the three, is a fascinating up-and-comer to watch.

The sold-out event, the first “megatalk” of the debut of Ideas Week, packed the main floor, the boxes, and the balcony with folks who paid $15 each to hear New York Times columnist/superstar Tom Friedman moderate the panel of big-city mayors. Although each mayor portrayed himself as being on the frontlines of governing—Bloomberg described his constitutents as not caring about national or state issues, but rather about “my house, my kids’ school”—Rahm’s string of stale one-liners and too many mentions of garbage collection made him the least impressive of the three. When asked by Friedman at the end of the discussion what excites him every morning, what gets him out of bed, he first joked, “Garbage. I take it out everyday at home; now I also do it all over the city,” before launching into remarks about opportunities for Chicago’s children.

Bloomberg described a plan he has for great universities—Stanford and Cornell are possibilities—to open campuses in New York. He also mentioned working to help the “mostly male minority kids” who are “in and out of the criminal justice system, …kids society totally forgot, many of whom don’t even have the ID necessary to apply for a job.” For Reed—a frank-talking, often humorous 42-year-old who readily admits that he won by a margin of 714 votes—the challenge that gets him going in the morning is “taking on hard things.” He mentioned a sweeping pension reform that he passed with support from labor unions. “Unlike some people who take a hostile approach to working people, we sat around a table and did this,” he said. (One could not help but think of Rahm and his poisonous relations with Chicago Teachers Union head Karen Lewis.) “I’m a public school kid,” Reed said. “Could a public school kid, 40 years from now, become mayor of the city? Right now, I don’t believe that’s the case. Until I go to sleep and know that public school kids can do that, it makes me work so much harder.”

As for national politics, the debates, the upcoming elections, no one cares, Bloomberg argued. “The federal government has no understanding of what goes on at the local level,” he said. Reed agreed, describing his constituents as focused on “job creation” in a city once known as full of opportunity and now struggling with 57,000 construction workers out of jobs. Rahm joined in the argument that the Feds should direct money to the major cities. He bemoaned the lack of “more resources” for the things he wants to do—improve schools, infrastructure, “rails, roads, and runways.” He added that “having been at the federal level, I don’t think there’s an appreciation of what mayors go through to achieve their missions.” 

But he was part of that that federal government over two administrations—in the nexus of power at the White House. If he winced at some of the comments, he did it internally. Bloomberg observed that “Mayors don’t go on to be president”—obviously forgetting that the guy seated next to him is thought by many, me included, to be ready to make that leap as soon as 2016. Without mentioning Barack Obama, Reed decried the year and a half devoted to health care reform, followed by the administration and the Congress next turning their focus to deficit reduction. Jobs, Reed maintained, should have been their sole focus.

None mentioned the president by name. Nudged by Friedman, who was promoting his latest sure-to-be-best-seller (coauthored with Michael Mandelbaum) That Used to Be Us: How American Fell Behind in the World It Invented and How we can Come Back, all three mayors expressed a frightening view of the U.S., describing it as on a downward course, losing leverage and status to China. Bloomberg chastised politicians for “blaming China for all our problems. The Chinese have brought 150 million people into the middle class. All we have to do is copy them, but we’re blaming them for being successful.”  

The closing words from Reed and from Bloomberg seemed directed straight at Rahm’s former boss. Republicans enjoy the fight, Reed remarked. Democrats don’t, but they better learn to enjoy it. “The system we’re in rewards the people who fight the best.” For Bloomberg, “too much focus on the next election, too much blaming, too few profiles in courage.” He wasn’t quite done: “We need a president… to stand up and remind everybody what’s great about America.”

While many in the audience came to hear the superstar mayors, Friedman, a first-rate speaker/performer, was also a draw, opening with the news that the U.S. is “not living up to its potential.” We have “nothing fundamentally” to learn from China, India, Brazil, he added, noting that the U.S. knows “the formula for success,” the “public/private partnership” we need—but have forgotten that strategy as we close our doors to immigrants, as we neglect education and infrastructure and adaptation to the “hyper-connected world.” Ten years ago, he said, blue-collar workers were in trouble; now, he argued, it’s white-collar workers. As for the younger generation, “average is over,” he explained; our children can no longer achieve success by being on par with the world—not when they’re competing with students from China and other countries, who routinely score 800 on their math SATs. And when our children finish college, Friedman added, they can no longer expect to walk into a job; they will have to invent their own job. He mentioned a conversation with the head of a national law firm in D.C. who said that any layoffs in the firm were happening to those who merely completed their assignments diligently. The ones who kept their jobs were those who were figuring out how to do the old work in a new, better way.

The hour-plus program was never dull, and Groupon cofounder Brad Keywell, the force behind Chicago Ideas Week who opened and closed the event, seems to be onto something: that there’s a market for a competitor to the more established Chicago Humanities Festival, which debuted in 1990.

Incidentally, just blocks away near the Art Institute—playing host to a reception for members of the Futures Industry Association and the Mortgage Bankers Association—hundreds of protestors shouted anti-capitalist slogans, denounced bankers as criminals, and vented their rage at unemployment, foreclosures, economic inequity. Their demonstration made the evening seem somewhat surreal—but highly relevant.


Photography: Esther Kang