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Rahm Emanuel Says Mayors Are Democracy's Real Engines Of Change


A lot of Americans may be discouraged about the state of national politics these days - impeachment trials, partisanship, dysfunctional apps. Rahm Emanuel, President Obama's first chief of staff and Democratic mayor of Chicago for two terms, says mayors - they get the job done. His new book says they're the real engines of change in a democracy. He mentions mayors by name and even includes some Republicans. His book, "The Nation City: Why Mayors Are Now Running the World." Mayor Emanuel joins us from the studios of WBEZ in Chicago. Thanks so much for being with us.

RAHM EMANUEL: Thank you, Scott.

SIMON: I actually want to begin by having you read a paragraph that captures the essence of cities, if you could.

EMANUEL: Sure. (Reading) While we were growing up, the city of Chicago was our playground. There were movie theaters, libraries, museums, a zoo, parks and a mass transit system that made it possible to get to all of those places. There were people of all different backgrounds and races and religious beliefs who had one thing in common, a profound yearning to improve their lot in life. The city had its hazards, too. There was poverty and crime. There were dark alleys that we avoided. My brothers and I were more than once taunted for being Jewish. The city shaped us. It held all the promise and all of the peril in the world.

SIMON: That's a nice paragraph.

EMANUEL: Thank you.

SIMON: Is that where cities have to come up with solutions because so many different kinds of people have to live together?

EMANUEL: That's part of it. Yes, I mean...

SIMON: And cheek by jowl, if you please.

EMANUEL: Yeah. No, I mean, think about it like this. In the city of Chicago, there's 145 languages spoken in our public schools. But while that's many different languages, many different faiths, many different races, backgrounds, incomes, the aspiration of a parent is no different. And so you have to, as a mayor, form that into - kind of, for lack of a better way of saying it - to create a singular melody and a singular chorus that moves the entire city forward. And there are good days and bad days at it. There are days that you make real gains and days that are incremental. And they carry in them all the promise of what a better tomorrow can be and all the peril of not getting there.

SIMON: Let me ask you about one of the mayors whom you celebrate in the book and what he did about a - what I'll refer to as a truly vexing yet unsexy problem for many municipalities. And that's pension liability. Mayor Turner...

EMANUEL: Mayor - yeah.

SIMON: ...Sylvester Turner of Houston had an idea for that you admire.

EMANUEL: Well, I think at the end of the book, Scott, one of the things I try to talk about is there are kind of flashing yellow lights that if we don't manage these issues and deal with them, they're going to threaten the promise and become more of a peril. Our pension liabilities are very big. He came up with a way of putting money into the system of rewriting it, so people got their pension - meaning, police, fire and other municipal employees - came up with additional revenue, additional contributions. It was a balanced approach that then stabilized the pensions, insured people's retirement. And you had a more productive growth economy which was not being held back by uncertainty. We were down there for the debate. And if I talked to police and fire...

SIMON: You mean Democratic presidential...

EMANUEL: Yeah, yeah. I'm sorry. I was asking police and fire down there. And I'm not so sure he gets as much thumbs up from them as I think he deserves for having at least - putting himself out there to tackle an issue that he knew, if he didn't tackle it, was going to hold Houston back from a better future.

SIMON: Well, as you know, there are people - I would include President Trump...

EMANUEL: (Laughter).

SIMON: ...That don't want to take any advice from a mayor of Chicago because of the city's appalling homicide rate.

EMANUEL: Yeah. I don't mind taking advice as long as you back it up. First of all, I don't think his advice is very good. The idea that you would just bang heads on a top of a car, of a police car. That's not community, and that's not community policing. Here's the thing on Chicago - we have a challenge. We have a major amount of guns coming into the city. Last year, Chicago's police took a record 10,000 guns off the street. But there's no shortage of access. We have a challenge in the criminal justice system. We have a challenge that existed in our public schools, although, as you know from reading the book, major gains are made there. And I think that's the cornerstone of what you have to do. You have to create hope and opportunity where there's usually despair. You have to have better policing, better community relations. So it is not one thing. And the good news is - or if there is good news - is we have plenty of examples, especially over the last three years, of where we've made changes and that you have seen the material safety and security improve. But we have so much more work to do.

SIMON: You've got kind words in here for both Mayor Buttigieg of South Bend and Mayor Bloomberg of New York. Which one should be president?

EMANUEL: That's for you guys to decide - me, (laughter) - we're public. I mean...

SIMON: Which one do you want to be president?

EMANUEL: Well, he...

SIMON: I'm sorry. I phrased that badly.

EMANUEL: Let me say it this way.

SIMON: All right.

EMANUEL: Everybody talks about policy, etc. The real skill set you're looking for is, do you have the capacity to learn? Do you have the capacity to fall down, pick yourself up and understand how to learn from that, how to dust yourself off and move forward? One, you look at their record, but you also look at their times that not only they succeeded, but the times that they failed and what they learned from that. What did they do with that failure, and how did it influence the next decision? And that judgment, that self-awareness and reflection is what's important.

SIMON: Former Mayor Rahm Emanuel. His book, "The Nation City: Why Mayors Are Now Running the World". Thanks so much for being with us.

EMANUEL: Thank you, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
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