Emanuel, de Blasio, other mayors discuss challenges at U. of C.

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Four of America’s most influential mayors tackled their cities’ most difficult challenges — like grappling with the need for federal funding — in a public panel Thursday night at the University of Chicago.

Mayor Emanuel joined New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed at the U. of C.’s Institute of Politics in a forum led by former White House chief of staff David Axelrod on “Leading America’s Big Cities in the 21st Century.” 

“We’re in a renaissance . . . but Washington is AWOL, totally AWOL,” Emanuel said, after earlier calling Chicago “the most American of American cities.” 

“The state Capitol [has] their own budgetary problems and so we are cast on our own at the moment of time when you have to boost the economy,” he said.

Axelrod asked how the mayors’ relationships to the state and the federal government has changed with no steady flow of funds heading their way. All four mayors cited the lack of funding as a huge issue.

“The federal government needs to change its relationship with cities,” Reed said. “The federal government is functioning on an outdated model that shifts money to 50 states as opposed to shifting resources.”

De Blasio, who became New York City’s mayor on Jan. 1, said his city is not waiting for a “cavalry” coming in from Washington. 

“If we were sitting on this stage in 1968, we would have had a different assumption. Now it’s what can we generate ourselves. We have to build up our economies . . . and then we have to use the tools to create more opportunities and address inequality head-on,” De Blasio said.

De Blasio said New York City’s biggest challenge is its “inequality crisis.”

“We have the greatest income inequality since the Great Depression and it’s getting worse,” De Blasio said. “Forty-six percent are at or near the poverty level.”

Emanuel said Chicago’s challenges include the “tough decisions” on education reform and solving the pension crisis.

“We’re going to get close to pension payment, pothole or painting a road. And that’s the wrong choice for a world-class city,” Emanuel said. He called the city’s problems both promising and challenging. 

All of the mayors pointed to educational reform as a necessity. De Blasio said charter schools are a necessary step to New York City’s educational reform. He said he’s also pushing for full-day pre-kindergarden, after-school programs and teacher retention. But he also criticized the media’s attention on his decision to block three charter schools from opening, which he said is distracting from his education reform plans.

Reed criticized a lack of urgency on changes to Atlanta’s public school system: “We’re not trying with the amount of urgency and importance that relates to the future of kids. Right now we have an approach that is not being tried in our public school system because of the political risks associated,” Reed said.

Emanuel said he sees “so much promise and so much wasted” on the educational reform debate, which he said has been “screwed up by politics.”

“It’s not about that reform or this specific; it’s about quality. It’s about a quality education. . . .  The real debate isn’t about charter vs. neighborhood [schools], the debate is quality vs. failure.” 

Garcetti said if the conservative school reformers met with active teacher unions about what a good school would look like, they would have “identical conversations.”

The mayors did not answer reporters’ questions after the panel, but they stopped to pose for a selfie with University of Chicago students. 

The panel was often lighthearted, with the mayors launching jabs at one another. Emanuel told Reed he missed out on a lot in the ’60s, after the youngest mayor joked he wasn’t around for that decade. Garcetti earlier said he wasn’t accustomed to the “white stuff” out on Chicago’s streets — snow — and that it hurt his hand when he touched it.

Emanuel’s response? “It’s water.” 

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