Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel was in New York City on Monday to attend a summit of American mayors, led by Michael Bloomberg's new-ish successor Bill de Blasio.
The event marked the first gathering of the newly minted U.S. Conference of Mayors' Cities of Opportunity Task Force, which aims to create a strategy to fix the nation's growing income inequality crisis. You can't have a conversation on that without discussing education and the minimum wage, and those topics will be on the table, too.
Emanuel was tapped to speak on his proposal to increase low-income workers' wages from $8.25 to $13 per hour by 2018. It remains in City Council limbo while the mayor awaits Springfield's pending decision on raising the state-wide rate to $10.
De Blasio, meanwhile, recently secured support from a wary New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo on measures to hike the state's minimum wage from $8 to $10.10 per hour and permit cities with high costs of living to set their own wages at least 30 percent higher than the limit.
Emanuel and De Blasio are two different species of Democrat: the former is pragmatic, the latter is progressive. Emanuel is sharp, strategic, business-friendly, echoing shades of Bloomberg with the billionaire's personal wealth. De Blasio is blustery, populist, community-connected, a bleeding heart through and through.
Both are political animals, but De Blasio's focus on closing the middle class-eroding wealth gap is an ideological one. Emanuel, a shrewd strategist, seems to be focused on winning re-election -- and like many other Democrats up for re-elect, he's jumping on the income inequality issue and taking a page from the De Blasio-for-the-people playbook.
The big-city bosses share President Barack Obama's zeal for raising the minimum wage as well as a commitment to expanding early childhood and pre-K education for public school kids. But they differ sharply in their relationships to teacher unions: While De Blasio has butted heads with charter school leaders, affirming loyalty to public school education, Emanuel has bitterly clashed with the Chicago Teachers Union's Karen Lewis over everything from teacher raises to promised pensions to lengthening the school day. Underscoring the toxicity is a movement backed by business leaders like hedge funder Ken Griffin, an Emanuel donor, to plant more charters in Chicago as union-less alternatives to the city's traditional public schools.
As Ward Room's Mark Andersen reported back in January, City Council's progressive aldermen have been unsuccessful in repeated attempts to slow charters' growth and address "what many see as increasingly systematic underfunding of neighborhood schools and a rush on the part of CPS to build new charter schools."
Last month, CPS approved a controversial budget that diverts extra dollars to charters at public schools' expense.
Miles away, in New York, Cuomo earlier this year curbed De Blasio's much-hyped efforts to combat charter expansion in the Big Apple and raise taxes on the rich to finance universal pre-K education. He received funding for his pre-K program in March, and the pressure is on as he presides over its roll-out and hopes for a success.
Back in Chicago, Emanuel is testing a program to offer free pre-K to some 1,500 4-year-olds from low-income families. He has disclosed how the city would fund such a plan.
The mayor is still recovering from 2012's teachers strike and last summer's unprecedented closures of nearly 50 public schools that tarnished his reputation among progressives and transformed Lewis into a folk heroine.
With Emanuel up for re-election next February, his polarizing education policies will surely be front, center and picked apart with gusto -- especially if Lewis confirms all the buzz and decides to throw her hat into the ring.