Off the top of your head, how many big-city mayors can you name?
I follow politics, and I can only think of three: New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Boston Mayor Thomas Menino, and our own Rahm Emanuel.
Bloomberg and Menino are both retiring this year, so soon, only Rahm will remain. As Marc Levin, producer of the upcoming CNN documentary Chicagoland puts it, “Rahm has emerged as the dominant mayor in the country.”
It’s not an unusual position for Chicago mayors. Richard J. Daley was a household name during his 21 years in office, overshadowing New York’s colorful John Lindsay, and becoming synonymous with urban bossism. In the movie Milk, San Francisco Mayor George Moscone tells an aggressive Harvey Milk he’s acting like “Boss Tweed…or Mayor Daley.” Presumably, everyone got the joke.
As Chicago’s first black mayor, Harold Washington was famous enough to make his way into an Eddie Murphy comedy routine about the first black president.
Richard M. Daley was too inarticulate, and too much in his father’s shadow to become a national figure. His already-famous name was known, but he wasn’t.
But even before becoming mayor, Rahm was well-known and well-hated across America, as President Obama’s temperamental, profane chief of staff. So once Bloomberg steps aside, he’ll become the face or urban leadership in America. The CNN documentary, which is airing in March and April, will further his prominence.
That’s unlikely to lead to higher office: big city mayors are never elected president, and not often elected governors. But it will get him on every Sunday morning and cable TV political show, arguing for urban America’s issues, such as gun control, mass transit and funds for more police. And the bigger he is nationally, the bigger he’ll be in Chicago. Being America’s mayor will ensure he can be our mayor as long as he wants.