Measuring the success of a leader by the number of buildings and public amenities named after them

Chicago Tribune columnist Eric Zorn suggests the Chicago Riverwalk should be named after former Mayor Rahm Emanuel and also discusses the number of buildings named after prominent Chicago mayors:

In situations like this I usually invoke my “hall of fame” rule. That rule requires that, when faced with the urge to slap a politician’s name onto public property, we emulate how pro baseball and pro football halls of fame require players to have been inactive for at least five years before they can be considered for induction. (Hockey and basketball make their luminaries wait only three years.) The purpose is to prevent cheap sentiment and spasms of nostalgia from coloring the cool judgment of time.

For instance, the years have not been kind to Emanuel’s predecessor, Richard M. Daley. The further his six terms as mayor recede in memory, the more fiscally irresponsible and ultimately destructive Daley seems.

He dined on our seed corn — most notably by selling 75 years’ worth of parking meter revenue for a paltry $1.15 billion in 2008. He failed to make the painful decisions that would have kept local pension funds healthy. He left flaming piles of debt for the Chicago Public Schools and Chicago Transit Authority. I need not go on.

There’s a reason that a neighborhood branch library is still and perhaps forever the most significant public structure to bear Richard M. Daley’s name (compared with his exhaustively honored father, Richard J. Daley). By 2024, similarly harsh retrospective assessments may discourage us from putting the Emanuel name on the riverfront jewel he relentlessly championed.

Attaching names of prominent officials to buildings and other public structures (such as highways or an interchange) has a long history. Once a leader is out of office, they can fade from public memory. A prominent feature of the urban landscape with their name on it can help keep their name in public view for decades, perhaps even centuries.

Often, the name is attached to something they helped create. This is where putting Emanuel’s name on the Riverwalk makes sense: if he helped make it happen, his name reminds Chicagoans of at least one good important thing he did. His legacy will likely be mixed but who can deny the value of a nice public amenity?

But, the gesture can also seem vain, backfire in the long run, or . Self-application of a name probably would not work. Consider the fate of streets named after Martin Luther King Jr. in major American cities. Or, the numerous honorary streets in Chicago that few notice. Even worse may be names that few remember even as the name is regularly invoked (the fate of the Dan Ryan Expressway in Chicago).

It will be worth tracking (1) how many places in Chicago bear Emanuel’s name in the long run and (2) how these named places affect his legacy.

The legacy of Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Chicago as a global city

After weighing the highs and lows of Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel’s eight years in office, a Chicago Tribune editorial ends with this:

Because in the end, Mayor Emanuel kept his word. He pushed Chicago to keep moving, to shuffle forward, to improve its rank as a global city.

Not many big-city mayors can say that.

Two quick thoughts on how this conclusion feeds ongoing narratives about cities and Chicago:

  1. “Keep moving” and “improve” are linked to the idea of continuous city growth. Chicago may be slowly losing residents – or at least losing ground to faster-growing cities close in population like Toronto and Houston – but Emanuel helped stem the tide. Imagine this legacy: Mayor Emanuel could not increase Chicago’s population but think how much worse it would have been without all those new buildings downtown and in wealthy neighborhoods!
  2. Emanuel himself had a goal of keeping Chicago as a major global city. Indeed, it is. But, Chicago also has a lingering fear that it is not considered a global city, particularly compared to places like New York City. The population loss is likely part of this but so may be a location in the Midwest away from the exciting coasts. Again, for Emanuel’s long-term legacy: Chicago stayed in the top 50 of global cities!

Finally, all of this conversation makes it sound as if the mayor was the only one with influence in the city. The mayor of Chicago may always have an outsized influence – I’m reminded of former mayor Richard M. Daley’s visit to campus in 2011. This big man theory of history covers up a lot of other processes, including the work (or rubber-stamping?) of the City Council, the flow of global capital into Chicago, the influence of developers and wealthy business leaders, and numerous changes taking place within disadvantaged neighborhoods.

Would limiting big money in city mayoral races help address low turnout?

An article at Citylab details efforts by some large American cities to limit big money in local mayoral races:

Several localities—including Portland, Denver, and Baltimore—have initiatives in motion to overhaul the system either by driving down the dollar amounts each person can give or solicit, piloting public financing projects that make each donated dollar go further, or both. The overarching goal is to keep big money and its influence out of local politics, and to give all candidates a fair shot.

In Denver, voters will decide on an expansive reform package, including a contribution cap and a generous matching fund. Baltimore’s city council has unanimously passed a charter amendment that would create a similar small-dollar matching system, if Mayor Catherine Pugh approves it and passes it along to the fall ballot. And before Portland, Oregon, phases in its own public financing measure in 2020, voters will decide on a strict local contribution cap this November…

Large political donors recognize that local races have national implications, and are willing to fund mayoral or city council candidates to build party power strategically. “At the state and local level, races historically have been far less expensive than federal races,” said Joanna Zdanys, counsel for the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program. But that also means, she says, “given the low cost of state and local races, a big expenditure by a deep-pocketed, special-interest spender has the potential to really overwhelm a candidate.”

And potential city leaders, in turn, are hiring national media consultants who recommend large budgets and high spending. Local campaigns have become more professional, with sleek campaign mailers and digital or TV ad spots.

I wonder how this goal of making mayoral races more open fits with limited turnout for local elections in many American communities.

The 2015 mayoral election in Denver had a total of 94,525 votes cast. The total population is near 700,000.

The 2016 mayoral election in Portland had a total of 193,083 votes cast. The total population is over 600,000.

The 2016 mayoral election in Baltimore had a total of 222,593 votes cast. In contrast, the 2011 mayoral election had a total of 46,223 votes cast. The total population is over 610,000.

Does big money suppress voter turnout? I could see how a case would be made for this: the introduction of big money behind one candidate makes it appear as if the outcome is a slam dunk.

Or, is the issue of voter turnout one that will continue to linger even if money is more evenly distributed across candidates? For a variety of reasons, many municipal officials are elected to office with a relatively low level of support from all of the voter-eligible citizens. Considering the influence big-city mayors can have, this seems strange, particularly since Americans tend to favor local government.

Living in, working in, and guiding Naperville for over 70 years

Long-time Naperville mayor George Pradel’s work in the suburb spanned tremendous change in the suburb:

When Naperville was a mid-sized suburb, beginning to outgrow its small-town roots but maintaining a family-friendly feel, Pradel was a police officer. He joined the force in 1966 and made his top priority children, teaching them to stay safe and letting them know someone was watching out for them. His actions made him Officer Friendly before he even took on the title as his nickname.

When Naperville was a growing city, expanding as developers turned farm fields into sprawling subdivisions, Pradel was a mayor. An unlikely mayor at that — the faithful, cheerful cop never intended to take on the role…

He became mayor because a handful of residents asked him to seek the seat, and Pradel never did master the art of tactfully saying “no.” With only a concession speech prepared, he won his first election in 1995, defeating a two-term city council member who worked in human resources for DuPage County. The newly minted mayor took office that spring. His hometown pride never ceased.

Born in Hyde Park on Sept. 5, 1937, as one of six children, Pradel was 2 when his family moved to a small house on Van Buren Avenue in Naperville. He always called it home.

When Pradel’s family first moved to Naperville in 1939, the community had just over 5,000 residents. When he joined the police force in 1966, the population was still short of 20,000. As a new mayor, the population was around 100,000. When his mayoral tenure ended, the city had over 142,000 residents. This is tremendous population change over one lifetime.

I wonder if a vocal and enthusiastic figure like Pradel helped ease the transition from small town to large suburb. Significant growth can change how residents feel about the community and their neighbors. Who are these newcomers? Do we have to build so many new schools? Where are all the locally-owned businesses? Why is the traffic so bad as I try to get across town? Naperville still tries to claim to be a small-town at heart and having a central popular figure to focus on could help.

How much influence mayors have in sizable communities is difficult to pin down exactly. Pradel will certainly be remembered for the length of his service as well as his efforts to boost the community. Might someone of a different temperament accomplished other things? Was Naperville already well on its way to what it is today when Pradel took office? How much did spending his formative years in the small town affect his later efforts? Regardless of the answers, it is hard to imagine there are many small children in Naperville today who will stay in the community for just as long or many who will see such change as Pradel witnessed.

Leaders of global cities coalesce around common interests

This doesn’t have to be framed as Trump versus big cities to be interesting: leaders of global cities have common perceptions about the world.

That was the important message of the visit by Khan, who arrived in New York after an earlier stop in Chicago. Like his hosts, Democratic mayors Bill de Blasio in New York and Rahm Emanuel in Chicago, Khan forcefully insists that integration, inclusion and openness to the world offer the best chance both to defuse terror and maximize economic growth.

That perspective shared by the mayors of almost all large U.S. cities and many others in Europe views immigrants as a source of economic and cultural vitality, trade as an engine of prosperity, and integration of Muslim communities as the central defense against radicalization and terror. “We play straight into the hands of the extremists and terrorists when we [say]…it’s not possible to hold Western values and to be a Muslim,” Khan wrote last week in the Chicago Tribune. “It makes it easier for terrorists to radicalize young people. And it makes us all less safe…”…

Adjusting for national differences, the mayors of global cities are largely coalescing around agendas antithetical to the Trump vision. “There are 50 cities, maybe 100, that are the intellectual, cultural and economic engine of the world,” Emanuel said in an interview shortly after Khan left Chicago. “We are all working on the same things because we face similar opportunities. We have to make our cities competitive. The jobs and companies we talk about are not only global but mobile.”

This modern urban agenda revolves around investment in infrastructure and education (ranging from expanded pre-school to tuition-free post-secondary education); welcoming immigrants; support for small business and information-age technology start-ups; promoting more dense development (Khan toured Chicago’s impressive riverfront development as a possible model for the Thames); embracing renewable energy as both an economic engine and environmental imperative; and with only a few exceptions (like deBlasio) supporting more international trade. The common theme, Emanuel says, is to create a “platform for private sector growth” while advancing equity and inclusion.

This could be used as evidence for limiting or eliminating the nation state, at least for the most powerful cities of the world. If anything, nations might hold them back from doing what they really need to do. Similar arguments have been made recently about states enacting new laws that supersede regulations from cities. See an overview here.

For the sake of public argument, it would be helpful to see the positive argument made for why cities need or benefit from states and countries. Outside of helping to balance budgets, what would Rahm Emanuel say is the benefit for Chicago of being part of Illinois as opposed to operating as an independent entity? Or, could Khan explain why London is a better place because of being in England and the United Kingdom?

Do you want your big city mayor to have no experience with corruption?

Many big city residents may want mayors who stay away from corruption but what if that means the mayor is less effective at getting things down and fighting corruption?

Today, Mr. Marino finds himself under political siege in the city he vowed to save from itself. Italy’s news media lampoons him as an honest man in over his head, or as one newspaper called him, a Forrest Gump.

“His virtue is also his main problem: He is not connected to all the rotten Roman relationships,” said Carlo Bonini, an investigative journalist with La Repubblica, a daily newspaper. “He knows the world he operates in too little.”…

Perhaps most damning for the mayor has been the slow-bleeding “Mafia Capitale” investigation, which has exposed tainted bidding for city contracts on a number of services, including refugee centers and sanitation. Even for a country more than accustomed to such scandal, the revelations have come as a shock…

While the corruption revealed by the scandal predated Mr. Marino’s arrival in office, the mayor has been criticized as responding slowly and indecisively. “He has always been a step behind,” Mr. Bonini of La Repubblica said…

The corruption investigation of park maintenance contractors led the mayor to suspend their work, leaving public spaces overgrown. His order to stop sidewalk vendors from peddling near historical sites prompted protests from merchants.

Perhaps this is a situation where you would prefer to be the mayor after the crusading reformer has vigorously taken on corruption. Two other quick thoughts:

1. How much can a mayor do on his/her own to fight corruption? If other governmental bodies are not working with the mayor, it would be difficult to get much done.

2. Cleaning up corruption is a difficult task. Moving too quickly may lead to disruptions. Moving too slowly irritates residents.

Obama bypasses Congress and talks to mayors about economic policies

President Obama talked to big city mayors yesterday in efforts to work outside of Congress:

White House aides say the U.S. Conference of Mayors meeting was an ideal opportunity to press the president’s agenda with a more sympathetic audience. White House spokesman Eric Schultz told reporters before the speech that it was a chance to move “forward on priorities helping the middle class despite inaction in Congress.”

The president urged mayors to raise the minimum wage, guarantee paid sick leave, and expand childcare and pre-kindergarten education — all issues with little traction among congressional Republicans…

Since Obama called for an increase to the minimum wage in 2013, 17 states and the District of Columbia have passed raises. Large retailers, including Wal-Mart Stores Inc, IKEA, and Gap Inc. have also pledged to increase the lowest hourly wage for their employees.

This could be viewed as a political ploy to shame Congress or subvert the typical process by which Washington works. In contrast, Obama’s strategy works with one of the standard lines about big-city mayors: they can’t be as partisan as legislators or those in the executive branch because they have to attend to more practical details on a regular basis. In other words, they have to make sure their cities work and can’t afford to get bogged down in ideological standoffs. (Interestingly, I heard this again recently at a conference in Chicago and there was some open laughter.)

That said, economic issues would certainly matter to many mayors as they need jobs for citizens as well as the economic benefits that come with jobs and economic growth (increased population, more tax revenues, increased prestige, etc.). Of course, there is disagreement about how to best do this. Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel presents some of these contrasts. Is he pro-Walmart? He certainly seems to like attracting big corporations and tech start-ups. Is he truly interested in economic development in poorer neighborhoods? How much influence do wealthy businesspeople have in Chicago? He was behind raising the minimum wage in Chicago. Can he be considered non-partisan?

Whether Congress acts or not, cities and metropolitan regions are large economic engines and their leaders do have some latitude in policies that could encourage or discourage economic growth.