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Princes of the City

From Rahm Emanuel to Rob Ford, today’s mayors increasingly run their cities like fiefdoms.

Kari Lydersen

Chicago's Rahm Emanuel listens as Los Angeles' Antonio Villaraigosa speaks at an education reform conference in February 2013 in Los Angeles. Both exemplify the new breed of flashy, wealthy, hip mayor. (Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

After weeks of nearly incessant media attention, the barrage of headlines about the various misdeeds of Toronto Mayor Rob Ford have finally started to fade. Now stripped of the powers of his office and disgraced, the crack-smoking, drunken Ford will remain an embarrassing, sad and darkly humorous footnote in the history of municipal governance.

Past mayors like Daley were often associated with their city for life and deeply invested in the success of regular people and neighborhoods. But the modern princes use the office to burnish their own personal brand and launch themselves to loftier heights.

Meanwhile, in Toronto’s sister city 500 miles to the southwest, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s star continues to rise.

On the surface, the two mayors couldn’t be more different in terms of behavior, temperament and efficacy. While Ford worked four-hour days to leave plenty of time for partying, Emanuel hits the gym before long days of rapid-fire meetings and appearances. While Ford offered jobs to women who smoked marijuana with him outside Toronto bars, Emanuel offers major tax breaks and subsidies multinational companies. He’s widely expected to win re-election in February 2015, thanks in no small part to having gathered what some say is a $5 million campaign fund.

But Emanuel and Ford do have some similarities, which reveal quite a bit about our contemporary taste in municipal chief executives.

While mayor was once seen as a more provincial office responsible for zoning codes and ribbon cuttings, today’s mayors are often jet-setters with international reputations and followings.

There are the Emanuel types — flashy, famous, rich and hip. These also include outgoing New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Newark Mayor-turned-U.S. Senator Cory Booker: leaders who boasted good looks, charm and pop-culture fluency. 

Then there are mayors like Ford and San Diego’s Bob Filner, who made up for a lack of decorum with spades of narcissistic hedonism. This summer, 19 women came forward with detailed charges of harassment and groping by Filner, who for weeks defied calls that he resign before finally stepping down and pleading guilty to criminal charges.

Some mayors combine both types — like Detroit’s Kwame Kilpatrick, the former hip hop mayor” now serving a 28-year federal prison sentence for the corrupt behavior that fueled his lavish lifestyle.

Social media has helped some mayors cultivate their star personae — Booker, whom Oprah Winfrey has dubbed a rock star mayor,” was featured in a movie about Twitter, and the flirtatious Tweets he exchanged with a witty Portland stripper may have even boosted his cool factor.

On the flip side, social media helps news of outrageous behavior like Ford’s quickly spread far and wide online. In 1990, a grainy video of Washington, D.C. Mayor Marion Barry smoking crack in the Vista Hotel mesmerized jurors, but the footage didn’t go viral like the videos related to Ford smoking crack, charging the dance floor and referencing oral sex. Barry continued his political career with another term as mayor and years on the City Council. Twenty years later, Ford’s antics quickly went from local scandal into international sensation with the help of the Internet.

Mayors with great power and outsized personality are nothing new. But legendary longstanding mayors like Chicago’s Richard J. Daley were known for their inextricable ties to the city and their patronage armies. By contrast, as mayors have gained a higher profile, both in terms of economic power and media attention, it perhaps follows that they feel increasingly anointed to run their cities like personal fiefdoms. New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, dubbed prince of the city” in a 2006 book, was a forerunner of this mayoral style with his slick, autocratic revamping of the Big Apple.

Past mayors like Daley were often associated with their city for life and deeply invested in the success of regular people and neighborhoods. But the modern princes use the office to burnish their own personal brand and launch themselves to loftier heights — including higher offices, a la Booker, or lucrative private-sector consulting gigs, a la Giuliani.

That’s where Ford and Emanuel have more in common than meets the eye. Both seem to have an unswaying confidence that their office is theirs to do with as they please.

Ford has appeared primarily concerned with leveraging his position to augment his debauched social life.

Emanuel is not known for decadent appetites or scandalous personal proclivities, but the way he runs his city has shown a similar degree of self-centeredness and entitlement. It’s no secret that Emanuel plans to create a hipper, greener, cleaner Chicago full of bike lanes and urban gardens; old factories transformed into trendy business incubators and co-working spaces; and young entrepreneurs hatching the next big thing during late-night meetings at micro-breweries.

As Emanuel has elevated Chicago’s global profile and positioned the city as a hub of neoliberal innovation on the high-tech, energy and urban planning fronts, though, he’s also alienated and infuriated scores of middle-class, working-class and poor people — by shutting down almost 50 public schools, laying off civil servants, closing clinics, privatizing public services and otherwise making bold and brazen moves while eliminating forums for public input on these decisions.

An increasing number of Chicagoans feel that if they don’t fit in, if they don’t have the right skills or desire to move forward, if they are too needy or too reliant on old systems, then they won’t be part of the New Chicago.

The election of Bill de Blasio as mayor of New York provides a counterpoint to Emanuel. Both men represent a social milieu that is cosmopolitan, multicultural and fully embracing of LGBT communities. But de Blasio, unlike Emanuel, is seen as an ardent believer in democracy and fighting for the underdog.

And in Los Angeles, new mayor Eric Garcetti has Emanuel beat on the hipster front: He’s a 42-year-old Jewish-Italian-Mexican piano player who breakdances and blogs. Garcetti — like Emanuel — appears poised to deliver a leaner, cooler city. Like Emanuel, he’s clashed with public unions. But unlike Emanuel, Garcetti has also built a reputation for being transparent and accessible to his constituents.

The trajectories of Emanuel and his ilk will reveal what it actually means to have a rock star and prince as mayor. They may see the world as their oyster, but they must not forget that they are ultimately public servants obligated to make the city a better place for all denizens, illustrious or not.

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Kari Lydersen is a Chicago-based journalist, author and assistant professor at Northwestern University, where she leads the investigative specialization at the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications. Her books include Mayor 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago’s 99%.

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