BALTIMORE--Mayor Rahm Emanuel was warmly embraced at his U.S. Conference of Mayors debut here, partly because of his celebrity, more important to cash starved mayors: Emanuel is seen as key to getting Washington to ship more money to cities.
Joining other mayors at the Friday press conference opening the 79th annual meeting of the group, Emanuel got a shout out from Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, the incoming president.
"He's got a key to the front door and a key to the back door of the White House," Villaraigosa recounted for me when we talked on Saturday. "And then (Emanuel) said something like 'well I'm going to hold on to those keys' and I said, hold on to those keys, just let the rest of us in."
The mayors are excited about the entrée Emanuel brings to the White House--he was President Obama's chief of staff--and to Congress, where he was one of the top leaders when he was a House member. They hope the access--and Emanuel's drive to find more federal dollars for Chicago--will benefit all cities, under rising-tide lifts-all-boats theories.
"People are excited that he is here, excited about the potential enhanced relationship with the White House and just getting to know him as mayor," Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake told me.
Emanuel is no stranger to the mayors, working with them on national domestic issues since his days in the Clinton White House. That Emanuel, Chicago's new mayor, wants to be active in the organization is almost a given; former Mayor Richard M. Daley is a past president (1996-1997) as was his father, Richard J. Daley (1975-1976).
He comes with "a certain rank, if you will, a certain stature in the U.S. Conference of Mayors because of who he is and who he represents," Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter told me. The relations he has "both in the administration and in Congress can only be good" for mayors, Nutter said.
In office only since May 16, Emanuel was given a featured speaking slot on Saturday and he obliged his audience by pushing, during his remarks--lasting a little over nine minutes--for the creation of a "national infrastructure bank" to create jobs through big mass transit, roads and water projects.
The idea per se is not new; Obama got behind one proposal that stalled; Emanuel's close friend, Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Ct.) has been working on the issue. The problem is how to pay for it, a particular challenge in the GOP controlled House.
Emanuel said he wants to "put together two ideas" to increase the chances of bi-partisan Congressional backing: create a "bank" with a funding stream in one legislative package designed to appeal to corporate America. Emanuel wants to cut the tax rate U.S. companies pay on profits earned overseas--or "repatriated" -only on the condition the money is "guaranteed" to be used for infrastructure projects.
"No doubt it would create jobs," Emanuel said.
*Emanuel, tieless in tan jeans and a blazer, brought his son, Zach, to the conference and took pains to introduce the 9th grader around: to Sacramento, Calif. Mayor Kevin Johnson, who played 12 years with the NBA's Phoenix Sun and Charlotte, N.C. Mayor Anthony Foxx, whose city is hosting the Democratic National Convention in 2012. He also met briefly and privately with Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley.
*Emanuel will duck a potentially controversial--but totally symbolic-- vote on Monday at the conference on a resolution asking Obama to pull troops out of Afghanistan and spend the money to create jobs. As chief of staff, Emanuel played an integral role in the Obama administration self-imposing a July deadline for a gradual troop pullout. He told me he will busy in "meetings."
* Emanuel organized a session with other Illinois mayors at the conference, meeting some in person for the first time.