Rahm and the ultimate dead-end job
By Joshua Spivak
The opinions expressed are his own.
Perplexed by Rahm Emanuel’s decision to quit as White House chief of staff, arguably the second most powerful political position in the country, in order to run for mayor of Chicago?
You’re not alone. Even Emanuel certainly hasn’t provided any real insight into why he is making the jump. If he’s hoping to further his political career beyond the Windy City, it is a strange decision. Recent history shows that a big city mayoralty is usually the end of the line.
Over the last half century, few of the mayors of America’s largest cities have had a political career after being mayor. Only three managed to be elected either governor or senator — Phoenix’s Jack Williams, San Diego’s Peter Wilson, who served as both governor and senator, and Philly’s Ed Rendell.
Three others managed to be appointed to a cabinet position — San Jose’s Norm Mineta, Dallas’ Ron Kirk and San Antonio’s Henry Cisneros. Two, Mineta and Dallas’ Earle Cabell, went to the House and a few went to the state legislature or back to the city council, but for the vast majority it was the end of their public career.
The top five cities — New York, LA, Chicago, Houston and Phoenix — are almost a complete shut out in promoting a political career. Only Phoenix’s mayor, Jack Williams, was elected as Arizona’s governor in 1966. Phoenix does have one other noteworthy former mayor, Terry Goddard, now the current Arizona attorney general and the Democratic nominee for governor. But he, like the former mayor of Houston who is the gubernatorial nominee in Texas, is behind in the polls.
In Chicago, the failure of advancement may be blamed on the stranglehold that the Daley’s have maintained on the mayoralty – the father and son have held the position for 43 of the last 55 years. Other cities have no such longevity problem. Being mayor of New York is a famous political death sentence. Rudy Giuliani’s failed presidential campaign served as a recent monument to the dead-end nature of the job.
No New York mayor since 1869 has won higher office, and no elected mayor in the 20th century won another office of any kind. Mayors are also poorly represented in the presidency. Only two mayors have ever been elected president – Grover Cleveland of Buffalo and Calvin Coolidge of Northampton.
One reason it may be so hard to advance after being a mayor is that they frequently receive a lot more press scrutiny than governors, despite the fact that they are overseeing cities that are a fraction of their state’s size. Newspapers and TV stations no longer make the state capital a priority, whereas City Hall is always scrutinized and covered.
And there’s another big negative for mayors – they are begrudged by the rest of the state’s populace who don’t reside in the city. Former New York City Mayor Ed Koch is the prime example of this, though it was due to his own blunder. During his unsuccessful run for the governor’s mansion, he called the suburbs “sterile” and said “it’s wasting your life.” Unsurprisingly, this cost him the primary race.
Emanuel might have stepped down from the chief of staff position regardless of the mayoral opening. Despite its power, chief of staffs frequently burn out or get pushed out after a few years in office. Since Nixon’s time, only two have lasted three or more years in the position.
But Emanuel is a heavy political hitter who is not burned out on politics. And the mayor of Chicago is a powerful position. So it could be possible that Emanuel is looking at the job as a capstone to his career – he could turn Chicago into a 21st century city.
Although it’s still tough to believe that Emanuel wants to step off the national stage at age 50. So it will be most interesting to see how he makes a comeback from what has been the ultimate dead-end political job.
Joshua Spivak is a senior fellow at the Hugh L. Carey Institute for Government Reform at Wagner College.