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updated: 3/6/2014 10:23 PM

Mayors say big cities are driving U.S. resurgence

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  • Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, right, jokes with New York Mayor Bill De Blasio, left, to the amusement of Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed on Thursday during a mayoral panel discussion at the University of Chicago.

      Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, right, jokes with New York Mayor Bill De Blasio, left, to the amusement of Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed on Thursday during a mayoral panel discussion at the University of Chicago.
    Associated Press

  • Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed said "cities are where the action is."

      Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed said "cities are where the action is."
    Associated Press

 
Associated Press

Mayors of some of America's biggest cities said Thursday that cities, not Washington, D.C., are driving the country's economic growth.

Bill de Blasio of New York, Eric Garcetti of Los Angeles, Rahm Emanuel of Chicago and Kasim Reed of Atlanta spoke at a forum at the University of Chicago's Institute of Politics.

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The four -- all Democrats -- said being a big-city mayor is the best position in politics because they are able to implement new ideas quickly, without the gridlock that has paralyzed Washington and some state legislatures. As a result, they said, America's large cities are in the midst of a renaissance.

"Cities are where the action is," Reed said.

The relationship with the nation's capital is dramatically different than it was in the 1960s, when cities appealed for help and federal money flowed freely, they said. Emanuel called Washington "totally AWOL" and "a bit of Disneyland on the Potomac." Garcetti said it is now cities that are saving America, not the other way around.

"We know there is not a cavalry coming right now from Washington," de Blasio said. "Now it's what can we generate ourselves."

They discussed several common challenges: struggling schools, ballooning public pension payments, income inequality and aging infrastructure.

They also talked about solutions. De Blasio made multiple references to his proposal to offer full-day prekindergarten to every child in New York. Reed discussed sitting down with unions and civic officials and pressing them to "do some math" to help solve Atlanta's pension problem. And Emanuel and Garcetti spoke about science and technology education programs and opportunities for summer learning.

They also agreed with Reed's suggestion that federal funds should be distributed directly to cities, rather than through state governments. Reed, who was a visiting fellow at the Institute of Politics this week, said that system would allow the money to be put to use more quickly and where it's needed most. He also said city leaders are more accountable to voters.

The forum was moderated by David Axelrod, a former senior adviser to President Barack Obama who now runs the Institute of Politics.

Despite the seriousness of the issues discussed, the tone at Thursday's event was collegial and lighthearted, with each mayor doing his best to elicit laughs from the several hundred people in the audience.

Reed joked about being younger than the other mayors on the stage. Garcetti, getting in a plug for Los Angeles' mild weather, joked that he touched Chicago's snow -- which he said hurt -- and wasn't sure what it was.

"It's water," Emanuel deadpanned in a reference to California's drought. "We'll sell it to you at a big price."

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