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Cash-hungry mayors glad to have Rahm Emanuel in their ranks

Updated: September 24, 2011 12:22AM

BALTIMORE — Mayor Rahm Emanuel was warmly embraced at his U.S. Conference of Mayors debut here, partly because of his celebrity, but 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 of the group.

“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 entree Emanuel brings to the White House — he was, of course, President Barack Obama’s chief of staff — and to Congress, where he was a leader 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 a rising-tide-ifts-all-boats theory.

“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.

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, for the creation of a “national infrastructure bank” to create jobs through big mass transit, road 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-Conn.) 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 bipartisan 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.

Related matters:

♦ Emanuel, tieless in tan jeans and a blazer, brought son Zach to the conference. He introduced the ninth-grader around: to Sacramento, Calif., Mayor Kevin Johnson, who played 12 years in the NBA, and Charlotte, N.C., Mayor Anthony Foxx, whose city is hosting the Democratic National Convention in 2012.

♦ Emanuel will duck a potentially controversial —but totally symbolic — vote on Monday, on a resolution asking Obama to pull troops out of Afghanistan and spend the money to create jobs. As chief of staff, Emanuel played a role in the Obama administration setting a July deadline for a gradual troop pullout. He told me he will be busy in “meetings.”

♦ Emanuel organized a session to meet Illinois mayors at the conference.

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