NEW YORK — Seated under the crystal chandeliers in the ornate ballroom of New York’s official residence Monday, Mayor Rahm Emanuel related the story of a poor, single mother from Pilsen who chose to put off getting a job after discovering she couldn’t afford several hours of child care after kindergarten let out for the day.

“That lack of early education, early on in kindergarten, let alone the low pay of a minimum-wage job, shortchanged not just a child, but a mother who wanted to work and said, ‘I want to be an example to my child,’” Emanuel told about three dozen big-city mayors behind closed doors during a U.S. Conference of Mayors meeting on economic inequality. “Work is more than a paycheck, it's a value system we're all defined by.”

For Emanuel, the summit provided a politician known for insider deal-making and hewing to a centrist political strategy the chance to appear with New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, the latest symbol of a re-emerging progressive wing as a factor in Democratic politics.

Chicago’s mayor got another national stage to tout his push for an increased minimum wage and expanded earlier educational opportunities as he works to gain the support of liberals whom he has often viscerally disdained. That it came just six months before Emanuel will ask Chicago voters to give him a second term was not lost on his potential opponents.

“The problem is, he doesn’t have a progressive record,” said Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis, who is exploring a run against Emanuel. “My question is, why did it take you three and a half years to discover universal pre-K? Why did it take you three and a half years to discover a minimum wage? Because you were busy doing what? Closing schools, demoralizing the police department and creating a mess. That’s his real record.”

Emanuel, however, said his trip to New York wasn’t about his own political jockeying, but about a focus on issues he said were in concert with “everything I’ve done my whole life.”

Historically, the Emanuel administration has not told the public of the mayor’s frequent out-of-state trips until he’s on the ground a time zone or two away. This time, the mayor’s top aides sought to showcase their boss’ New York appearance, offering advanced notice to two Chicago reporters and inviting them to attend the event.

With Gracie Mansion’s marble fireplaces, sky blue walls and towering white columns as the backdrop, Emanuel stressed the importance of both issues as he led a working session with his fellow mayors on increasing the minimum wage.

Last month, Emanuel endorsed a plan to raise Chicago’s minimum wage to $13 an hour from the current $8.25 by 2018. But the mayor also said the City Council would not take action until the state legislature considers increasing the statewide minimum wage after the November election.

The timing offers some wiggle room to Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn and U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, who are campaigning for re-election this fall on hiking the minimum wage to at least $10 an hour. Emanuel won’t say whether he’ll still pursue the $13 an hour rate in the city if state lawmakers go with $10.

“I’m not going to answer hypotheticals at this point,” the mayor told the Tribune. “If the state acts, I’ll bring the (city) task force back together and see what we want to do.”

Emanuel’s embracing of the minimum wage issue got him a glowing introduction from de Blasio at a news conference Monday.

“He didn’t come into office at an easy time in Chicago, but as is typical of Rahm, he turned things around with a focus and an energy that became irresistible, and he’s making change happen,” New York’s mayor said. “What he’s doing with early childhood education, what he’s doing to address wages is extraordinary and one of the inspirational parts of today’s meeting.”

De Blasio campaigned last year on a so-called millionaire’s tax to pay for universal pre-K for all children and for New York City’s right to have its own, higher minimum wage than the rest of the state. He won the funding for universal pre-K — though not from the tax he proposed — but so far has been rebuffed on raising wages.

Emanuel’s talk of offering universal pre-K and increasing the minimum wage has come more recently.
Two weeks ago, Emanuel said he planned to provide pre-K for 1,500 four year olds who live below or at the poverty level and don’t have access to at least a half-day of learning. The proposal is not universal — it would not serve all of the city’s four year olds — and Emanuel clarified Monday that he’s calling it “universal pre-K for all kids at poverty.”

The mayor hasn’t said how much such a program would cost or how he’d pay for it, just that he’d directed his staff to make that determination.

While increasing the minimum wage and expanding early childhood learning are viewed as progressive issues, Emanuel’s critics point to a record that reflects more of a pragmatist willing to cut the necessary deals to move legislation forward.

As a senior adviser to President Clinton in the 1990s, Emanuel was a leading architect of the North American Free Trade Agreement, a pact the nation’s labor unions still despise. Emanuel was instrumental in passing an assault weapons ban, but also urged Clinton to take an aggressive approach on deporting illegal immigrants and later drew the ire of Latino congressmen by calling immigration reform “the third rail of American politics.”

As President Barack Obama’s chief of staff, Emanuel lobbied for a less ambitious version of the Affordable Care Act.

“When you look at his career, I believe it shows that the mayor really doesn’t have any political philosophy,” said 2nd Ward Ald. Robert Fioretti, who also is contemplating a run against Emanuel. “He will do what’s right for him and his election in any point in time instead of leading the people of this city.”

In an interview, Emanuel argued he’s not altering his political philosophy or pandering to a certain portion of the electorate. The mayor insisted his work on the minimum wage is “consistent with everything I’ve done my whole life in public life as a congressman and as a presidential aide.”

Emanuel highlighted his push for full-day kindergarten as evidence his passion for early childhood education isn’t just tied to the election season.

“My goal is not to address the skeptics, but to address the opportunity for the people,” Emanuel said. “My first budget we worked on 7,000 more kids in kindergarten. Then we went universal last year. That wasn’t any particular season. My question to everyone else is, why wasn’t Chicago doing this?’”

Lewis and Fioretti, the mayor’s potential opponents next year, suggested that with more than $8 million in his campaign war chest, much of it from wealthy business executives, it should be clear to voters that Emanuel isn’t in stride with the city’s progressives.

“He’s trying to throw on this progressive cloak, but we know what he is underneath: He’s part of that banking, Wall Street industry that’s caused a lot of the problems we face in this country. He has the name ‘Mayor 1 Percent’ for a reason, and he’s trying to combat that image with this stuff,” said Fioretti, who had $326,000 in his campaign fund to start July.

As Emanuel sat in a wooden chair on the back veranda of Gracie Mansion overlooking the East River, he suggested that the election in late February is a distant distraction, something he is not considering at the moment.

The mayor said he doesn’t subscribe to single terms like progressive or moderate to sum up his approach to leading Chicago, describing his political philosophy in five words: “Does it move us forward?”

“I think trying to splice and dice where something is on the ideological spectrum is missing the point,” Emanuel said. “The real question is are we doing what we need to do to give the people of the city of Chicago, individuals, the ticket they need into the middle class? I’m not worried about what label it is, I’m worried about whether it moves them forward.”

bruthhart@tribune.com
Twitter @BillRuthhart