Mayor Who?

America hasn’t picked someone who’s led a city to lead the country since Calvin Coolidge. Could that change in 2020?

Pete Buttigieg
South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg is seen speaking in his city during a campaign event on April 14. Jeremy Hogan/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

A few weeks ago, I watched Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti give what sounded awfully close to a stump speech at a luncheon in New York. He started with the usual spiel about mayoral aptitude—bipartisanship, innovation, infrastructure, getting things done—and went on to discuss his own heritage, green jobs, climate change, immigration, the Hyperloop, pesticides, inequality, and Americans “feeling left behind.” He capped it all with a gender-neutral patriotic paraphrase of the poet Robert Browning: “A person’s reach should always exceed their grasp—or what is America for?”

To which, once the rapturous applause had died down, his interlocutor responded, “You just articulated why you should be running for president.”

No one is asking for another Democratic candidate for president. Still, Garcetti has long been considered the man who might finally reconcile the gap between American mayors’ high sense of self-worth and their dismal record seeking higher office.

It is one of the most beguiling statistics in U.S. politics: No one with mayoral experience has become president since Calvin Coolidge, who was briefly mayor of Northampton, Massachusetts, and only two others preceded him: Grover Cleveland, who was mayor of Buffalo, New York, and Andrew Johnson, who was mayor of Greeneville, Tennessee, for two years in the 1830s.

Garcetti says he’s not jumping into the 2020 primary, but his peers are: South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg is currently sitting at third in the polls. New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, former mayor of Newark, is running. So is Julián Castro, who was mayor of San Antonio before he became President Barack Obama’s secretary of housing and urban development. And former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, who was mayor of Denver. And Sen. Bernie Sanders, who got his start in politics as mayor of Burlington, Vermont. And then there is New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, who may not be officially running yet but whose dogged, fruitless pursuit of national popularity is proof, in its own way, of mayoral tenaciousness, bravery, and idealism.

At first glance, being the executive of an American city seems like a fine job from which to launch a greater political career. In reality, very few representatives, senators, or Cabinet officials have come through local politics. Why haven’t mayors broken through? Does the fact that so many are running this time around mean something’s changed?

One obvious answer to the first question is that the sphere mayors operate in is largely subservient to state and federal government. Power resides with state and federal officials, who tend to take credit and deflect responsibility when it comes to urban affairs. A governor might score points for a tax cut, for example, but leave it to a mayor to figure out how to maintain after-school programs with less revenue. De Blasio, in particular, has been a victim of this dynamic, big-footed and blamed by New York’s powerful governor, Andrew Cuomo, on matters as small as animal rescue and as big as education. “Things could be worse,” President Lyndon Johnson quipped during a difficult moment in the Oval Office, “I could be a mayor.”

That structure puts mayors on the outside track for higher office but, more importantly, reinforces the fact that they have little say on big issues. “Mayors have way less power than you think,” says Richard Schragger, the author of City Power. “In Charlottesville, the mayor couldn’t control guns, couldn’t take down Confederate monuments, couldn’t control the minimum wage, couldn’t adopt inclusionary housing ordinances.” In many cases, even basic local policymaking has been co-opted by statehouses dominated by conservative, anti-urban interests. Which, of course, is as much a problem for us as for mayors: America’s rural-dominated government—which gives eight senators to Wyoming, Vermont, and the Dakotas (total population 2.8 million) and two to California (population 39.6 million)—gives little thought to metropolitan issues like homelessness or public transportation.

After two terms in South Bend, Buttigieg could be an example of the shortfalls of running for higher office on a mayoral record. For one thing, voters probably won’t care how a mayor picked up snow or rebuilt the waste-to-energy plant, even as reporters home in on the more controversial aspects of a tenure, like Buttigieg’s dismissal of a black police chief and his efforts to enforce building code violations in communities of color.

For another, the kind of coalition building and compromise that’s required to run a city may look unattractive, particularly in the base-driven primaries, compared with candidates who have hewed to neat ideological lines in the legislature. Michael Bloomberg finally seems to have realized his moderate vibe makes him a bad fit for the Democratic electorate. And as Rudy Giuliani worked his way into the GOP mainstream, particularly during a primary run for president in 2012, he strayed so far from his centrist reputation that in 2018 he was booed at a Yankees game—a rebuke that would have been unthinkable a decade earlier. (This challenge of getting through primaries on pragmatism has also applied to governors, though their issues are more relevant during a presidential campaign.) A record of getting things done just might not be that appealing.

For a third, most Americans have long associated city politics with corruption or graft, first that of the white urban machines—think the Daleys—and later that of black leaders like Detroit’s Coleman Young and Washington, D.C.’s Marion Barry. Add to that the greater crisis of disinvestment, crime, and poverty that afflicted so many U.S. cities in the second half of the 20th century. Add to that, perhaps most importantly, the indelible association in the white mind of the American city with black power and racial conflict. Perhaps it is no surprise that for so long no one thought of city hall as a building block in a national platform.

But maybe that’s changing. Mayoring is not just about picking up garbage and clearing snow anymore: Some mayors have advanced complex, progressive social agendas, like de Blasio’s success in providing prekindergarten to 70,000 kids. Others, like Garcetti, can lay claim to ambitious infrastructure initiatives—Los Angeles County is setting aside $120 billion to fund regional transportation, including highways and rail projects. Still others have led the way on issues that have newfound national resonance, like climate change, housing, and racial justice. And virtually every big-city mayor has been loud and clear about his support for immigrants and opposition to federal immigration policy, with many maintaining so-called sanctuary cities in open defiance of federal law enforcement.

The reputation of the American city isn’t what it used to be. The country’s drug problem, once a symbol of urban dysfunction, is mostly white and rural now. Despite President Donald Trump’s repeated invocation of Chicago’s gun violence, urban politics is just as likely to signify class, power, and money. That’s certainly true of cities where gentrification and displacement have upended black and Latino neighborhoods and created new emblems of urbanity for public consumption.

But it’s also true of places like Milwaukee, as the political scientist Katherine Cramer has shown, despite the fact that urban poverty remains endemic. Even a mayor of a depressed, post-industrial city is just as likely to be associated with condos and bike lanes as with unemployment or racial strife—or sometimes, as in Buttigieg’s case, with both. The truth is, many mayors are presiding over downtown revitalization and neighborhood poverty at the same time. But to a visitor, things look good: Auto theft is down, condos are up.

Most importantly, the Democratic Party is not what it used to be: The urban-rural divide is real, and more than ever, Democratic votes are to be found in the country’s cities and suburbs. There are fewer rural Democrats than at any time in history. The party is less white than ever before. The consequences of those shifts are emerging in policy discussions—for example, in Sens. Booker, Kamala Harris, and Elizabeth Warren emphasizing housing policy, or in the expectation that all Democratic candidates will answer questions about policing. We may not get a president who ran one of the country’s cities, but at least, for a change, we’ll get to talk about them.