Metropolis

In Charge and Online

Meet the mayors who spend all day on Twitter.

Francis Suarez poses in front of a giant red light switch on a wall at a new development in Miami
DM me! Joe Raedle/Getty Images

A man was looking for work. A South Florida blogger worried about the impact of growth on Miami’s Black community. Someone else wanted to know how his mayor got his hair to stay that way in the Miami weather.

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Miami’s Francis Suarez had the same response for each of them, and for many, many more of his followers on Twitter: “DM me.” That is also the message pasted up on a pair of billboards in San Francisco last month, in the form of a (mock-up) tweet from the mayor: “Thinking of moving to Miami? DM me.”

Naturally, when I wanted to know how Suarez became one of local government’s Grade A Twitter users, I did just that. Suarez responded to my message in 90 minutes, with a screenshot of his spokesperson’s iPhone contacts page. The next day, the mayor and I were on the phone. That is more or less how it went with Elon Musk, whom Suarez engaged on Twitter last month about building tunnels beneath Miami.

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When I imagined the pandemic bringing local government online, I was not thinking about Twitter. But that’s where Suarez is talking software, cryptocurrency, and corporate relocation with just about anyone who wants to engage. It is a weird kind of transparency to watch the city executive field ideas and arrange meetings live on Twitter. To follow Suarez—or any of the other dozens of officials who are superusers of the platform—is to get a new kind of access to your representatives. It’s a window not to their politics, but straight into their minds, as they post, fave, follow, and reply in real time.

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Some of this may feel familiar, since we spent four years struggling to keep up with the Poster in Chief, who offered hourly insight into his thinking on virtually every topic under the sun, stoking conspiracies, scuttling deals, moving markets, and unleashing his followers from his perch in front of the television.

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But at the local level, many elected officials don’t just use Twitter as a broadcast platform—they spend a lot of time reading and replying, too. A selection of poster-mayors includes Aja Brown of Compton, California; Lindsey Horvath of West Hollywood, California; Glenn Jacobs, the pro wrestler mayor of Knox County, Tennessee; Steven Fulop of Jersey City, New Jersey; and Joseph Curtatone of Somerville, Massachusetts, who on Feb. 23 sent out nine replies saying some version of “no plan” in response to various tweets about Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker’s lagging efforts to reopen schools.

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That’s how it’s done.

In Miami, Francis Suarez had done public relations stunts before, such as giving out his cellphone number to a crowd of protesters last summer (and then sharing the video on Twitter). But before December, his approach to Twitter was typical, in that his staff sent most of the messages: press releases, ribbon cuttings, cheering on the local sports teams. Bo-ring. Then he typed out the tweet that changed it all, in response to a venture capitalist proposing to move Silicon Valley to Miami: “How can I help?”

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They were the most powerful words he ever wrote, he said afterward. Now he looks at Twitter the moment he wakes up. He’s doing 80 percent of the tweeting now. Maybe 90. “How can I help?” has become his slogan, printed on T-shirts in pink and blue, second only perhaps to “DM me.”

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“What drove me to tweet at the level and volume I’m tweeting at now?” he asked himself during our conversation. “It’s counterintuitive. Many people have negative interactions and have found social media to be a toxic place. Frankly, part of the reason I’ve been so driven is the response has been so positive.” It’s all sunshine in the Suarez feed, as the mayor vibes with startup bros and Bitcoin enthusiasts. I asked if he had ever done a bad tweet or been ratio’d. He paused. “My staff is telling me I have not been ratio’d—what’s a ratio?”

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At the municipal level, there are few more at ease on the platform than Alex Fisch, the new mayor of Culver City, California, a small city on the west side of Los Angeles. He lays out the agenda for City Council meetings in plain English. He’s quick with a quip or a dunk when the mayoring business is in the news, as it was last week when a Texas mayor told freezing constituents they were owed nothing. He’ll laugh with the rest of us about a large boulder the size of a small boulder. But he also wiles away the hours in long, branching conversations about transportation and housing, and entertains a long-running Twitter feud with John Mirisch, the former mayor and current City Council member in nearby Beverly Hills.

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On Twitter, “I’ve learned a tremendous amount in hard policy, from threads, replies, and engagement, on really complicated issues such as density bonuses, inclusionary zoning, and land use,” Fisch told me over the phone. The more he learns, the more comfortable he feels expressing his opinions. “I’ll bring out the especially spicy takes about bus lanes and housing.”

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Geoff Boeing, a professor of urban studies at the University of Southern California who admires Fisch’s approach from beyond Culver City’s borders, said he saw several reasons for his appeal. Fisch takes clear stances, engages in good faith, makes jokes, and knows when to bow out. “It’s a pretty basic formula that most successful, normal people on social media follow,” Boeing told me. “But few politicians seem willing or able to.” (You don’t see tweets like these from Democratic Sen. Jon Ossoff anymore.)

Fisch exists at the cusp of the great Twitter paradox: The better you are at it, the worse it gets, as your like-minded community is replaced with the vast, context-collapsing audience of the world. Before you know it, your dream of serving in the president’s Cabinet is deferred by your bad, old tweets. “I have yet to pay the price,” Fisch meditated. “But it is only a matter of time.”

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A counterexample may be the posting predilection of former presidential candidate Andrew Yang, who is not yet mayor of New York City but certainly commands that level of attention on Twitter. In one Twitter incident, Yang was told off by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez over a public housing proposal (it was resolved in a phone call, his campaign says); another time he asked Elon Musk if he’d be interested in making electric garbage trucks for New York.

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Still, the heart of Yang’s Twitter is not in dialogue. It’s in dashing off ideas and opinions that, while they may obsess his detractors, also serve to make Yang’s unorthodox campaign the center of attention for one more day. Compared with the canned PR of his rivals, Yang’s homemade missives are at the very least refreshing—even if, like Trump, you can’t always take his tweets as policy. (Companies need to bid for city contracts; there can be no casino on Governors Island.)

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Never tweet? Why the hell not? “You want to catalyze people,” Yang said of his feed this week when I caught up to him in the Bronx. He was citing his Get Out the Vax campaign, which is organizing young people to help older New Yorkers navigate the COVID vaccine sign-up. Yang has a professional mindset about his Twitter. “The window is 8:30 to 9 a.m. to 9 to 10 p.m.,” he said of the time he devotes to tweeting, a healthier attitude than that of many of my colleagues.

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Is that what New York needs in a mayor? Tweets don’t plow the roads or pick up the trash. It is very much the opposite approach of New York’s current executive, Bill de Blasio, whose detachment from the trending topics of the day might be charitably read as concentration on more important issues. On the other hand, the mayor seems aloof in comparison to many New York City Council members, who enjoy sparring on social media about neighborhood issues. Being terminally offline gave de Blasio cover to ignore widely shared videos of police violence last summer. It is hard to imagine Andrew Yang getting away with “I have not seen the video.” He reads the replies.

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