HUD Secretary Julián Castro appears with Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton at a "Latinos for Hillary" event in October. Darren Abate/Reuters

If Democrats are losing ground in state-level politics, perhaps it’s because all their talent would prefer to run cities.

So long as GOP presidential candidate and frontrunner Ben Carson is saying bonkers things about pyramids, Democrats have got to be feeling pretty good about their chances in 2016. Even Bernie Sanders taking a sharper turn on Hillary Clinton’s email server has nothing on Jeb Bush’s decision to target Marco Rubio.  

But such security could also be an illusion. The Democratic Party has plenty of its own problems. For one, its bench is shallow. And a reliable pool for producing liberal leaders—major U.S. cities—isn’t turning out talent that translates into higher elected office.

Over at Vox, Matthew Yglesias explains why the Democratic Party looks doomed, not blessed. While progressives may have a lock on the White House, they have no strategy for winning back the areas of government controlled by conservatives, namely at the state-government level. And that’s going to affect the kind and quality of candidates that the Democrats can put forward in the future.

The same congressional redistricting process that has made the U.S. House of Representatives a Republican stronghold has given conservatives a major advantage in state legislatures. Thanks in part to aggressive gerrymandering, the GOP now holds both the governor’s mansion and the legislature in 25 states. That means an edge in governance, period. This state-level dominance has allowed the party to curb labor unions, pursue restrictions on abortion rights, slash funding for higher education, and roll back voting rights across the nation.

“In what Democrats should take as a further bleak sign, four of the 11 states where [Democrats] control both houses of the state legislature — Maryland, New Jersey, Massachusetts, and Illinois — have a Republican governor,” Yglesias writes. “This leaves just seven states under unified Democratic Party control.”

This is not to say that the Republican Party has it easy. Newly installed Speaker of the House Paul Ryan has bigger problems than the smell of smoke left in his office by his predecessor. But Democrats are in no position to capitalize on the enormous rift within the Republican Party, thanks to the structural advantage the GOP enjoys. And the Dems have no clear plans to right the ship.  

Democrats do hold a comparative advantage in one realm, however: municipal government. Nearly all of the elected representatives of the 35 most populous U.S. cities since 2000 have been Democrats (the exceptions tend to hail from places like Jacksonville and Oklahoma City). Some of them have gone on to use their city government experience to attain higher office.

Mark Byrnes/CityLab

Today, governors of seven states have experience serving as as mayors. Three of them are Democrats: California Governor Jerry Brown, Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper, and Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy. Three more are Republicans. Alaska Governor Bill Walker switched his party affiliation from Republican to Independent before his successful campaign in 2014.

So not a ton of hizzoners taking up residence in governors’ mansions. And fewer Democrats than you might expect, given the huge advantage they enjoy in America’s most populous cities. To illustrate: Only seven of the nation’s 35 most-populous cities have elected Republicans to hold the mayor’s office at any point since 2000 (Phoenix, San Diego, Dallas, Jacksonville, Fort Worth, Oklahoma City, and New York City). There’s no doubt that local governments in major metro areas represent safe ground for progressives.

It’s less clear, though, whether mayoralties work as a talent pool for the larger Democratic Party. Over the last 15 years, just nine mayors of large cities (the 35 most populous based on 2010 U.S. Census data) have gone on to gain higher office. (More mayors from smaller cities have sought and won higher elections, of course, but if we’re looking for safe Democratic districts, it’s worth looking first at very large urban centers.)

Mary Byrnes/CityLab

Again, not a lot of mayors climbing the ladder. President Barack Obama tapped Ron Kirk, Anthony Foxx, Jerry Abramson, and Julián Castro for high-ranking positions within the administration. Castro could even be the next vice president. But most mayors who stay in politics continue to operate at the local level. Some go on to be governors. Fewer still make it to Congress or even seek seats in the U.S. House or Senate. (Tom Barrett served a stint in the U.S. House of Representatives before he became mayor of Milwaukee.) The great majority of mayors work in private practice, business, philanthropy, or the academy after leaving office.

Maybe that’s changing. Former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa appears to be making a bid for governor in California; Lieutenant Governor (and former mayor of San Francisco) Gavin Newsom is definitely running. Former Nashville Mayor Karl Dean is mulling a gubernatorial campaign in Tennessee. Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop, Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, and West Lafayette Mayor John Dennis (a moderate Republican in a densely populated Indiana college town) are all likely running for governor.

Meanwhile, Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke and Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan both spend a lot of time denying that they plan to run for governorships in their respective states. Syracuse Mayor Stephanie Miner certainly sounds like someone who aims to unseat New York Governor Andrew Cuomo. And I suspect that New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu has as much swing as anybody in Louisiana politics.

There are other routes to office for Democratic mayors. Columbus Mayor Michael B. Coleman is reported to be weighing a Senate bid, for example. Baton Rouge Mayor Kip Holden is likely going to run for lieutenant governor of Louisiana. In Massachusetts, two former mayors of Springfield—Mary Hurley and Mike Albano—are running for one seat on the Governor’s Council.

Now, there’s reason to believe that serving as mayor of even a large metro area is not necessarily a launching pad for statewide office. Raising money from local business interests to fund relatively small campaigns for local office doesn’t necessarily add up to the base of support that a governor needs. Most governors don’t get their start as mayors, after all.

But if it’s true that mayors are stepping up, one reason may be that their roles are growing more prominent and their profiles more visible as a result. There exists now an entire literature on how being a mayor is just a better gig these days than being a governor or a member of Congress. Mayors actually get to do interesting things, every day. They can put real changes in place in ways that their colleagues at the federal or state level no longer seem able to do.

And so of course, some mayors may choose not to be governors because they’d just rather be mayors. Effective city leaders may not want those other jobs. City leaders can do things like, say, change the minimum wage for workers (another Democratic priority) in a way that state leaders can’t or won’t. Mayors may not rush to trade the chance to lead for the chance to fight partisan gridlock.  

“When mayors like New York’s Michael Bloomberg institute measures to end smoking or control childhood obesity by curbing large-container soda sales, Washington can only look on in wonder—deprecating or admiring the initiatives but impotent in the face of mayors elsewhere in the world who might choose to do the same,” writes Benjamin R. Barber in If Mayors Ruled the World.

Maybe that’s why you see the legislature in North Carolina attempting to strip powers from local governments. The state government is arguably the most conservative in the nation, yet North Carolina cities are profoundly Democratic (and growing). State governments may be trending conservative for structural reasons. But the population centers are still largely concentrated in cities. That’s where mayors work, and that’s where mayors are getting things done.

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