Anthony Williams served as the mayor of Washington, D.C. from 1999 until 2007. He’s currently the Chief Executive Officer of the Federal City Council, a nonprofit that promotes D.C. advancement.
Historically, running a city has been no help to presidential aspirants. But that might soon change.
Quick: When is the last time a sitting mayor was nominated for president by a major party?
If you said DeWitt Clinton in 1812, you nailed it. The New York City mayor lost to incumbent James Madison, becoming the first and last politician to vie for the White House directly from City Hall. Fellow New York City mayor John Lindsay tried in 1972, but bowed out early in the primaries. In 2008, another NYC mayor, Rudy Giuliani, had a similarly early exit (though his run was several years after he’d left office). In fact, the only president to have ever been a mayor of a major city, Grover Cleveland of Buffalo, was New York governor in between. (Calvin Coolidge briefly served as mayor of the town of Northampton, Massachusetts.*) Throughout American history, the road to the White House has not proceeded down an urban boulevard. Most presidents are drawn from the Senate or governorships, but today just six senators and five governors was ever a mayor.
It’s a curious phenomenon. If all politics is indeed local, you’d expect former mayors to advance to higher elective offices across the country. You’d think it would be especially true for Democratic-held offices, since the party has had a firm lock on the urban electorate for decades. But mayors tend not to move on to higher offices. For all of the talk of “city power” and “new localism” among leading urbanist thinkers, the truth is this underrepresentation hurts cities.
Trends are aligning, however, creating a clearer electoral path for mayors outside of city boundaries for the first time perhaps in American history. The political boundary between urban and suburban that has long divided the parties is falling away, creating more unified metro-area voter blocs. Cities—which had so often been liabilities for mayors seeking higher offices—have become an attractive brand of smart, solution based, can-do governance that mayors can showcase in a campaign. The answer to a fiercely anti-urban Trump is a pro-metro mayor who energizes the suburban/urban—or metro—vote. America has never been more ready for a mayor president.
The federal government is no champion of cities. There hasn’t been a major new federal urban policy program since the 1970s. HUD has the second-smallest budget of all federal departments. Ronald Reagan changed the way federal funding was dispersed so that moneys would go to state capitals rather than directly to city and local governments. States could then decide how to divvy up the cash. And many states have likewise been outright hostile to cities. Almost as a rule, state bills that would benefit cities are less likely to pass. The use of state exemption rules to nullify local policies is on the up. Missouri nixed St. Louis’s minimum wage hike. Texas promises to punish its sanctuary cities. Even deep-blue New York blocked Mayor Bloomberg’s congestion pricing scheme.
Cities have traditionally not been a viable launching pad for national politics. The Jeffersonian ideal long held sway over America—an ethos deeply committed to the noble farmers, planters, and plain folk and against the metropolitan elite. In more modern times, urban America did not have a savory political reputation either, creating a chasm-wide political divide between city and suburb. Cities were black and dangerous and broke; suburbs were white and tranquil and prosperous. Cities were poorly governed and corrupt, while suburbs were well-managed and transparent. Cities were takers and suburbs were producers. None of this added up to a recipe for a mayor’s broader political success. Attaining higher offices almost always requires a respectable showing in the suburbs, and mayors had little hope of swaying those voters.
But the forces that have politically imperiled mayors are reversing. Many mayors now have a track record of success: Most cities are vastly better than they were twenty years ago. They are safer, better governed, and in better fiscal shape. One reason Martin O’Malley’s presidential bid of 2016 floundered, perhaps, is because the city of Baltimore, where he had previously served as mayor, is still awaiting its great comeback story. But Baltimore and some Rust Belt cities are more the exception to the national trend.
The demographic line that used to divide city and suburb is blurring. Cities are becoming more white and many suburbs have diversified. They are looking more ethnically alike, and they now both face similar challenges of poverty, crime, transportation, and housing. As titular heads of their metro regions, mayors are ideally positioned to capture the metro vote and speak to these national issues.
And now we are seeing a political convergence between cities and suburbs, creating an increasingly unified voting bloc. To be sure, President Trump did win a majority of the suburban vote. But the Republican win margins have been going down. With the exception of the Rust Belt, most metros were swinging to the left in 2016. Some of the biggest blue swings were in fast-growing and heavily-minority metros in Arizona and Texas—states which themselves are trending purple because of urban growth. A mayor may be best positioned to achieve what used to be an unimaginable feat—taking California and Texas—and sealing an electoral college victory. They are among the most ethnically diverse and urban states in the union.
Mayors can also energize the metro vote. If we’ve learned anything from recent elections, it is that energizing your base and ramping up turnout delivers victories. Hillary Clinton did not inspire the metro vote to come out in full force. The Virginia state race in 2017 was decisively swayed by huge metro turnouts. Mayors could keep that enthusiasm sky-high. Americans are yearning for a new brand of national leadership that is pragmatic, action-oriented, and—as always—from outside of the Washington establishment. Mayors are exactly that. And while political machines are long dead, a good mayor is a born field organizer.
Which mayors could be future presidential contenders? Perhaps someone from the fast-growing and newer cities in the South or West—Houston, Austin, or Phoenix? Or someone who is either an ethnic minority or speaks Spanish? John Hickenlooper, former mayor of Denver and now governor of Colorado, might fit the bill. Los Angeles’s popular, ambitious, and Spanish-speaking mayor Eric Garcetti might as well. Both are considered strong early options for Democrats in 2020.
We know from the 2016 election the folly of overconfidence in predicting the course of presidential elections. And the Trump era has landed us in uncharted political territory, where even Oprah Winfrey is a legitimate contender. But this new open door to political outsiders could be an opportunity for mayors, and just what the country needs. If anyone can create a governing coalition delivering sustainable growth, inclusivity, and a respected America in a competitive world, it’s a mayor.
*CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story failed to note the mayoral career of Calvin Coolidge.