Kriston Capps is a staff writer for CityLab covering housing, architecture, and politics. He previously worked as a senior editor for Architect magazine.
Andrew Gillum’s victory shows that there’s a path from city hall to the governor’s mansion and beyond.
Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum stunned the Democratic Party last night with a come-from-behind victory in Florida’s primary election. He’d been trailing Gwen Graham, a former member of Congress, throughout the race. But with an endorsement from Senator Bernie Sanders, plus clear positions on defining issues such as expanding Medicaid under Obamacare and abolishing the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency, Gillum challenged momentum into a surge at the polls.
Now Gillum will face Republican victor Ron DeSantis in the general election on November, and it’s hard to imagine two figures further apart on issues such as single-payer health care, gun control, or bald-faced racism. As a mayor, though, Gillum brings to the conversation other issues that are more salient at the local level—retail concerns that are widespread and, in aggregate, ought to add up to a platform.
That’s why more mayors need to run for higher office, starting yesterday. The affordable housing crisis is sacking vulnerable families and sopping the middle class, while traffic gums up every city in America, taking a toll on the economy as a whole. Pocketbook issues are American issues, and the leaders with the most experience addressing them in recent years are mayors. Mayors do things—and now mayors need to do something.
Gillum, for example, came to national attention by rumbling with the National Rifle Association. He won that fight for Tallahassee, and he used that energy to launch two campaigns: the Campaign To Defend Local Solutions and his push for the governor’s mansion. The concern that he raised about Florida’s “super-preemption” law, which enables the state to override local regulations of firearms, is still an open-ended constitutional question. And while it might take a back seat to other issues in upcoming gubernatorial debates, his principled localism may inform how he operates as a governor, if he is elected.
Some mayors may be setting their sights higher in upcoming elections. Both former New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu and current Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti are among the names frequently mentioned as presidential contenders in 2020. Unlike other likely contenders—say, New Jersey Senator (and former Newark mayor) Cory Booker—neither of these city leaders is burdened with contentious voting records on things like affordable prescription drugs. Both have more direct experience grappling with the opioid crisis than just about any senator.
This is not to say that members of Congress don’t care about the issues that affect those who live in their home states and districts. Senators Orrin Hatch and Maria Cantwell have worked to expand housing tax credits that help to generate the most new affordable housing in the country. Senator Kamala Harris recently introduced legislation to create a tax credit for families that are cost burdened by their rent and utility payments. But Harris, Hatch, and the rest aren’t responsible for putting shelters up for families that fall into homelessness when the Senate fails to act on good intentions. That job falls to mayors.
The list of ambitious mayors in a position to swing for the fences is heavy on Democrats. America’s largest metros tend to be led by progressive mayors whose biggest contest for election is the local Democratic primary. And given that Republicans control the White House, both chambers of Congress, and gobs of governors’ mansions, it’s likely to be the left that does most of the challenging. However, the GOP is not entirely bereft of viable leaders at the local level. Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum, a Republican, is a technocrat leading on data-driven policy. Former Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett put his hat in the governor’s race, and while he lost the Republican primary last night, he at least showed how Oklahoma City could be a launchpad for higher office. And it should be! About one-sixth of Oklahoma’s population lives there.
All the most highly charged national issues make for incoherent local issues. White nationalism and xenophobia don’t track in the economically vibrant metro areas where the largest foreign-born populations live, for example, because immigrants and refugees are key to their success. Mayors know this. To be sure, it doesn’t take a mayor to know this.
But it may take a mayor to fight for the rights of cities to govern themselves. Minimum wage guarantees, environmental protections, firearms regulations, insured sick and parental leave, and smarter infrastructure investments at the local level are transforming the lives of the majority of Americans—who now live in cities. Leaders implementing those changes should carry that experience forward.