Sarah Holder is a staff writer at CityLab covering local policy, housing, labor, and technology.
Touting the virtues of city-level government, mayors from across the country may be throwing their hats into the 2020 election ring—and no wonder.
Fresh off 48 hours of negotiations that brought an end to a six-day teachers strike in the largest school district in California, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti had a message for Washington.
Garcetti, who spoke at the winter convention of the U.S. Conference of Mayors in D.C. on Thursday, said that he pulled his first all-nighter on the job since his election in 2013 after he stepped in to mediate the strike. The lesson he learned about compromise, he said, is one that leaders in Washington—which was then in the final throes of a partial government shutdown—could take to heart. “I did what mayors do: We see a problem, and we jump in and solve it,” he said.
Garcetti’s remarks came after receiving an award for addressing childhood obesity in L.A., but it would be easy to mistake his comments for a stump speech. The Los Angeles mayor has not declared any intention to run for the White House in 2020: He has repeatedly said of a potential presidential bid only “stay tuned.” People in the audience certainly connected the dots.
“Think about this: Washington is on day what of a government shutdown? Eric Garcetti had a strike, it was over in six days. End of story,” Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel told CityLab in an interview before his own address. “We have dysfunction versus function; no progress versus results. And I think that’s what a mayor offers.”
Emmanuel, a former White House chief of staff, also reiterated that he would not be making his own bid for the Oval Office in 2020, despite earlier rumors to the contrary. But plenty of other municipal leaders are. The mayor of South Bend is running. The former mayor of San Antonio is running. And current and former mayors of Denver, New Orleans, and other cities may soon be running, too: Expect as many as seven current and former mayors to make a decision one way or the other in the coming weeks.
For the first time in a long time—maybe since 1812, when Mayor DeWitt Clinton of New York City unsuccessfully sought the presidency—mayors are running for the White House specifically on the strength of their records as mayors.
Nearly two years out from the 2020 presidential election, the Democratic field is already getting crowded: Nine candidates have declared so far, and some 20 other figures are on the fence. Many of them hail from a national political realm characterized by tribal war and gridlock. In this environment, an established record as a leader of a growing, economically vital city may distinguish a mayor as more than a dark horse.
“I’m not quite at that point of announcing I’m going to run for president of this country,” said John Hickenlooper, who served as a popular mayor of Denver between 2003 and 2011 before his two terms as Colorado’s governor. “But I do think that having been a mayor provides wonderful training and experience of finding ways to bring people together and achieving goals and accomplishments through that unity.”
A record number of mayors past and present made it to Washington for the winter conference this week, with the backdrop of the partial government shutdown serving as a powerful metaphor. “Mayors could never get away with closing the government,” said former New York City mayor (and possible White House aspirant) Michael Bloomberg.
While some of the 2020 Democratic primary candidates have federal-level experience, they may point to their mayoral experience on the trail. Julián Castro, the former secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development during the Obama administration, served as mayor of San Antonio between 2009 and 2014—a period when the city saw tremendous growth even as much of the rest of the nation sputtered into recovery. The “Texas Miracle” aside, Castro’s experience leading the city with the nation’s largest share of Latinx residents (64 percent) will no doubt come up in a campaign that will aim to energize these voters. (Castro could not be reached for comment before press time.)
“Being a mayor is the hardest job in America,” Cory Booker, former mayor of Newark and current senator of New Jersey, told CityLab. “You have to compromise, you have to bring people together and build consensus. Some of the best innovation in government going on right now is going on in the cities.”
Booker talked about his work as mayor in launching the Newark Veterans Court, which helps to connect veterans charged within the city to benefits and resources at the state and federal level, including counseling and treatment for substance abuse. Mayors manage budgets of hundreds of millions or even billions of dollars, Booker, said, and the results are often immediately apparent to voters.
Garcetti, meanwhile, highlighted Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley’s success in cutting opioid deaths in half, as well as the work of Mayor Jamael Tito Brown in Youngstown, Ohio, who has been pushing to make the city a hub for innovation in 3-D manufacturing to help fill the gaps that General Motors’ retreat opened.
“It’s wonderful that Democrats are going to have such a vibrant level of choice as having people coming from the Senate, governors, and mayors,” said Booker (who declined to say whether he would be one of them).
Recent presidential elections have also included candidates who were mayors. Before he was the governor of Maryland, 2016 contender Martin O’Malley was the two-term mayor of Baltimore; Vermont Senator and potential 2020 candidate Bernie Sanders served as the mayor of Burlington for eight years. But O’Malley didn’t lean heavily on his tenure in Baltimore’s City Hall during the race, and Sanders rarely even mentioned his experience as hizzoner in the 1980s. The only presidential candidate to ran on his city hall record recently, Rudy Giuliani, found his way into the White House by a different road.
Only three times in U.S. history has a president ever graced the office of mayor during his rise to power: Andrew Johnson (mayor of Greeneville, Tennessee), Grover Cleveland (mayor of Buffalo, New York) and Calvin Coolidge (mayor of Northampton, Massachusetts).
The knock is usually experience. What do local leaders, buried in the pothole-filling minutiae of municipal governance, know about D.C. dealmaking, national policy, or international diplomacy? Already, Buttigieg has faced similar critiques. Unlike Bloomberg, Garcetti, and Landrieu, who have experience guiding large and influential cities, the 37-year-old South Bend mayor commands a constituency that hovers around 100,000 people, and he has not yet faced large-scale crises.
Still, Buttigieg, an Afghanistan veteran who would be the country’s first openly gay president (not to mention its youngest), says that the ”immediacy and backyard accountability” of even small-town mayorship bolsters any presidential bid. “The bottom line is we’ve got to deliver safe drinking water, pick up the trash, and also figure out an economic future for our communities,” he told CityLab.
Others mayors note that city-level politics can provide an antidote to the partisan ferocity that’s seized the federal government. That’s partly due to the Democratic lock on the electorate in most major cities. But the big tent of the Democratic Party contains multitudes of views on issues such as education and criminal justice, and the primary may pivot on candidates’ stances on charter schools or cannabis legalization. If you listen to cable news, Garcetti said, “we hear we’re red states and blue states, rural and urban, immigrant and non-immigrant. Those of us who live in and govern in cities know that that’s patently false.”
As far as the experience issue goes, the Trump era might have changed the threshold for entering the race, many mayors say. “I don’t think it’s about the resume that fits into somebody’s pre-conceived notions,” said Garcetti, who leads a city of four million, in a press conference. Besides, he says, running America’s largest cities also means running America’s largest industries. “International trade? I know, because we run the largest port in the Americas,” he said. “Want to talk about energy policy? The largest municipal utility in this country is run by our city.”
As the public loses confidence in federal and even state-level governments, voters trust local governments to pick up the slack. In 2016, a Gallup poll showed Americans’ confidence in local governments at 71 percent to state governments’ 62 percent. In the past several decades, that trust has only increased.
“Mayors are on the ground; they’re boots on the ground,” Latoya Cantrell, the current mayor of New Orleans, told CityLab. “I came from community organizing, then I was elected to city council, now I’m mayor. That has an impact on how I lead and serve the citizens of New Orleans. I’m in no way removed from what they’re dealing with on the ground. That seems to be the greatest need for citizens in this country—to feel like they matter. Right now they don’t.”
And, as Buttigieg observed, mayors typically have to practice a more civil and practical style of governance—something Americans of all political persuasions may be hungry for. “Before you really let someone have it or destroy their character, you have to remember you might run into them in your community,” he told CityLab. “I’d like to believe that mayors are more likely to approach politics with the right kind of tone.”
In the most populous metro areas, big policy shifts have national implications almost by default. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio is rolling out progressive initiatives, including affordable healthcare for all (including undocumented immigrants). Earlier this month, he wrote an op-ed telling the Democratic Party to get with the progressive program. It might not have helped DeWitt Clinton in his race against incumbent President James Madison, but today the office of New York City mayor is such a viable national platform that two people who have held the office may launch a bid for 2020.
Even if Garcetti decides not to run in 2020, he said he hopes to see a Democratic stage filled with mayors and former mayors. He also fantasizes about a future president filling their cabinet with mayors in every top slot. Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan would be a qualified attorney general, he said. Michael Bloomberg could serve in the Treasury.
“We did see some skepticism about a mayor going straight into the national arena,” Buttigieg acknowledged to the crowd Thursday afternoon. “Some people even said, you have to run for Congress first.” The room erupted in laughter.
“I mean no disrespect to the United States Congress, but that is a very different job,” he said. “And I would argue that our country right now would be a better place if Congress looked more like the community of American mayors, and not the other way around.”