Linda Poon is an assistant editor at CityLab covering science and urban technology, including smart cities and climate change. She previously covered global health and development for NPR’s Goats and Soda blog.
The midterm elections saw a handful of mayors and city councillors win seats in Congress and statewide offices.
After leading Phoenix for more than six years as mayor, Democrat Greg Stanton is headed to Washington, D.C. He’ll serve as a newly elected member to the U.S. House of Representatives for Arizona’s 9th Congressional District.
Stanton is one of the many city leaders who eyed higher positions in the 2018 midterm elections, and one of a small handful who actually won. Other mayors who are likely to join him in Congress include Knox County, Tennessee, Mayor Tim Burchett, a Republican elected to his state’s 2nd Congressional District; and current Salt Lake City Mayor Ben McAdams, a Democrat who is currently leading GOP incumbent Mia Love in Utah’s 4th Congressional District. (Stanton and Burchett both stepped down as mayor earlier this year to run for Congress.)
Meanwhile, other city leaders sought higher office at the statewide level. As Governing reported, it was rare a decade ago for mayors to run for governors’ offices—and even rarer for them to win. That’s thanks in part to the urban-rural divide, which can make it difficult for leaders in more liberal urban areas to garner votes in their states’ more conservative rural areas. Then there’s the fact that many simply find the idea unappealing. In a recent survey of 94 U.S. mayors, several reported a disinterest in legislative work and a feeling that state governments were too dysfunctional and ineffective for their liking. Black and female mayors in particular were the least interested.
This year, nearly 20 current or former mayors sought federal or statewide offices. That includes Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum’s closely watched bid to become Florida’s first black governor, former Nashville Mayor Karl Dean’s attempt to become governor of Tennessee, and former Anchorage Mayor (and former U.S. Senator) Mark Begich’s run at Alaska’s governor’s mansion. Ultimately, none of those three were successful.
One such winner is Democrat John Fetterman, the current mayor of Braddock, Pennsylvania, who won his bid for lieutenant governor. And California’s Gavin Newsom is making headlines for his win for governor. He is the state’s current lieutenant governor, and he served as San Francisco’s mayor from 2004 to 2011. (In the primaries, Newsom defeated another former mayor: Antonio Villaraigosa, who led Los Angeles from 2005 to 2013.)
In some ways, the losses by the likes of Gillum and Dean suggest that the mayor’s office is a difficult stepping stone to statewide office, especially in red-leaning states. At the same time, that many mayors even ran for higher positions—many of the progressive candidates no doubt emboldened by the expectation of a “blue wave” this year—is a sign that things could be changing.
As CityLab’s Kriston Capps writes, there’s a lot that makes mayors unusually fit for higher office. They’re on the front lines of dealing with issues like climate change, transportation, welfare programs, and the economy. “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,” Capps wrote. “Pocketbook issues are American issues, and the leaders with the most experience addressing them in recent years are mayors.”
A handful of other municipal officeholders sought to move beyond their city borders this year as well. One historic win came from Ayanna Pressley, who in September defeated 10-time incumbent Representative Mark Capuano in the Democratic primaries in Massachusetts’s 7th Congressional District. Without a Republican challenger, she breezed through the general election to become the state’s first black congresswoman, nearly 10 years after she became Boston’s first black city councilwoman.
From this week’s election, at least two county commissioners are also celebrating a jump from local to state or federal offices. Steve Sisolak, who is the current chair of the Clark County commission in Nevada, will become the state’s first Democratic governor in 25 years, defeating state Attorney General Adam Laxalt. In Minnesota, St. Louis County Commissioner Pete Stauber helped Republicans flip the 8th District after defeating Democratic state representative Joe Radinovich.
While the midterm elections may just have ended, there’s already talk about the 2020 elections. And a few city leaders are already getting thrown into the rumor mill, like former New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu and L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti. Just remember: No sitting mayor has been nominated for president by a major party since 1812, and only one president had ever been mayor of a major city before making it to the White House. Is there any chance that’ll change by the next election cycle?