2020 has been a horrific year for just about everyone. But in the immortal words of Lyndon Baines Johnson, “things could be worse – I could be a mayor”.
The overlapping crises of the past eight months have fallen squarely in the laps of US city executives. The Covid-19 pandemic, its attendant economic crisis, police violence and the backlash to it have played out most dramatically on the streets of the urban US. Natural disasters have rocked cities, from hurricanes in the East to wildfires out West. Looming in the background has been President Donald Trump doing little to ease – and much to inflame – the situation.
“This has been a really horrible year for anybody in an executive position in city politics,” says Annise Parker, the former mayor of Houston. “It is rare to have so many problems, one right after the other, that affect cities. In a lot of ways, it’s the hardest job in America right now.”
Next year, many major cities – including New York, Cleveland, Boston, Atlanta, Minneapolis, Detroit, San Antonio and Seattle – will hold elections for that very job, and there’s no reason to think the near future will be any kinder to the victors. If Republicans hold the Senate, cities may not get much-needed aid from the federal government. Local leaders will likely be forced to make deep, painful cuts to budgets and services. The pandemic will still be here, as will the urgent need to address police violence and racial injustice.
So do ambitious candidates even want the job anymore? Some US political observers took it as a bad sign when New York City Council President Corey Johnson, a well-respected and popular politician, declared in September that he would no longer run to succeed mayor Bill de Blasio next year.
“I am worried that we’re facing a tragic situation,” says Mason Williams, professor of leadership studies and political science at Williams College. “Really good political leadership is most valuable at moments like this. But if you’re a rising star, taking responsibility for a city in the next few years is probably the last thing on your agenda. Nobody would really covet Bill de Blasio’s position this year.”
Municipal politics have been championed in recent years as the realm of good governance and meaningful public policy. It’s also one of the few venues left for implementing progressive ideas and has been viewed on the left as a proving ground for higher office – the narrative of the competent progressive mayor even fed a handful of presidential campaigns in the 2020 Democratic primary. But the nightmares of this year have shattered whatever illusions remained after years of actual governance tarnished those progressive dreams. (Remember, even de Blasio was hailed as a liberal lion when he was first elected.)
Mayors have a complicated reputation in US politics as the leaders of one of the weakest forms of government in the country and one that is the closest to the people. There is little research about what, exactly, inspires people to run to be a municipal executive or how these races are set apart from other kinds of elections. But it is clear that for the ambitious, the position is something of a mixed bag.
Only three people who served as mayors have succeeded in becoming president in US history: Grover Cleveland, Calvin Coolidge and Andrew Johnson. But that poor track record is not for lack of trying. Pretty much every mayor of New York City in the past 100 years has seriously considered auditioning for the job. In many states, especially racially divided ones, the big cities are judged harshly by rural- and white-dominated legislatures and electorates. Being mayor of Cleveland or Detroit is not a strong launching pad to higher office.
Mayors who governed through the last once-in-a-generation crisis (a mere decade ago) believe that the long past eight months are sure to shape the 2021 mayoral races.
When Michael Nutter was elected mayor of Philadelphia in 2007, he rode into office as a reformer, with plans to reinvigorate the municipal bureaucracy and update ossified systems of zoning and tax collection. But less than a year into his term, the financial crisis of 2008 fell upon the city.
Nutter well remembers the moment history caught up with him. It came at the end of what had been a great week. On 29 October. 2008, the Phillies won the World Series. Two days later, the city threw a parade that flooded the streets of downtown with ebullient celebrations. Four days after that, Barack Obama became president, launching the second round of citywide partying. Then, 48 hours later, Nutter announced a $1.4bn budget deficit over the next five years.
“People were like, ‘You’re a fucking asshole. What a buzzkill,’” Nutter says. “It was painful. We pretty much figured out a way to piss off everybody in the city. That takes a lot of skill.”
After years of bruising budget battles, which severely punctured Nutter’s popularity, he faced re-election in 2011 and won easily. He says he thinks a lot of the candidates who posed a serious threat looked at the state of the city in 2011 – “Things were still pretty fucked up” – and decided that even though he was beatable, running for the job at that point was not worth it.
The situation facing US cities today is probably worse than in 2011, and Nutter says he believes many potential candidates will make the same choice.
“Some people will look at this whole scenario and say, ‘Why would I put myself through that?’” he says. “On the other hand, there will be other people who run toward the fire. There are people who run into danger because they want to serve.”
Many of the political insiders interviewed for this article said they believe that the daunting circumstances facing city government will scare off neophytes, the kind of candidates who enter politics believing they can single-handedly bring change to what they perceive as a sclerotic system. People who are unfamiliar with the inner workings of City Hall are more likely to wait for a more advantageous moment to run. Flashy outsiders may decide the job won’t be much fun: more budget cuts, fewer ribbon cuttings.
“When your schools become soup kitchens, you need a mayor and a city government that can deliver basic services,” says Martha McKenna, a media consultant in Baltimore who works with candidates in many big Northeastern cities. “It’s less about big, inspirational leaders.”
The big question looming over 2021 is whether any federal aid will be delivered to state and city governments. The CARES Act helped stanch the worst economic pain of the pandemic in the spring and summer, but it offered only severely attenuated aid to state, local and tribal governments. Ever since, municipal politicians have been warning that City Hall could become a disaster zone in the next budget cycle as sales and income taxes plummet, commercial property valuations are challenged and the cost of services skyrockets.
Republican politicians have not listened, however, preferring to blame the alleged profligacy of “blue state” politicians despite the fact that the pain will fall on all municipalities, regardless of their partisan persuasion. After the split decision of the 2020 race, with Joe Biden winning the presidency but Republicans seeming to hold the Senate (pending the Georgia races in January), it seems that the GOP will again hold veto over state and local aid. And it does not seem to be in a reasonable mood.
The consequences of inaction will be dire, seasoned local-government hands warn.
“This is a very dangerous moment for anybody getting into a major municipal office and not really understanding how cities work,” says Dennis Kucinich, who served as mayor of Cleveland in the late 1970s and later as a congressional representative for the area for 16 years. “I don’t expect that there will be a dearth of candidates in municipal elections. But it’s the old saw that you better be careful what you ask for.”
Kucinich says he’s been taking a break from politics because the partisan animosity has become too intense. But the city where he started his career as a 23-year-old council member in 1969 is having a mayoral race next year, and there’s the question of whether the incumbent (who has served for 16 years) will run again. Although Kucinich insists he’s not a candidate, he does say people have approached him about running. Both the primary and the general election take place in the fall of 2021.
For Parker, who shepherded Houston through the worst of the fallout from the Great Recession, the issues facing mayors today are not just all the world-historic catastrophes that will land in their lap. There is also a toxic media environment that makes campaigning even harder. (Notably, Michael Tubbs, the star mayor of Stockton, California, is in a tight re-election fight with a challenger after a social media user with a large platform targeted him with repeat and unverified stories of corruption.)
Parker runs the LGBTQ Victory Fund, a political action committee, and she spoke with NYC Council President Johnson about his decision not to run.
“It’s less about the job itself and more about the meat grinder that you have to go through to get there,” says Parker. “Politics is a blood sport. But in the modern age of social media, there is no privacy, there is no safety. I don’t know a high-level woman candidate who hasn’t been insulted in multiple ways on social media and threatened with rape. Death threats are common.”
There are still plenty of people left in the New York mayor’s race and no doubt in next year’s other municipal elections, as well. Seasoned observers will be keeping an eye on whether incumbents run again, whether they lose if they do and whether those from outside the political realm decide to try for the gig in a year that promises to be (almost) as brutal as 2020.
“I think I can boldly pronounce that someone will be running for mayor of New York,” Nutter says. “The ballot will not be blank.”