Mayors have had little success in becoming president, with only one big-city chief executive, Grover Cleveland of Buffalo, later governor of New York, actually making it to the White House. Yet this year’s running of the donkeys includes several: a minor-city chief executive, Pete Buttigieg of South Bend; a former big-city mayor, Cory Booker of Newark; former San Antonio mayor Julian Castro; and John Hickenlooper, formerly chief executive of Denver before becoming Colorado’s governor. They may yet be joined by New York’s Bill de Blasio. Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti considered a run but thought better of it, perhaps realizing that his city’s burgeoning homeless population and rampant inequality would dog him on the campaign trail. The other mayors’ records are not much better than Garcetti’s, but they didn’t hesitate to jump in.
Buttigieg’s record is nothing remarkable. South Bend remains plagued by racial tension and a high murder rate. Buttigieg’s big challenge, according to Slate’s woke take, is whether being gay will make up for the unfortunate reality that he is also white and male, especially given his failure to embrace “the idea of gayness as a cultural framework, formative identity, or anything more than a category of sexual and romantic behavior.”
As mayor of Newark, Cory Booker was an improvement over the corrupt Sharpe James, particularly in attracting philanthropic investment, but he left behind the same crime-ridden, impoverished municipality. Castro, as CityLab has noted, operated under a weak-mayor system, and his city’s healthy economy owed more to Texas’s free-market allure and policies of earlier mayors than to anything that he accomplished. Hickenlooper, a rare species of pragmatic Democrat, was arguably more successful than the others, but his greatest accomplishment, the expansion of Denver’s troubled transit system, has become plagued by overruns and declining ridership. In any case, Hickenlooper, the most attractive of the mayoral brood, has made no impression in the polls and seems destined to finish out the race on the sidelines.
As for the ethically challenged de Blasio, he inherited a strong economy, now adjusting down to the national average—which, to be fair, is a lot better than Los Angeles and Chicago, which rank well behind in job creation.
So why mayors for president? A popular notion says that mayors are uniquely positioned to “rule the world,” as political theorist Benjamin Barber put it. City boosters like Parag Khanna see mayors as running the vital and creative parts of the world, and thus as the natural leaders of the future. But much of this thinking misses and important qualification concerning population. Reporters frequently see big-city mayors as representatives of the vast, economically dominant metropolitan areas. But in nearly every American major metro, including even New York, the population of the core municipality is topped by that of the metro periphery. In New York, de Blasio presides over less than 45 percent of the metro-area population; in some cities, like Atlanta and Miami, the mayor governs less than one in ten regional residents. On average, little more than one-quarter of major metropolitan area residents live in the core municipalities, many in neighborhoods little different than the suburbs around them.
Contrary to what you might hear in the mainstream press, Americans are not flocking to core cities….
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Joel Kotkin is the Roger Hobbs Distinguished Fellow in Urban Studies at Chapman University and executive director of the Houston-based Center for Opportunity Urbanism. He authored The Human City: Urbanism for the rest of us, published in 2016 by Agate. He is also author of The New Class Conflict, The City: A Global History, and The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050. He is executive director of NewGeography.com and lives in Orange County, CA.