Rookie Mayors Take On Tough Challenges

It’s not a great time to be a mayor. Lousy economies, squeezed budgets, dwindling federal and state assistance -- the list goes on and on. Yet newly elected mayors across the country are coping -- some better than others.
by | May 23, 2012

I think they do have a very, very difficult time managing things,” said Andra Gillespie, associate professor of political science at Emory University in Atlanta. “Tax bases have shrunk and (some cities) had low home ownership to begin with.

Gillespie also said that many cities can’t physically expand their territory to increase the tax base, because the surrounding land is owned by other jurisdictions, also adding to the difficulties.

Education and city budgets also pose tough issues for mayors, she said, and they are intertwined. City budgets for education are shrinking along with the rest of the spending blueprint, bringing conflicts with teachers and parents. And pensions for retired city workers are often the biggest line-item for mayors to deal with, she added.

Some are arguing with unions, others are cutting pensions. Some are squabbling with teachers and parents, others are begging businesses to locate in their municipalities. All are working, by their own admission, pretty much all the time, since a mayor is one of the public officials closest to the people and the one politician citizens don’t mind calling when their trash doesn’t get picked up.

Some are looking to higher office, though they would be loathe to admit it. For some, re-election is as far ahead as they can foresee – and even that’s not a given.

GOVERNING took a look at a sampling of new mayors from across the county – well-known mayors like Chicago’s Rahm Emanuel and Atlanta’s Kasim Reed and lesser-known mayors like Vicksburg’s Paul Winfield and Providence Mayor Angel Taveras to see how they are doing. The list of sketches is not comprehensive, but it is representative of the different size cities and diverse locales across the nation.

Miami-Dade, Fla., Mayor Carlos Gimenez

Who bought all those cars and what are they doing in a surplus lot? Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez, expressed “shock, shock” at the fact that 157 Prius hybrid cars were sitting, unused in a Miami warehouse. But since he was a county commissioner at the time the surplus was first revealed in 2010 (at the time it was 103 of the vehicles). First term mayor Gimenez says he’s trying to get the vehicles out into circulation, particularly since the warranties on some of the Priuses expire soon. The Prius problems are just the latest in a string of difficulties for Gimenez, who was elected last summer. The mayor is also taking heat for what some observers say is an unfair distribution of austerity measures. While more than 20,000 Miami-Dade city government employees were forced to contribute at least 9 percent of their salary toward health insurance, eight of 13 county commissioners didn’t have to contribute anything.

Colorado Springs, Colo., Mayor Steve Bach

City councilors are complaining that Mayor Steve Bach, who was elected in April 2011, is getting about $850 a month in mileage expenses, which is more than they make as councilors. Councilors make $6,250 annually. The mayor’s salary is $96,000 and  he is getting what amounts to $10,200 in mileage, according to local news reports. The mayor uses his own car to tool around the city, thus adding up the miles. His office gave out the figures, so he’s not hiding anything. But in another example of budget austerity complicating things, it seems that now the councilors are balking at the expense as they try to keep their own expenses down. When Bach first took office as the first elected mayor of a town moving away from a city manager style of government, councilors said they wanted to be cooperative. But the mileage mogul apparently is straining relations.

Vicksburg, Miss., Mayor Paul Winfield

This mayor has some trouble outside the territory of budgets and economics. His former chief of staff, Kenya Burks, is suing him for alleged sexual harassment. Winfield says he’s innocent, but the case has captivated the Mississippi media. Burks wants Winfield’s cell phone records; Winfield’s lawyer says that’s a fishing expedition. Burks’ position was eliminated in April 2011, and she filed suit. She also has alleged that the mayor has had other adulterous affairs and says the cell phone records will prove it. He denies it and says she is a disgruntled former employee. The mess is adding to Winfield’s troubles. One of the Mississippi River casinos, which provide substantial funding for the city’s budget, has closed. The closing of Vicksburg's Grand Station Casino has left 230 employees without jobs. http://bit.ly/GXGqbV and the recession is hampering operations of the others. And the unemployment rate there has topped 10 percent.

Chicago, Ill., Mayor Rahm Emanuel

Mayor Rahm Emanuel is probably the most recognizable face among the newly elected mayors. He took office a year ago in May, and brought his famous “in-your-face” style to the job. He’s just as likely to say “screw you” as he is to say “atta boy” to city workers and other office holders, but observers think he’s getting things done and he has an approval rating far above President Barack Obama under whom he once served as chief of staff. Crain’s Chicago Business shows he has a 3-1 favorable rating among business leaders and rates around 70 percent approval by the public.  But his moves to put in a longer school day and a longer school year, while successful, met with resistance from both teachers and some parents. And the teachers union is so unhappy that Emanuel could be looking at a strike. Police, too, were jolted as he moved to put more cops on the beat and fewer behind desks. But the jury is still out on whether the technique to reduce crime is working. On the economy, Emanuel has worked hard to bring jobs to the city and he appears to be making some progress. It’s a far cry from the White House, or even Congress, where he served as a representative from Illinois. He calls it the most “immediate and intimate form of government,” as he said on PBS’ Charlie Rose Show. “I go to put a boat house on the river and there’s a hunger strike in front of my office,” he said with only a small amount of hyperbole.

Raleigh, N.C., Mayor Nancy McFarlane

McFarlane is trying to persuade her community that a plan to assign students to new schools in a redisricting move aimed at evening out school populations is hurting her efforts to attract new business to Raleigh. McFarlane, who was elected just five months ago, has little control over the school redistricting, but she is suggesting that some schools be allowed to be at 110 percent of capacity in order to assure businesses moving to the area that their employees will know where their kids will go to school before they make the decision to move. It’s yet to be seen whether her arguments will be persuasive, though school officials say they will probably make changes. McFarlane has become something of a White House darling. Her latest visit was for the Easter Egg roll this spring, but she’s already been at least one other time this year. North Carolina is probably going to be a swing state in the presidential election and McFarlane is in a position to help Obama.

Providence, R.I., Mayor Angel Taveras

While all mayors face budget issues this year, some are fighting more difficult problems than others. For example, first-term Democrat Taveras is grappling with a $20 million budget deficit and a city on the brink of bankruptcy. (His predecessor, U.S. Rep. David Cicilline, handled the fallout of the recession as well.) Just this month, he unveiled a $638.4 million budget that freezes automatic pension increases, relies on voluntary contributions from tax-exempt entities and freezes spending. His budget is a model for many cities which are running deficits, largely due to huge pension liabilities. Providence has borne the brunt of the recession, with huge job losses and a deterioration of the tax base. While the city council in Providence appears ready to back the mayor, unions are balking. The head of the firefighters union told the Boston Globe that freezing cost-of-living increases for pensioners is “dangerous” while negotiations are still ongoing. Tavares says he is ready to take the city into bankruptcy if necessary.

Jacksonville, Fla., Mayor Alvin Brown

Brown came into office in 2011, polling just fewer than 50 percent of the vote and inheriting a $58 million deficit. He started slashing the budget, beginning with his own. He took a 20 percent pay cut and said he would do without a city pension. He’s also driving his predecessor’s car. He cut city expenditures by 2.8 percent overall. He cut political appointees, the sheriff’s office and the fleet of cars the city owns. He did do some budget finagling as well,  “saving” $5.8 million by putting off for a year a study to look at how much the city would have to spend to fully fund its employee pension program. But the Democrat has balanced the budget, at least for the time being. Now, Brown is focusing on building up the downtown business area and possibly trying to attract an NBA basketball team to Jacksonville.

Baltimore, Md., Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake

Rawlings-Blake succeeded Sheila Dixon as mayor of Baltimore when Dixon resigned in February 2010 after her conviction for embezzlement. Rawlings-Blake won her own term in November 2011. But while her record by comparison is squeaky clean, the problems of Baltimore remain --- a tough economy, problem schools, loss of industry. It doesn’t help that she will need to replace Police Chief Frederick Bealefeld when he retires in August. Rawlings-Blake has attempted to address all of her challenges and is raising the profile of the city by working with the U.S. Conference of Mayors on issues such as getting healthy food into school lunches. Facing a $48 million deficit, Rawlings-Blake proposed an austerity budget for fiscal 2013, which was immediately met with fierce community opposition. But she’s sticking to it, and warning if the state of Maryland doesn’t get its budget done (it stalled amid partisan bickering in the assembly) there could be harsher cuts to come. Yet Rawlings-Blake remains popular with approval ratings in the high 60 percents. Her plan to lower property taxes, aimed at keeping families in the city, was approved by the city council, but she had to hike taxes in other areas to pay for it.

New Orleans, La., Mayor Mitch Landrieu

Elected in 2010, Landrieu followed Ray Nagin, who was term limited and whose handling of the Hurricane Katrina disaster got decidedly mixed reviews. He won with 67 percent of the vote, and was supported by blacks and whites and all socioeconomic classes. Landrieu has been a bit of a breath of fresh air for the city, which is still recovering from the catastrophe. The U.S. Justice Department, at Landrieu’s urging, investigated police corruption and issued a scathing report. Landrieu is cracking down on police corruption and walks with cops through the streets at least once a month.

Political Trivia: Both Rawlings-Blake and Landrieu are from high-profile political families. Rawlings-Blake’s father Howard “Pete” Rawlings served in the Maryland House of Delegates and Landrieu’s father, “Moon” Landrieu, also was mayor of New Orleans.

Albuquerque, N.M., Mayor Richard Berry

Berry is the first Republican to win the Albuquerque mayor’s office in many years. He was elected with only 44 percent of the vote in 2009, but has retained popularity. He recently was involved in controversy by calling for an end to the city police union’s practice of paying officers involved in fatal shootings a sum of up to $500. Critics called it a bounty system but police union officials said it was a way to help officers recover from the trauma of the shootings.  For fiscal 2013, the mayor proposed a balanced budget, helped by a better-than-expected economy. Berry is a political veteran with two terms in the state legislature.

Atlanta, Ga., Mayor Kasim Reed

Reed, a Democrat and GOVERNING Public Official of the Year, touts job creation in his city. According to a study by Arizona State University, Atlanta was behind only Houston in job growth between January 2011 and January 2012, with 3.1 percent job growth. Elected in 2008, Reed is running for a second term and is likely to be re-elected. After that, however, it remains to be seen if he would run for higher office. Observers say he’s ready, based on a number of appearances on national television shows like PBS’ Charlie Rose Show and NBC’s Meet the Press. However, he is close to President Obama and might wind up in a Democratic national administration some day.

San Francisco, Calif., Mayor Ed Lee

Lee was appointed in January 2011, to finish out former mayor Gavin Newsom’s term when Newsom became California’s lieutenant governor. A city administrator, Lee, the city’s first Asian-American mayor, at first said he wouldn’t run for a full term, but changed his mind and was elected in his own right in November 2011. He immediately faced budget problems including a $170 million deficit. He’s attacking the budget shortfall on two fronts – trying to negotiate contracts with public employee unions and trying to restructure the city’s business taxes. He is caught in the middle of the fray. Lee wants to get contracts with the unions settled and then reform business taxes. Lee's plan is to replace the business payroll tax with a gross receipts tax, which would tax businesses on funds received from the sale of goods or services.  He wants this to be “revenue neutral,” and not to raise more money. The business community is split on the issue because some, of course, will make out better than others. The unions say if they are forced into giving concessions on pay, pensions and health care, they will work against the mayor’s tax proposal.  The unions want business taxes to increase, rather than worker’s benefits to go down. It will take very delicate negotiations to thread this budget needle.

Oakland, Calif., Mayor Jean Quan

Quan weathered a recall petition drive when organizers failed to get enough signatures, but she’s still in hot water with her community. The first Asian-American female mayor of Oakland, she cracked down hard on the Occupy movement last fall and drew scorn for being too tough – particularly since she was out of town at the time and praised the police and other officials for their “calm” handling of the situation. Only later did she learn the crowds were dispersed with tear gas, flash-bang bombs and rubber bullets. Since then her approval rating has plummeted to only 28 percent according to a KPIX poll. Her police chief resigned for reasons unrelated to the Occupy incident and her long-time friend Dan Siegal resigned from his post as the city’s “unpaid legal adviser” after repeated clashes with police over strategies to reduce the city’s crime. Quan came into office on an anti-crime platform, but the controversies have undermined her ability to act.

Denver, Colo., Mayor Michael Hancock

When it comes to dealing with issues such as the Occupy movement and people camping in Denver’s parks, Hancock brings something of a different perspective to the issue – he was homeless as a child. Growing up in poverty (he and his twin sister were the youngest of 10 children who were raised by a single mother after she divorced his alcoholic father ), Hancock became an urban planner. He was elected to the city council in 2003 where he served until becoming mayor in July last year. He has come out in favor of a ban on homeless “camping” in city parks, but says he has done so as a way to get a handle on how many people in the city are actually homeless so facilities can be upgraded. Denver has had a mostly hands-off posture on the Occupy protestors. Denver also has the luxury of space that many cities on both coasts do not and Hancock is rapidly moving to expand Denver International Airport to become a huge transportation hub. The plan calls for land development stretching decades, but the idea is to build a mini-city at the airport, banking on the facility’s ability to serve as both a freight and passenger hub. Planes that can stay aloft for longer periods of time are also helping enhance the airport’s capabilities, and flights to Asia are in the planning stages.

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