Parting Wisdom From 5 Outgoing Mayors

Most of them have been in office for decades. Here's what they've learned about government.
by | October 2015
From left to right: Michael Nutter of Philadelphia; Annise Parker of Houston; Don Plusquellic of Akron, Ohio; Joseph P. Riley, Jr. of Charleston, S.C.; and Michael Coleman of Columbus, Ohio (Photos: David Kidd; Mayor Riley Photo: Brownie Harris)

By the time they leave office, mayors have accumulated a wealth of management experience and wisdom about what it takes to run a government. Governing recently sat down with five mayors who are leaving office this year to talk about what they’ve learned.

Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter, who took office in 2008, is term-limited out. So is Houston Mayor Annise Parker, who has been elected to three two-year terms since 2009. After 16 years as mayor of Columbus, Ohio, Michael Coleman will leave office at the end of this year. In Akron, Ohio, Don Plusquellic served more than 28 years as mayor before he stepped down in May. Charleston, S.C., Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr., one of the nation’s longest-serving city leaders and widely considered the dean of American mayors, will have been in office for an unprecedented 40 years by the time he leaves in January. These interviews, conducted separately, have been edited and condensed for clarity.

What have you learned about yourself as a manager during your time as mayor?

Annise Parker: That I’m a good delegator, and [generally choose good] people to work for me. That was the hardest thing for me. I’m the straight-A student; I want to know everything. But as mayor, you can’t try to do that. The city would grind to a halt.

Michael Nutter: You have to narrow the scope of what you want to do. I mean, we’ll do 50, 80, 100 things in the course of a day. But the mayor [alone] can’t do 50, 80, 100 things in the course of a day. What I tell new mayors is: Have a plan, work the plan, stick to the plan -- even when things go haywire.

Don Plusquellic: My grandmother told me, “Donny, the vast majority of people in this life are going to be good, and even if you mess up they’re still going to be OK. But there’s a group of people that -- no matter how hard you work, or what you do for them -- they’re never going to be happy. And if you only remember them, you won’t be able to serve the rest of the people.” And I swear to God, that comes back to me all the time. You can’t make everyone happy.

Michael Coleman: I’ve changed a lot. You have these critical points in your career that change you. One year we had, like, 10 murders in a week. Gang activity was going crazy. So I reorganized the police department, and we took care of it. And today, while our population has increased, our violent crime rate has decreased. But it took that seminal moment where something bad happened. The city’s better off now because we went through it, we went through a problem. I became a better mayor during that time and a better person.

Joseph P. Riley Jr.: I’ve been forced to become much more efficient than I was when I first got elected. The city’s twice as big as we were [40 years ago], and I’ve added lots of areas of focus to the mayor’s office.

Looking back, what was your worst day on the job?

Parker: Five months into office, I had the first death on duty of a city police officer. He rolled his car and didn’t have a seatbelt on. He was alive when they brought him to the hospital; I saw him and he talked to me as he was bleeding out. And I sat there with his wife all night while he died. It was the absolute worst day.

Riley: The worst day was a recent day: The 17th of June, when a hateful, bigoted man from 120 miles away came into a church and killed nine people while they were studying the Bible because they were African-Americans. That is the worst day.

Plusquellic: For me, the worst day was when I took a proposal to lease our sewer system and put it up to a vote. We were going to net about $280 million to $300 million from the deal, and we were going to take the proceeds and provide a free college scholarship for every child graduating from an Akron high school. To this day, I will never ever forgive myself for not just doing it. But we put it on the ballot. A small group of people, working with a union in the state, spent hundreds of thousands of dollars trying to convince people that we were going to ruin our drinking water. They put ads on the TV showing brown water in Africa.

I broke down crying the night of the vote [when the measure failed]. I will go to my grave never forgiving myself that I misplayed it.

What about the best day? 

Parker: No question, that’s the day you’re sworn into office. And then it’s all downhill. [Laughs]

Riley: There’s a lot of competition for this. But I think the best day was when we opened our waterfront park [in 1990]. We had worked to open it for 13 years. It could have become a high-rise development, but we were able to get the land. It was beautiful then, and it’s beautiful now. Of all the things mayors get to do, I think the creation of parks is among the most special. Parks are forever, and they belong to every citizen.

How did the Great Recession affect you?

Nutter: As the great philosopher-king Mike Tyson says, “Everybody’s got a plan till you get punched in the face.” We got punched in the face by the recession. I had all these plans: We were going to hire 400 new police officers, we were going to do international travel. So, OK, you can’t do all of that. You regroup. Figure it out. You still have to reduce crime, you still have to educate kids, you still have to get people jobs. Money or no money, you still have to do those things.

Parker: I came into office in January 2010, and the first thing I had to do was cut $100 million out of my budget. So instead of doing things, most of what I had to do was undo things. I’m the mayor who closed swimming pools and shut libraries and laid people off.

Coleman: At the start of the recession, we passed a budget in November [2008], and by January we had $100 million that I had to cut. So especially in those times of crisis, you have to be frank and open with the people of your city about all the warts and problems. That sometimes helps in balancing out the demand with what the real world is really like.

It seems that the very definition of what it means to be a mayor has shifted in the past generation or two. How is it different today from when you took office?

Nutter: Cities are business enterprises. Increasingly, mayors are thinking about their cities more in that way. There’s an entrepreneurial spirit slowly making its way into city governments. Things like the Office of New Urban Mechanics. Try stuff, you’ll fail. Some things will work, some won’t.

Plusquellic: When I first came into office, Northern cities were losing businesses and jobs to the South. But Northern mayors didn’t understand that they needed to devote themselves to economic development. That just wasn’t something that was done. But today, if you’re not involved in helping businesses that already exist in your city and marketing to draw new blood in, in my opinion, you’re not doing your job. That’s the most significant thing that’s changed in the job of being mayor.

Coleman: Another thing is education, and mayors getting involved in education. Without mayoral intervention at some level, public education is going to have a hard way to change. You need the leader of the city to be involved -- not necessarily to take over the school district -- but to engage.

Mayors Plusquellic and Coleman

Plusquellic: Yeah, that’s true. We all say it, but you can’t have a good city without an educated workforce, and that begins with grade school and preschool. That’s a huge change in the last 20 years.

Riley: As a mayor, you have to do more than attend to the day-to-day responsibilities; [you have to] always be looking at building for the future. We’re in a time when Congress has not been as productive, I would argue, as in years past. So mayors have become the leaders. In cities, something either gets done or it doesn’t get done -- and people know that’s up to the mayors.

What challenges do cities face now?

Nutter: [Philadelphia’s] poverty rate is at 26 percent -- it’s been above 20 percent for the last 30 years. So we’re talking about intergenerational folks who are locked into a terrible situation. Those are still major issues for our city.

And every mayor’s biggest fear right now is that you could be the next Ferguson, the next Staten Island, the next Baltimore, just like that. Our communities of color ... the recovery has just passed them by. So on the one hand you see all this recovery in the streets, and mayors make all these announcements. [But then minority residents think,] “But I still don’t have a job. My kid is still getting a bad education. My neighborhood looks like hell. What’s going on here?”

Any advice for new mayors?

Coleman: If Columbus is the same in five years as it is today, then my successor will have failed.  A city that stays the same falls behind. You should never accept the status quo.

Parker: Every mayor has to have a brand. And mine is that I will tell you the truth. You may not like what I have to tell you, but you can trust me and you can believe what I tell you. When I was elected mayor, it made worldwide news. “Houston Elects a Lesbian Mayor.” [People said,] “How did it happen? In Houston?” But there’s this odd dynamic with people of, “If she told me the truth about that, she’s probably telling the truth about other things.”

Plusquellic: If you’re going to get in this business, then you need to make a commitment that you’re going to make some enemies. But do what you think is right, and eventually even your enemies will come around.

Nutter: If you have a deep-seated need to be loved and admired every day, you’re in the wrong business. You should go work in a pet shop.

Riley: Someone said that being alive gives you the opportunity to do two things every day: Be nice to people, and make the world a better place. Mayors have a wonderful opportunity to do both of those every day. Come to work and find ways to help make the community better, and be nice to them -- whether that’s hugging a child in a school or looking a city worker in the eye and thanking them. It’s the best job in public service.