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Forget Congress: Many State Lawmakers Are Running for Mayor This Year

Why are they breaking norms and eyeing city hall instead of Capitol Hill?

Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh
Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh
It’s traditional for state legislators to reach for Congress or statewide office as their next rung up the ladder. But now some of them are deciding they can accomplish more in local office. This year, sitting state legislators are running for mayor in Dallas, Indianapolis and Nashville, among other cities.

Being mayor of a big city always holds a certain appeal. Generally, the mayor takes home a good salary, unlike most part-time state legislators. And, after years crafting budgets and policy at the state capitol, it’s a nice change to execute and manage programs, says Jane Campbell, a former Ohio legislator who later served as mayor of Cleveland. “After a period of time saying this is what they should do, you’re ready to carry things out,” she says.

These days, running for mayor may hold an added appeal that federal office doesn’t, suggests Michael Berkman, a Penn State political scientist. Polarization and gridlock in Congress are increasingly frustrating the ambitions of individual lawmakers who want to chart a productive policy course. Most cities, by contrast, are healthier economically than they were a generation ago, and they’ve proven to be a hotbed for policy innovations in recent years, particularly among progressives. “There’s a pull toward cities right now because you can do things in a way that you couldn’t before,” Berkman says, “while there’s a push away from Congress, in that it’s not very interesting or fun.”

Most big cities are under Democratic control now, which is one reason they appeal to Democrats who find themselves trapped in seemingly unending minority status in red state legislatures. One example is Eric Johnson, a Texas state representative who is leaving that job to run for mayor of Dallas. “It’s unlikely that his party is going to get back in the majority in the Texas House anytime soon,” says Rice University political scientist Mark P. Jones. “As mayor, he would have a very nice platform from which to propose initiatives and impact public policy.”

Not all legislators eyeing city hall are seeking to escape minority status. Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh was majority leader of the Maryland Senate when she ran for her current post. (Pugh is embroiled in controversy regarding interest groups spending thousands of dollars on her self-published book. She has taken a leave of absence, citing pneumonia, but intends to return as mayor.) Jim Merritt hasn’t served in the minority during his entire 28-year career in the Indiana Senate -- he’s now part of a 40-10 GOP majority -- but he’s giving up his power and seniority to run for mayor of Indianapolis. 

Merritt recognizes he faces an uphill climb in his race against Joe Hogsett, a well-funded incumbent in an increasingly Democratic city, but he says he feels “something of a duty” to try. The city has broken its record for homicides four years in a row. “I grew up in Indianapolis,” he says. “That’s not the city I grew up in.”

The idea of becoming mayor of your own hometown has a pull even for politicians who already hold positions that on paper, at least, appear more powerful. Paul Brodeur chairs the Joint Labor Committee in the Massachusetts House, but he’s preparing a run for mayor of Melrose, a city outside Boston with a population of just 27,000. Brodeur, who says he didn’t necessarily have a “huge ambition” to make a career in politics, has nonetheless done just that. He started out on the Melrose Board of Aldermen before winning a seat in the legislature in 2010. Now, he’s ready to come back to city hall. Echoing Berkman’s observation, Brodeur says he’s found his visits to Washington stultifying, with the “partisanship getting a little unproductive.” 

*This story has been updated.

Alan Greenblatt is a senior staff writer for Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
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