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How Being Mayor Became the Worst Job in Politics

Several big-city mayors have announced retirements or have been defeated this year, their approval ratings driven down by the pandemic and policing.

A Seattle police officer's extraordinary pay raises questions department can't answer
Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan has struggled with the local electorate during the pandemic and has decided not to seek re-election.
(Erika Schultz/Seattle Times/TNS)
Seattle hasn’t re-elected a mayor since 2005. That streak will last at least four more years. Mayor Jenny Durkan announced late last year that she wouldn’t seek a second term.

Seattle has been one of the nation’s most successful cities in recent years, with a booming economy and the biggest population growth of any large city. Growth always brings problems, and Seattle has suffered from both housing and transportation issues.

But the past year has been particularly difficult. Durkan clashed with the City Council over the question of taxing corporations. There was enough anger over policing to inspire protesters to take over a chunk of the Capitol Hill neighborhood for three weeks last summer. Durkan managed to push back a recall attempt, but it was clear she wouldn't have a smooth and easy ride to re-election.

Durkan’s challenges have been great, but they are not unique. The mayors of Atlanta and St. Louis also opted not to seek second terms this year. Mayors of smaller cities such as Durham, N.C., and Topeka, Kan., have decided to call it quits.

Mayors are still dealing with the pandemic. Federal relief will solve a lot of budget problems, but mayors have spent the past year looking for programs they could cut. Many big-city mayors have faced pressure to reduce police budgets amidst the Black Lives Matter movement, but are dealing simultaneously with rising rates of homicides and other violent crimes.

“There’s no question that the pandemic plus the George Floyd protests have put a lot of pressure on mayors,” says William Fulton, director of Rice University’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research. “It’s putting pressure on moderately progressive mayors and forcing them to go further to the left or to step away or to lose.”

Democrats completely dominate politics in big cities these days. Last November, President Biden carried 91 of the 100 largest counties. Mattie Parker’s election as mayor in Fort Worth earlier this month represented a rare win for the GOP, who are otherwise almost entirely shut out of the 25 largest cities.

But Democratic politics are not stable at the local level. Progressives clash with mayors who would be seen as far to the left in almost any other political context, complaining they’re too friendly to downtown business interests.

“We are seeing a moment where there’s a very progressive movement in urban areas, and that’s end-running pretty progressive politicians,” Fulton says. “When you look at things like defunding the police and abolishing single-family zoning because of the view that it’s racist, only a few years ago they would have been viewed as really extreme even by progressive officeholders, but they’ve become mainstream in big progressive cities.”

Given the low turnout in primaries – and low turnout for off-year local elections in general – it’s not easy for established politicians to fend off challenges from activists.

“You have these elected officials, in the face of declining turnout, caught in a kind of pincer,” says Michael Hendrix, director of state and local policy at the conservative Manhattan Institute (and an occasional Governing contributor). “They’re caught between the demands of their hardcore base and the demands of the broader city, and those are increasingly in tension.”

Put the Blame on Mayors

Last year, governors mostly saw their approval ratings shoot up, the “rally 'round the flag” effect helping incumbents during a time of crisis. All nine governors who ran for re-election in 2020 were successful.

It’s different this year for mayors. The pandemic has dragged on, placing more strain on local budgets than it did on states. Federal money is coming, but that didn’t help with park closures or slower trash pickup last year.

“In many ways, mayors bore the brunt of the health and economic challenges last year,” says Bruce Katz, a distinguished fellow at the Lindy Institute for Urban Innovation at Drexel University. “The lack of clear guidance from Washington made the role of mayors that much more important in responding to the pandemic.”

Mayors who were coping with the pandemic often worked at cross-purposes with their states, which have continued to preempt local governments, including passing new limits on health authority. Last summer, Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp sued Keisha Lance Bottoms, the outgoing mayor of Atlanta, over mask mandates and business closures, although he later dropped the suit.

“That was a hard position for those mayors to be in, operating under Dillon Rule,” which limits local authority, says Andrea Benjamin, an expert on local politics at the University of Oklahoma. “Who would want to remain in office when you don’t have any power when it’s something as basic as protecting the people in your city?”

During the pandemic, other problems compounded. Fears of an eviction tsunami have largely proven to be overblown, but many city dwellers have been dealing with housing problems and unemployment. Small businesses struggled or went under entirely as remote shopping continued to grow. Many cities are dealing with serious problems with drug overdoses.

Some mayors have limited authority to deal with any of this, depending on how power is divided between their office, city council and other institutions. But the mayor is seen as the person who’s in charge and with that comes the blame.

“Mayors are the elected officials who are most visible on these issues, whether they have the hard power or not,” Katz says. “They’re the ones who are seen locally as being in charge.”

Police and Crime

Last year, the murder of George Floyd brought issues of policing and race to the center of national attention. Last month, Pittsburgh Mayor William Peduto lost his bid for re-election amid complaints that he hadn’t moved swiftly enough to enact police reforms.

Peduto came to office as a liberal reformer, but perhaps inevitably after eight years in office, he was seen as the establishment.

“The George Floyd case wasn’t the only police killing, but it is the one that started a fire,” Benjamin says. “Now, even in a place where we’d say those mayors are pretty progressive, we know there are activists who think they are moderates and aren’t doing anything right.”

Mayors are caught between the desire to address police brutality and the fact that violent crime is spiking. Last year saw the largest single-year spike in homicides since the FBI started keeping count. The numbers have continued to rise this year.

Los Angeles cut its police budget by $150 million last year as part of an effort to rethink public safety. Last month, the city essentially reversed those cuts in response to rising gun violence.

“Police unions are going to push hard against cutting the budget,” Benjamin says. “You’re mayor and you have two factions coming at you, and you can’t even appease one group of people.”

Outmaneuvered by the Left

In Pittsburgh, Peduto also drew criticism for having dropped a lawsuit challenging tax exemptions for health-care giant UPMC, the city’s largest employer. He negotiated a deal with UPMC and other nonprofits, but his opponent, state Rep. Ed Gainey, vowed to renew the challenge, pledging to end “unaccountable tax giveaways and financial incentives” and increase funds to help disadvantaged neighborhoods.

There’s always tension between downtowns and other parts of the city that view them as sucking up resources. Navigating that tension may be particularly difficult for mayors right now. Activists want corporations to pay more money to address homelessness or other issues, but mayors seeking to revitalize downtowns that were turned into ghost towns during the pandemic won’t want to push too hard in demanding concessions in the remote work era.

“As a city shrinks and grows in terms of relative poverty and inequity, those in need of more services increase demands while the tax base shrinks,” says the Manhattan Institute’s Hendrix. “That leads you to further demands on the tax base.”

Some of these problems will be ameliorated by federal aid. The city of St. Louis, for example, is receiving $517 million from the stimulus package enacted in March. Lyda Krewson has already stepped down from office, but her successor, Mayor Tishaura Jones, now has a half-billion-dollar chance to reshape the city.

This points to a change in circumstances that may come too late to help current mayors. Although this is a tough year to be up for re-election, it may not be so bad taking office next year. The economy is picking up and the pandemic, while still killing more than 2,000 Americans every week, is in steep decline in this country.

Maybe that’s why there’s no shortage of candidates. In New York, 13 people will be on the Democratic primary ballot to succeed Mayor Bill de Blasio, who is term-limited. Before he stepped down to serve as Biden’s Labor secretary, Marty Walsh faced two announced challengers from the city council for a potential re-election bid this year. Now, there are a dozen declared candidates in the race, including Acting Mayor Kim Janey.

Biden has reportedly picked Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti for ambassador to India, although nothing has been formally announced. After winning election, Biden considered Garcetti for secretary of Transportation, which led to people protesting outside the mayor’s house, complaining about his record on transportation locally, as well as homelessness and policing.

“Garcetti didn’t go into the administration in the job he wanted because he was outmaneuvered by lefty protesters in L.A.,” Fulton says. “If Garcetti were to run again, he would lose. I don’t think there’s any question about that.”
Alan Greenblatt is the editor of Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
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