The burgeoning field of officially declared presidential candidates for 2020 includes five US senators, several members of Congress, a former cabinet secretary, two businessmen, a spiritual adviser to Oprah, and one mayor (Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind.). The track record of mayors as presidential candidates falls somewhere between grim and laughable: You’d have to go back to Calvin Coolidge (elected 1922) to find a winning presidential candidate who began as chief executive of a city — in Cal’s case, the thriving metropolis of Northampton — and even he was governor first. History is littered with the asterisks of former mayors — Dennis Kucinich, Richard Lugar, John Lindsay, Sam Yorty, Rudy Giuliani — who flopped in their bids for the presidency. Most of them failed to win a single primary.
But 2020 could be their year. Cities are thriving: green, brainy, prosperous incubators of new policy ideas that look nothing like the dystopian “American carnage’’ invoked by President Trump. In addition to Buttigieg, who at 38 (age at election) would be the youngest — and first openly gay — president if lightening were to strike, Julián Castro, the former HUD secretary and mayor of San Antonio has entered the race as the only Latino. Other mayors or former mayors, including Michael Bloomberg and Bill de Blasio of New York and John Hickenlooper of Denver, are placing their toes in New Hampshire’s icy waters; de Blasio had planned to visit the first primary state this weekend but postponed the trip because of a fatal shooting of a police officer in New York.
De Blasio’s demurral actually points to a political strength of mayors: They are closer to the people than most federal office-holders, responding to crises and working with communities at the most intimate level. That makes them adept at the kind of retail politics that still matter in early-voting contests in Iowa and New Hampshire, even though those states are hardly urban. Mayors — the good ones, anyway — effectively manage huge budgets, fix your potholes, and get traffic lights installed at dangerous street corners. They know the price of a gallon of milk. Is it any wonder voters have greater trust in local government than any other level, with favorability ratings above 70 percent?
Mayors are mostly nonideological pragmatists, an antidote to the scabrous partisan divide that has turned off many voters. A fair number of cities don’t even hold partisan primaries for mayoral campaigns. Although they don’t agree on the solutions to every issue — an annual survey of mayors by Boston University’s Initiative on Cities found divergence in strategies to address crime, housing, and immigration — they at least agree that there should be solutions. As Buttigieg put it in a speech last month, “our country right now would be a better place if Congress looked more like the community of American mayors than the other way around.”
Mayors represent places that look like America. Fully 80 percent of the US population now live in cities. The country is no longer mostly rural or suburban, and mayors know what it’s like to manage large, diverse communities. They don’t get thrown by new social movements or memes. It’s a safe bet that an administration headed by a former mayor, even a Republican mayor, would be more inclusive than what we’ve got now.
And mayors already are tackling the nation’s biggest problems. Climate change. Race. Income inequality. The issues that top mayoral agendas are at the vanguard of global concerns. After Trump announced the withdrawal of the US from the Paris climate accords in 2017, a bipartisan group of mayors, representing 70 million Americans, stepped up to pledge continued efforts to reduce carbon emissions with or without Washington’s support. “Mayors are taking on more and more the issues that are part of the national conversation,” said David Glick, who conducted BU’s survey of mayors. “Housing affordability, race, inequality: A lot of these issues have their roots in cities.”
Of course, any mayor hoping to become president would need to appeal to broader metropolitan areas, including the suburbs. But the differences in character and values between city and suburb have been blurring for years. So stop laughing. A pragmatic, problem-solving, progressive mayor may be just the corrective the country is looking for.Renée Loth’s column appears regularly in the Globe.