No mayor has ever sprung directly from City Hall to the White House.
But that historic streak stands to be tested in 2020, with at least three Democratic mayors mulling presidential campaigns: Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, former New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu and South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg.
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They’re exploiting a newfound opening for politicians at the municipal level, one enabled by broader economic and cultural forces, among them the rise of the Democratic Party’s diverse and ascendant Obama coalition.
“Cities are powerful forces now; they’re almost like city-states,” said Henry Cisneros, who was mayor of San Antonio when, in 1984, he was interviewed to be Walter Mondale’s presidential running mate. “While it is perfectly plausible that a governor, even of a small state, can run for president … why isn’t it plausible that a mayor of a major, global epicenter of power like New York or Los Angeles or Chicago or Seattle or Miami shouldn’t be plausible at the presidential level?”
In part, the opportunity for Democratic mayors is a product of the party’s failings elsewhere. With Democrats out of power in Washington and in many state capitals, large, heavily Democratic cities have become progressives’ power centers of last resort, with an increasingly diverse media landscape offering exposure to a previously anonymous class of politicians.
“At least before new media, it was less common for mayors to get national exposure,” Buttigieg said recently. But Buttigieg, who burst onto Democrats’ radar with his failed bid for Democratic National Committee chairman, has demonstrated that now, even the mayor of a small city can find a spark.
“It’s definitely a season for cities,” said Buttigieg, the mayor of a city of just more than 100,000 people. “And it’s definitely a season for mayors.”
David Holt, the Republican mayor of Oklahoma City, said that for a big-city mayor, presidential aspirations are “entirely legitimate.”
“Cities are our nation’s economic engines,” Holt said. “A city like Los Angeles, with its size, that’s more qualification than being governor of Arkansas 30 years ago.”
Echoing a refrain commonly voiced by nontraditional candidates, Holt said that following President Donald Trump’s 2016 election, “The job qualifications have been redefined.”
Garcetti, Landrieu and Buttigieg are waging their pre-presidential campaigns on the crest of a generation of 1990s-era revitalization programs in the nation’s metropolises, which are no longer burdened by postwar-era suburban flight from failing cities. Once stigmatized, cities are now muscle centers of the national economy and the heart of the Democratic Party’s young, progressive base.
Garcetti and Buttigieg have set up political action committees to engage in this year’s midterm elections. Landrieu has done a media tour with his new book, “In the Shadow of Statues.” And while none of the mayors have said yet if they will run, they are leaning heavily on their mayoral experiences to lay the foundation for a campaign.
Late last year, Garcetti — with help from Buttigieg — started a nonprofit group of mayors working with labor and business leaders to fund investments in cities around the country.
At a meeting of the group in Las Vegas recently, Doug McCarron, general president of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters, called mayors “the people that really do the work.” Installing Garcetti as an honorary member of the union, McCarron gave Garcetti a heavy union jacket that he suggested could prove useful in “those cold, cold days in Iowa and New Hampshire.”
Steve Benjamin, the Columbia, South Carolina, mayor and chairman of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, said, “I don’t see being a mayor as being an encumbrance” to running for president.
“I see it as an asset,” he said. “The reality is that you have the ability to demonstrate executive authority and show people how to get things done.”
Mayors have been running — and losing — races for president for more than 200 years. Although two former mayors, Calvin Coolidge and Grover Cleveland, went on to serve as president, neither ascended directly from City Hall. Far more common are mayors’ failures: former Irvine, California, Mayor Larry Agran, who got almost no traction in 1992; former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who failed to meet expectations in 2008; and another New Yorker, John Lindsay, who flopped in 1972 along with Los Angeles Mayor Sam Yorty.
With lower profiles than other potential Democratic presidential candidates, mayors running in 2020 will find success “very difficult, very difficult,” said Hank Sheinkopf, a longtime New York-based Democratic strategist.
“They have a very small range, generally, of votes they can bring with them,” he said.
But Sheinkopf said mayors are typically adept at retail politics and could make credible vice presidential candidates. Cisneros, while not discounting a mayor’s prospects of becoming president, said the vice presidency may be a more viable pathway to Washington.
“A highly recognizable, visionary mayor can become vice president of the ticket, and the logic would be, give that person some time … to steep, if you will, in the cauldron of national leadership,” he said.
Bruce Katz, co-author of the 2018 book “The New Localism” and founder of the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program, said that in the modern era, “more and more, cities are the level where public, private and civic leaders are coming together to solve problems,” from economic insecurity to traffic congestion.
Katz, who was Cisneros’ chief of staff when Cisneros was secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development under President Bill Clinton, said that if a mayor became president, “what you might see under a mayor is a kind of radical federalism. … I think mayors have enormous trust in local problem solving, which, to some extent, people who have been in higher levels of government don’t.”
For now, the mayors’ attentions are divided. In his State of the City address this year, Garcetti explicitly contrasted Washington with his city, which he cast as “thriving, strong, stable and decent.” And after announcing plans to spend millions of dollars to address homelessness in Los Angeles, Garcetti said voters would judge him based on his efforts to address that crisis and other issues.
“Anybody who’s been in public life long enough, there’s plenty to write a clear, concise and truthful thesis that they’re the best blank ever or the worst blank ever,” he said, “and my experience is that if you get out there, you get a chance to introduce yourself and for people to make up their own minds about you.”
It won’t be easy, though: Columnist Steve Lopez told readers of the Los Angeles Times in January that with a homelessness crisis in their city, “this could be the year Garcetti’s presidential pipe dream ruptures under a shantytown in the homeless capital of the United States.”
In South Bend, Buttigieg drew controversy when he vetoed a zoning decision that would have allowed an anti-abortion rights group to open a center near a proposed abortion clinic. His office was forced to respond when the South Bend Tribune reported that an animal control manager had been disciplined for posting photographs of a wild owl next to a pet cat. And like Garcetti, his calendar is filled with local events not destined for the nation’s front pages.
“It’s a challenge,” Buttigieg said. “I think mayor is the best job in politics. The only sense in which the other jobs are enviable is it’s easier to do extra activities, right? So, it’s not like there’s a legislative session and when we’re out of session I can just spend all my time going to conferences and stuff. You’ve got to be home doing the job. … We have potholes and animal control and infrastructure and stuff to do at home.”
Recalling the controversy that befell a neighboring mayor, in Mishawaka, Indiana, over the euthanization of hundreds of geese in 2016, Buttigieg said, “Never mess up animal control. Those folks are motivated.”
He added, “My point is, you’ve got to be taking care of the home front, or nothing else matters.”