You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

From City Hall to the White House

Why Democrats should take mayors seriously as presidential candidates

Photo Illustration by Gluekit. Clockwise from lower left: (Garcetti) Lisa Blumenfeld; (Buttigieg) Lloyd Bishop/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank; (Landrieu)Julie Dermansky/Corbis; (de Blasio) Rodin Eckenroth; (Castro) Astrid Stawiarz. All Getty.

It’s invisible primary season—the time when candidates begin launching book tours, jockeying for endorsements, and locking down political strategists—and the mayors of some of America’s most liberal cities have begun making pilgrimages to Iowa. In April, Los Angeles’s Eric Garcetti traveled around Des Moines for two days, shaking hands with Democratic activists at a dive bar, rubbing shoulders with firefighters and union members, and attending an LGBTQ gala. “I think people probably imagine, as I’ve said before, that we’re mostly a city full of Kardashians and reality stars,” Garcetti joked of Los Angeles. “We’re actually everyday folks who are nurses and bus drivers and factory workers and firefighters.” Casting himself as an all-American boy (or rather a “Mexican-American-Jewish-Italian” boy, his preferred term) from “middle America” (he grew up in Brentwood), Garcetti was clearly auditioning for a 2020 presidential run, although he wisely didn’t quite say it. “I’m not here looking for a new job for me,” he told reporters. “I’m looking for more new jobs for Americans.” This was met with some skepticism: Two previous stops on his tour, New Hampshire and South Carolina, just happen to host primaries right after the Iowa caucuses.

Garcetti isn’t the only Democratic mayor with presidential ambitions. Five months earlier, New York’s Bill de Blasio arrived in Iowa, hoping to position himself as a sort of second coming of Bernie Sanders. Hailing a “new Progressive era,” de Blasio declared a speech in Des Moines the new speech at Goldman Sachs. “We are not the party of elites,” he said. “We are the party of working people.” A political action committee controlled by South Bend, Indiana’s mayor, Pete Buttigieg—the Rhodes scholar, veteran, and Harvard grad whom New York Times columnist Frank Bruni has said could be the “first openly gay president”—has been spending money in Iowa (as well as Georgia, Arizona, Michigan, and Colorado) since March. Mitch Landrieu, who just finished his second term as mayor of New Orleans, hasn’t been to Iowa yet, but he did just release a memoir, In the Shadow of Statues: A White Southerner Confronts History—a reference to the well-received speech he gave last year calling for the removal of Confederate statues in New Orleans. Julián Castro, who served as mayor of San Antonio before joining the Obama administration in 2014, has also visited New Hampshire twice in the past three months. The message is clear: With no obvious front-runner heading into the 2020 primary, charismatic, well-connected Democratic mayors think they could make the leap from City Hall to the White House.

That’s not to say that any of these mayors will actually win the presidency—most people who run for president lose. But if anything has become clear since the last presidential contest, it’s that the rules governing American politics no longer hold. “Every campaign is a new campaign, and everyone makes the mistake of running the last one,” Garcetti said in Iowa. “No African American could ever become president until one was; no reality star could be president until one is.” The Democratic Party is more diverse and represents more educated voters than ever, and cities have become the centers of the fight against the Trump administration. If the future of the party, as some have argued, looks, at least demographically, like Los Angeles and New York, then why shouldn’t the mayor of one of those cities become the party’s nominee?

History hasn’t been kind to mayors with presidential ambitions. Of the three who have reached the White House—Andrew Johnson, mayor of tiny Greeneville, Tennessee; Grover Cleveland of Buffalo, New York; and Calvin Coolidge, who led the college town of Northampton, Massachusetts—none was mayor for more than three years, and all served as governor afterward. Two of the three (Johnson and Coolidge) became president only after the death of their predecessor. And only Cleveland is considered a successful chief executive by historians. The last time a sitting mayor received his party’s nomination for president was 1812, when DeWitt Clinton, the mayor of New York City, ran as a Federalist and narrowly lost to James Madison.

Until very recently, America’s most powerful mayors wouldn’t have considered running for the presidency. New York’s Jimmy Walker and Chicago’s Richard J. Daley and “Big Bill” Thompson all had the resources to mount a national campaign; they might even have had the national profile. But their cities were dominated by political machines greased by graft and corruption—and their years of dealmaking left them with too many easily discovered skeletons for a national campaign. (Thompson is the exception that proves the rule. He did make a run at the presidency in 1928, funding his “America First” campaign with $3 kickbacks from city drivers and inspectors, but withdrew from the race after winning zero delegates.) Meanwhile, smaller town mayors were seen as too inexperienced for the responsibilities of the presidency—this, combined with limited opportunities to expand their national profiles, ensured none attempted it. What’s more, as America’s culture wars increasingly captured the national debate, people saw cities as centers of vice and crime instead of breeding grounds for leadership.

Of course, that hasn’t stopped mayors from running. Sam Yorty, the Democratic mayor of Los Angeles, ran in 1972, promising, among other things, to use nuclear weapons in Vietnam. Rudy Giuliani, an early front-runner in 2008, ran on his tenure as mayor of New York City during September 11—something that became a punchline as the campaign progressed. Both efforts were short-lived. (Giuliani suspended his campaign before Super Tuesday.) Instead, it has been governors, not mayors, who are able to bridge America’s historic urban-rural divide. They have controlled the executive branch in recent history.

More recently, though, the United States has changed in ways that make it easier for mayors to compete nationally. Mass communication—television and, especially, internet access—has eroded some regional distinctions, and Democrats have seen the country move toward them on many social issues. In 2008, only 39 percent of Americans were in favor of gay marriage; that number is now over 60 percent. More Americans support gun control today, after the Las Vegas and Parkland shootings, than they have in the six years since Sandy Hook.

Demographic shifts have also transformed cities. As former mayor of Washington, D.C., Anthony Williams wrote in City Lab earlier this year, “The demographic line that used to divide city and suburb is blurring. Cities are becoming more white and many suburbs have diversified.” Mayors now not only oversee affluent, booming cities, which allows them to make the argument that they have the experience to be stewards of the national economy; they’re also a crucial line of defense against the Trump administration’s draconian policies on abortion, immigration, and guns. While it might once have been true that cities cared only for their narrow interests, it is now clear that they have become policy laboratories, places where state and national dysfunction can be counteracted.

Democratic mayors have two additional assets as candidates. First, they won’t really have to answer for what they have or have not done to stand up against the president. Some may have to dodge awkward questions about their cooperation with ICE’s deportation efforts or the way their policies increased gentrification or led to the housing crisis. But they won’t be attacked for things like voting to confirm Donald Trump’s Cabinet nominees, supporting his budget, or helping him destroy Obamacare. “I think it’s going to be very hard to get [to the White House] if you’ve been in Washington too long,” Democratic strategist Joe Trippi said. Second, their relative position is strengthened by the Democratic Party’s lack of statewide leaders. Today, after eight years of the Obama administration, there are only a handful of Democratic governors. Some are either too old (California’s Jerry Brown is 80) or too compromised (New York’s Andrew Cuomo is fighting off a corruption investigation, and former Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick has been working at Bain Capital since he left office in 2015) to mount a serious presidential challenge. Many of the rest are too inexperienced or just uninterested in the White House.

Still, of the mayors who are likely contenders, only Garcetti seems to have a fighting chance, and even he will have a difficult path: Checking the “Mexican-American-Jewish-Italian” boxes plays a lot better in Beverly Hills than in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina. But with a Democratic Party that’s becoming more diverse, educated, and urban, that may not matter as much as it once did: The cities, in some ways, now more closely resemble the mythical “real America” than do small towns.

“Donald Trump proved that you can come from just about anywhere and have a shot at winning the presidency,” Trippi told me. That idea has resonated with more than just conservatives—it has unleashed a wave of political energy that is reordering the way elections are won and maybe even who wins them. “There are a lot of people who think their cities are the new vibrant idea factories, where mayors have to deal with problems and actually solve them—unlike in Washington.”