Mayors across the country are counting on voters to act on their frustration with Washington and state capitals — by electing them instead.
Most years when a mayor runs for higher office, the pitch is simple: They’ve managed smaller governments, so they’re ready for a promotion. This year, they’re looking to tap into something deeper and more basic: a demand for government to do something. Anything.
All the clichés about there not being a Republican or Democratic way of picking up the garbage or being answerable to constituents take on extra resonance in the era of President Donald Trump’s Twitter tantrums and shutdowns where Congress takes two weeks to debate how to keep the government open for a few more weeks.
That’s the message mayors overall are pushing at the winter meeting of the Conference of Mayors that convened this week in Washington. “We may see some people send out tweets, but we’re fixing the streets,” was Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti spoken-word formulation.
But the number who are adopting that message this year in campaigns for higher office this year has taken many by surprise.
Most of the political attention about mayors has been on the squinting 2020 White House dreams of Garcetti, New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu and South Bend, Indiana's Pete Buttigieg, along with possibly New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and Julián Castro, the former San Antonio mayor and Housing and Urban Development secretary.
But 12 other mayors of mid-size cities are already running for governor and Congress this year, with more looking at getting in. Greg Stanton, the former mayor of Phoenix, is running for the House, as is Huntington, West Virginia Mayor Steve Williams. Former Nashville Mayor Karl Dean is running for governor of Tennessee, and former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa is running for governor of California.
In Connecticut, two of the Republicans and one of the Democrats running for governor are sitting mayors, and there are three other mayors being talked about or exploring runs.
“In city hall and in local government, you have to get things done without drama. I think there’s a special fatigue right now with all the drama in Washington,” said Jim Gray, the mayor of Louisville and a top Democratic recruit for a Republican-held Congressional seat in Kentucky.
It’s not just Washington.
“As state politics and national politics get more and more partisan, people are starting to look at local government as the last level where things really get done, and governing takes precedence over politics,” said Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett, a Republican running for governor of Oklahoma and a former president of the Conference of Mayors.
Cornett said he hasn’t had to sell that case to voters. “It’s them telling me that,” Cornett said. “They’re fed up.”
In Florida, two of the Democratic candidates facing off for governor are contrasting their records managing cities.
“America’s looking at their state legislatures, they’re looking at Congress and they’re seeing inaction,” said Philip Levine, the mayor of Miami Beach, Fla. “This is such a unique time in history that it’s a time for mayors.”
The political ramp-up is happening against a backdrop of increasingly tense relations with Trump, who is, as it happens, the only president ever to have lived in a city for his entire life.
As their winter meeting kicked off Wednesday, Conference of Mayors leaders were shocked to see the Department of Justice threatening subpoenas against 23 “sanctuary cities” for proof of whether their policies of not checking documents or reporting people found to be in the country illegally were in accordance with federal law. Most mayors who were scheduled to go to a meeting at the White House later that day canceled on the president in protest.
“I can’t ever recall where someone who professes to work with other people punches them in the face then says, ‘I’d like to talk to you,’” said Landrieu, this year serving as the Conference’s president. “What we are not willing to do is to stand idly by when you threaten the mayors of America for following the Constitution of the United States.”
“The mayors who chose to boycott this event have put the need of criminal illegal immigrants over law-abiding Americans,” Trump responded, speaking at the White House to the mayors who did attend. “But let me tell you, the vast majority showed up.”
Mayors are also raising huge doubts about Trump’s supposed infrastructure plan, which has been talked about for over a year and that White House aides aides now say will land in two weeks.
“If reports are correct that the president’s plan would only devote a small fraction of the funding we need to rebuild America, then he is committing our country to further erosion and decay instead of fulfilling his promises,” Landrieu said, in his opening remarks on Wednesday.
The potential political downside for mayors is being accused of trying to force an urban agenda on places that have very different concerns. Paul Soglin, the mayor of ultra-liberal Madison, and a gubernatorial candidate in the Wisconsin Democratic primary, said Gov. Scott Walker has already made that attack.
“How do I explain the success we’ve had in Madison, and do it in a fashion that doesn’t antagonize people elsewhere in the state? Walker is suggesting I want the rest of the state to look like Madison,” Soglin said.
In his race, Cornett is running precisely on making the rest of the state look like his city.
“People see Oklahoma City and they see all of that got done within this dysfunctional state government, or in spite of it,” Cornett said. “If you’re for me, you’re hoping we can replicate that across the state.”
Gray, a Democrat, said that he thinks Trump has strengthened the political case for mayors by showing the relevance of management experience in government.
“I’ve learned what Tip O’Neill meant when he said all politics is local,” Gray said. “We need more people in Congress who have this experience, who have this boots on the ground experience.”