Running a big city isn’t just potholes, garbage pickup and parking fines. In recent years, it’s been immigration, police violence and culture wars — national issues that may boost the prospect of a mayor unseating President Donald Trump in 2020.
Last month, New York’s Bill de Blasio traveled to Baltimore, Austin and Washington, D.C., presenting his progressive politics as the Democrats’ path to victory. This month, Eric Garcetti left Los Angeles for two days in Iowa, where caucuses start the presidential selection process. Mitch Landrieu of New Orleans, whose second term ends in May, has embarked on a national book tour speaking about race relations.
No mayor has ever gone directly to the White House from City Hall. There’s an increasing chance that the next presidential go-round may break that streak, as a majority of voters say Trump lacks leadership skills. Well before midterm elections in November, a time when candidates usually form exploratory committees, some mayors are splitting town to promote their competencies while espousing non-Trumpian views.
“There’s every possibility a mayor will be seriously considered for president in 2020,” said Peter Hart, a Washington-based pollster who has advised candidates for president, U.S. Senate and governor for more than 40 years. “Voters may find it reassuring to consider someone who has actually run a government.”
Democratic mayors John Lindsay from New York and Sam Yorty from Los Angeles fell short of presidential bids in 1972. Even Rudolph Giuliani, embraced as “America’s Mayor” for his leadership after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, dropped out early during the campaign for the Republican nomination seven years later.
“Mayors don’t have the political base or name recognition to give them real momentum into a presidential race,” said Jennifer Duffy, senior editor of the Cook Political Report, a non-partisan newsletter that analyzes campaigns for president, Congress and governor. “They also struggle to convince voters that being mayor affords them the experience necessary to govern the country — filling potholes versus negotiating a nuclear arms treaty.”
Still, it’s that record of experience that may serve them well this time. Trump, a political novice elected in 2016 on his promise to “drain the swamp” of Washington career officeholders, has a 57 percent disapproval rating, according to April 16-22 Gallup polling.
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Unlike Trump, who hired a 2020 campaign manager in February, no mayor has declared a candidacy. While others say they’re considering it, de Blasio says he isn’t. Still, in the past year, he has traveled across the country calling for higher taxes on the rich to pay for housing, health care and education, and attacking the tobacco and oil industry as putting profit ahead of public health and the environment.
“He plays a role in the national debate because that advocacy helps New York, and because he’s delivering wins on challenges the rest of the country is facing,” said Freddi Goldstein, a de Blasio spokeswoman.
His predecessor, Michael Bloomberg, considered and then decided against entering the 2016 presidential race as an independent. The former mayor is founder and majority owner of Bloomberg News parent Bloomberg LP.
De Blasio’s potential competitors are as eager as he is to go national.
Garcetti, 47, visited Iowa in April and next month will make a second visit to New Hampshire — which, like South Carolina, where he visited in February, holds early presidential primaries. While Trump has tried to restrict immigration, Garcetti touts his own family’s mix of Jewish, Mexican and Italian lineage, and promotes Los Angeles as a sanctuary city.
Landrieu, 57, published a book in March about his 2017 decision to take down his city’s Confederate monuments, and has been promoting it on a national tour. Another possible candidate, Pete Buttigieg, 36, of South Bend, Indiana, has a political action committee supporting candidates in Georgia, Arizona, Michigan, Colorado and Iowa. Since September, he has traveled to or has plans to visit at least seven states.
All these mayors have their share of hometown critics. In Los Angeles, some detractors blame Garcetti for a 49 percent increase in the city’s homeless population since taking office in 2013. Landrieu’s housing programs have promoted gentrification, advocates for the poor say, and his city’s crime rate is among the highest in the U.S. And in South Bend, the question remains whether an openly gay Rhodes Scholar and Afghanistan War veteran, who won re-election with 80 percent of the vote, can enjoy similar voter appeal nationally.
To ascend to the presidency, any mayor would have to transcend “the rough and tumble of local politics, which can be toxic,” said Columbia University political scientist Robert Shapiro. “Big-city mayors get caught up in conflicts over race, crime, labor issues and budget fights that make enemies.”
Americans’ “distrust of the city” goes back to the days of Thomas Jefferson, who saw cities as “places of pestilence,” said Michael Williams, a New York University presidential historian. “There’s a lot of baggage that comes with governing a large complex city.”
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De Blasio faces similar challenges. The former public advocate, who got elected mayor decrying income inequality, is now wrestling with the City Council over its push to reduce subway fares for those in poverty. New York Councilman Ritchie Torres blames the mayor for a public housing authority that filed false lead-paint inspection reports and left 80 percent of tenants without heat or hot water at times this winter.
“His rhetoric is more progressive than the reality,” Torres said.
Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said the mayor has been “slow to fix” school segregation. She faults him for protecting problem police officers by shielding disciplinary files from review, and said arrests for marijuana possession and other minor crimes disproportionately snare blacks and Hispanics.
While sitting mayors may have local issues to overcome, they are winning supporters out of town. De Blasio made a positive impression on Austin Mayor Steven Adler, who sat on an internet neutrality panel with him in Texas last month. Adler said de Blasio is “taking the lead on gun control, police reform, immigration, the environment — all the important issues.”
All mayors attract criticism, Adler said: “It’s part of the expectations and accountability that come with the job.”