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Ideas

ideas

Rise of the mayors

How a once-ceremonial job became a powerful force in American politics

The race to become the next mayor of Boston has been something of a slow burn so far. The 12 candidates have struggled to gain ground on their opponents, while voters have seemed a bit indifferent to the whole process. Part of the reason for this lack of electricity might just be that Thomas M. Menino has held the job for so long that Bostonians can’t even fathom that there’s more than one way to do it. But there’s something else, too: With the country on such precarious footing along so many dimensions—the economy, climate change, war in the Middle East—the mayoralty can seem kind of, well, irrelevant. When it comes to the most important political issues of the day, it’s hard not to wonder what our next mayor could really do to make a difference.

Mayors, after all, are local politicians. Conventional wisdom says when they’re not working to make sure our streets get cleaned and our sewers are in working order, they’re attending ribbon-cutting ceremonies and playing the role of city cheerleader. No matter who gets elected in Boston, in this light, the most high-stakes policy domains are going to be above his or her pay grade.

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