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Rise of the mayors

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

Wesley Bedrosian for the Boston Globe/Wesley Bedrosian for The Boston

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.

But a new view of the mayoralty has recently taken hold in some influential circles—one that says mayors, far from being provincial figureheads, are emerging as the most potent force for new ideas in American politics. With Washington so profoundly gridlocked that the country is once again facing the possibility of a government shutdown, thinkers in political science, law, and economics have observed that cities have become the main source of fresh thinking about how to solve the world’s problems—and mayors, more than their higher-ranking counterparts in public life, are the ones setting the course.

“As the importance of cities has increased, mayors have been compelled...to deal with a lot of issues that traditionally were taken care of at a higher level,” said Benjamin Barber, a political theorist at the CUNY Graduate Center. Barber is the author of a forthcoming book, “If Mayors Ruled the World,” in which he argues that mayors have stepped up to grapple with issues like climate change and immigration in ways that national politicians have not. “We tend to think of our mayoral votes as parochial votes,” Barber said. “We think, who’s the best guy for my neighborhood, or who’s the best guy for the Boston schools. And we tend not to ask the question: What about more global problems?”


Skeptics point out that mayors in America can only do what their superiors in state and federal government will let them—that even a powerful city leader can be forced to back down from ambitious plans, as New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg was when the courts struck down his ban on large sodas. But scholars who study local government say that hasn’t stopped visionary mayors around the country from putting forth bold local policy ideas that have spread and taken on national influence.


Barber goes even further: He points out that mayors from all over the world are working together to deal with problems across national boundaries, and suggests they could get even more done by uniting formally (he calls the idea the Parliament of Mayors). With that in mind, he says, as the Sept. 24 preliminary election in Boston approaches, voters should be thinking about a lot more than which candidate seems most capable of filling a pothole.


For most of the 20th century, it would have seemed ridiculous to see city hall as a locus of new ideas. The nation was founded on grand political visions hashed out by leaders in the halls of Philadelphia, and moved forward through debates in Washington—in Congress, in the White House, and in the Supreme Court. Mayors, by contrast, have typically been seen as either ceremonial and powerless or corrupt (think Mayor Quimby from “The Simpsons”). Even in cities like Boston, where the job did come with real power, mayors tended not to become well known outside the communities they presided over, and seldom went on to hold national office.


But something has started to shift. For one thing, more people are moving to cities—as of 2008, more than half the world’s population was living in an urban area. Cities also drive the economy: In a new book called “The Metropolitan Revolution,” Brookings Institution researchers Bruce Katz and Jennifer Bradley point out that while the top 100 metropolitan areas in the United States occupy just 12 percent of the nation’s land mass, they’re home to two-thirds of the population and responsible for 75 percent of gross domestic product.

With the federal government increasingly paralyzed by ideological brinksmanship, the dynamism of cities has come to stand in increasingly sharp contrast—and has created a new platform for what were once purely local leaders. “The abdication of responsibility for domestic policy on the federal and state level has opened up opportunities for some really entrepreneurial, charismatic mayors to emerge,” said Illinois State University professor Lori Riverstone-Newell, author of a forthcoming book, “Renegade Cities, Public Policy, & the Dilemmas of Federalism.”

Again and again, contemporary politics has been shaken up by mayors tackling important problems at the local level. One of the best examples of this is immigration reform, an issue that has gone nowhere at the national level, but has moved cities to step in on both sides of the debate. On the progressive end, there is New Haven mayor John DeStefano Jr., who supported a measure in 2007 issuing “Elm City Resident Cards” that made it easier for thousands of undocumented immigrants to open bank accounts, access city services, and call police without fear of deportation. Other mayors, like Lou Barletta of Hazleton, Pa., have run energetically in the other direction, enacting strict “America first” rules imposing sanctions on landlords who rented to illegal immigrants and business owners who employed them.


American cities have been active in the realm of public health as well—none more so than New York, which under the Bloomberg administration has enacted a ban on trans-fats, limited the sale of flavored tobacco, and started requiring restaurants to list calorie counts on their menus. Most recently, Bloomberg tried unsuccessfully to limit the sale of large-sized sugary drinks. “What most public health regulations are trying to do is change the regulatory status quo, and it’s getting increasingly hard to pass any kind of affirmative legislation at the federal level,” said Paul Diller, a professor at Willamette University College of Law who has studied the role of local government in public health policy.

The issue of gay marriage demonstrates just how influential such local policy initiatives can be. In 2004, Gavin Newsom, then the mayor of San Francisco, ordered the local city-county clerk to issue marriage certificates to gay couples, in violation of state law at the time—briefly making San Francisco the only place in the United States where a gay couple could get married. When the California Supreme Court nullified the marriages shortly thereafter, it set in motion a chain of events that took the issue to the US Supreme Court this year, and ultimately established gay marriage as legal throughout California.


Some of the experiments in local policy are noteworthy more for their boldness than their influence. In Deer Trail, Colo., home to about 500 people, the mayor was recently photographed aiming a rifle at the sky, as part of a push to pass an ordinance issuing “drone-hunting” licenses for citizens who want to protect their privacy against surveillance. In Vicco, Ky., pop. 334, the mayor made it onto “The Colbert Report” after successfully pushing the town’s commissioners to pass a rule banning discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity.

Taking note of all this activity, scholars of American politics have identified local politics as an increasingly important breeding ground for new ideas. Some suggest that in the interest of broader political experimentation nationwide, towns and cities deserve more power than they’re currently afforded. “Cities are more nimble” than state and federal governments, said Heather Gerken, a professor at Yale Law School who is working on a book about policymaking at the local level. “Mayors tend to have constituencies that are more united, which means they can do more stuff.” In her academic work, Gerken argues that political power in the United States should be diffused downward. She calls cities “important players in national policymaking,” and wrote in an e-mail: “It’s time to abandon outdated notions of what’s ‘local’ and what’s not when thinking about urban power.”


Just because some mayors are offering imaginative solutions to some national problems does not necessarily mean they can solve all of them—and in fact, their ability to innovate in the first place depends on larger economic trends. “Cities are still subject quite strongly to the winds of the economy, and when those change, cities are hit very hard,” said Richard Schragger, an expert on urban policy at the University of Virginia School of Law. “So we have a lot of optimism about cities when we look at say, New York or Boston...but when you look at Detroit, or Camden, or even Chicago...what you see is real devastation.”

Schragger says he is sympathetic to the idea of giving local leaders more power, but believes they do face serious legal and fiscal constraints—described in detail by Harvard Law School professors Gerald Frug and David Barron in their book “City Bound: How States Stifle Urban Innovation”—that typically limit their ability to make an impact on big national issues. The key to overcoming those constraints, says Benjamin Barber, is for mayors to work together across state and national borders—something they’re already doing through intercity associations like United Cities and Local Governments, which he calls “the world’s largest and most influential organization nobody has ever heard of.”

One vivid example of the kind of cooperation Barber believes can empower the world’s mayors took shape after the United States withdrew from the Kyoto Protocols—an international agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions—and more than 130 American cities pledged to meet the treaty’s targets anyway. In Los Angeles, that meant modifying the city’s ports. In New York, it meant insulating old buildings. Elsewhere it meant promoting public transportation. Today, more than 1,000 American mayors—from towns and cities whose population totals almost 89 million, more than a quarter of the country’s population—have signed on to the agreement.

To Barber, who founded a group called the Interdependence Movement to press his case, that cooperation amounts to a new era of global governance, one that offers a way through policy obstructions at the national level. “What’s happening in an interdependent world is issues of transportation, immigration, climate, and banking become global, and cities have been better at dealing with one another and talking about these issues than nation-states have,” Barber said. “Los Angeles and Shanghai talk a lot about common port problems with one another, while the US and China are still locked in ideological battles that make that much more difficult.”

Katz and Bradley of the Brookings Institution see something similar at work, pointing out that when a city’s industries might chiefly be targeting customers halfway around the world, “many US mayors...are being compelled to design and execute their own trade and foreign policy.”

Given all this, Barber says, one question Bostonians should be asking about the mayoral candidates is whether they’ll be “good intercity cooperators.” “Their capacity to govern Boston well will be in part measured on how well they do that,” he said. Even something like the economic development of the Boston Waterfront, which is shaping up to be one component of Mayor Menino’s legacy, needs to be seen as more than just a local issue, because in 20 or 30 years, the biggest threat to its prosperity will likely be global warming.

The idea of voting for the candidate most likely to forge alliances abroad—as opposed to, say, the one who can do the most to revitalize Downtown Crossing—may seem strange. But for people like Barber, who believe cities are replacing nations as the engine of political progress, to ignore that in this year’s campaign is to underestimate just how much a mayor can matter to the world.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. E-mail lneyfakh@globe.com.