Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney pushed through a tax on sugary drinks to pay for early childhood education.
Former Denver mayor John Hickenlooper brushed aside the misgivings of other officials and led the successful fight for a commuter rail expansion that is transforming his car-choked city.
Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton proceeded with efforts to curb carbon emissions despite state lawmakers’ skepticism about whether humans caused climate change.
In a hyperpartisan era of government gridlock, mayors are increasingly tackling society’s most vexing problems, from mass transit to immigration, income inequality to economic development. It is mayors and other urban leaders who have led the fight for a $15 an hour minimum wage, banned plastic grocery bags to protect the environment, and expanded paid parental leave.
Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh has worked to stem the flow of illegal firearms from northern New England, where neither state nor federal law require background checks for private gun sales. The city found that nearly one-fifth of the traceable guns used in Boston crimes came from Maine and New Hampshire. In the absence of congressional action, Walsh has convened regular summits with New England mayors and police chiefs to figure out how to reduce firearm trafficking and gun violence.
“There is a new American localism where cities are at the vanguard of problem solving,” said Bruce Katz, a scholar at the Brookings Institution and co-author of the 2013 book “The Metropolitan Revolution.” “The federal government talks about it, mayors do it. There is a huge vacuum in the United States because of partisan gridlock.”
The rising prominence of mayors has roots in the 1980s and ’90s, when urban leaders faced skyrocketing crime and failing schools, Katz said. Now, after decades of suburban flight, the world is becoming increasingly urban.
Mayors feel the pressure. The Boston University Initiative on Cities interviewed 89 urban leaders from across the country in 2015 for its “Menino Survey of Mayors,” named for the late former Boston mayor Thomas M. Menino. The survey found that mayors “feel that they are tasked with some of the most thorny policy issues facing America without the accompanying aid from higher levels of government that their predecessors might have expected.”
“A lot of mayors felt that within the last five years, they were taking on a lot more responsibility,” said Katherine Einstein, an assistant professor of political science at BU and co-author of the Menino survey. “The federal government and state government were a lot less helpful and a lot less likely to tackle the challenges cities were facing.”
The rising prominence of mayors has pushed beyond national boundaries. Pope Francis held a conference in July on human trafficking and climate change that drew Walsh and roughly 50 other mayors to the Vatican. In December, more than 600 mayors traveled to Paris to attend the United Nations Climate Change Conference. Earlier this month, Walsh and urban leaders from across the United States and China met in Beijing for the climate summit.
“This level of government is much better at collaborating internationally, partly because when they disagree, they don’t end up having a war,” said Mark Watts, executive director of C40, an alliance of more than 80 mayors across the globe working together to combat climate change. “Wherever you go in the world, cities are all facing the same kind of problems.”
Watts worked for former London mayor Ken Livingstone and said when his City Hall tenure began in 2000, he had limited interactions with city officials from elsewhere in the world. When Watts was leaving government eight years later, he said he would “never go a week without talking to somebody from an international city.”
Mayoral power does have limits. Even with partisan gridlock in the United States, the federal government has sweeping power that can make nearly universal health care the law of the land, for example. It is the federal government that makes the most significant investments in research and development, and maintains Medicare, Medicaid, and other pillars of the social safety net.
Still, federal officials can be a little envious of City Hall.
Secretary of State John F. Kerry said in an interview this month that big city mayors have “some of the best executive authority in politics.”
“You can make things happen,” Kerry said, adding, “That was one of my great frustrations in the Senate. It’s partly why I ran for president, because legislation is a different kettle of fish.
“Even the president of the United States,” Kerry said, “doesn’t have some of the direct executive authority a mayor has in a great — in a big city.”