We constantly hear that it’s the era of cities. Benjamin Barber wrote a book called If Mayors Ruled the World. Mayors are touted as pragmatic problem solvers who are taking on the challenges politicians at other levels of government are afraid to face.
One would think that if mayors were that much better than state or federal officials, then mayor would be a great stepping stone to higher office. However, that does not appear to be the case. Only three presidents had ever served as mayor: Andrew Johnson, Grover Cleveland, and Calvin Coolidge. Grover Cleveland, mayor of Buffalo, was the only one to helm a major city.
It’s similar for other offices. In 2012 a blogger looked at the members of the US Senate. Only four of them had been mayor immediately prior to running for office. (Two others had been county executives). Five others had served as mayor, but held intermediate office before being selected to Senate. That’s less than 10% mayors.
It’s the same with governors. Here’s what the Washington Post had to say about that:
The jump from chief executive of a town to of the state is rare. Five states are headed by former mayors. Two, Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper (D) and Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley were mayors of their state’s largest city, Denver and Baltimore, respectively. Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy (D) and Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam (R) were mayors of their state’s third largest cities, Stamford, and Knoxville. Maine Gov. Paul LePage (R) is the odd man out, having been mayor of a smaller city: Waterville, population 15,855.
Some young, ambitious politicians have jumped into the local arena, possibly inspired by Cory Booker, who parlayed his tenure as mayor into a place in the Senate. But it hasn’t necessarily worked for them yet in terms of getting into higher office.
One such young mayor who has gotten huge attention is Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana. Politico recently ran a flattering profile of him, saying that “Pete Buttigieg could be the Democrats’ savior—if he can only find his way out of South Bend.” Mayor Pete as he’s known is 36, went to Harvard, was a Rhodes Scholar, did a stint at McKinsey, served in Afghanistan with the Naval Reserves (intelligence), speaks several languages, etc. I’ve never heard a bad word about him. But it’s not obvious how he moves up. As Politico puts it:
There is one glaring problem: The routes to higher office that are available to Buttigieg, as a progressive hailing from a state trending in the opposite direction, are winding and pockmarked. He could dither in Congress, if he could win a seat at all in his Republican-leaning home district. He could risk his political hide running statewide in Indiana, even though Trump bested Hillary Clinton there by 19 points. Maybe Buttigieg angles for a Cabinet post in the next Democratic administration? That’s three years away, at minimum. Last winter, he sought to lead the Democratic National Committee, earning endorsements from five former party chairs, but he ultimately ceded to contenders with higher name recognition.
A bitter irony is at play here: At a moment when the faces of the Democratic Party are 67-year-old Chuck Schumer and 77-year-old Nancy Pelosi, when so many novice Democrats are banging at the gate, spurred into action by powerful social currents and opposition to the president, one of the party’s most talented young politicians has nowhere to go.
Indiana is a red state and mayor hasn’t generally been a great route to higher office. Two Indianapolis mayors after Richard Lugar ran for statewide office and lost. But the pattern is clearly more widespread.
Looking around, you hear about lots of people who’ve acquired the monicker “Mayor for Life,” but not nearly as many former mayors who moved up to higher office at all, much less proven to be dynamos there.
What accounts for this? I don’t know. Maybe local politics is seen as small ball. Maybe the political skills that work well at the local level (say, retail politics) don’t scale. Maybe it’s because cities are generally dominated completely by Democrats, and mayors have no experience in campaigning with a more contested electorate. Maybe a lot of mayors simply don’t want to move up. For whatever reason, being a mayor appears to be more likely a terminal position than a stepping stone to bigger things.