When San Diego mayor Kevin Faulconer, a Republican, won reelection in June, easily defeating two Democrats, he received congratulations from what some consider a vanishing group: other GOP mayors. “Two years ago the people of San Diego elected Kevin Faulconer to clean up city government,” ran the message from Community Leaders of America, a caucus of Republican mayors. “Voters agreed with his record and vision for One San Diego and rewarded him with a full term.” In a city where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by 100,000, Faulconer first captured the mayoralty in a 2014 special election to replace Democrat Bob Filner, who resigned after multiple accusations of sexual harassment. “Since then,” observed the San Diego Union-Tribune, “Faulconer has focused on bread-and-butter issues such as road repairs and capital improvements in San Diego neighborhoods.” Endorsing the Republican for reelection, the paper noted: “While Filner was disruptive, Faulconer has been inclusive.”
As recently as 15 years ago, Republican mayors ruled in half the nation’s dozen largest cities, with reformers Rudy Giuliani in New York and Richard Riordan in Los Angeles leading the way. Today, among America’s Top Ten cities in population, only San Diego has a Republican mayor. Politico calls urban Republicans “perhaps the nation’s most severely endangered political species.” The decline, observers argue, is the result of demographic shifts toward Democrat-leaning populations and, until recently, falling crime rates, which have made urban voters less inclined to support law-and-order Republicans. GOP mayors themselves complain that the national party is of little help, either.
Even so, Republican mayors haven’t completely disappeared from urban America. They currently govern 27 of the country’s 100 biggest cities, including Jacksonville, Fort Worth, and Oklahoma City. And these mayors stand out from their Democratic counterparts in a significant way. While many of the most visible Democratic mayors—Bill de Blasio in New York, Eric Garcetti in Los Angeles, and Rahm Emanuel in Chicago—have spent most of their careers in government and politics, many GOP mayors have backgrounds as entrepreneurs and business executives, coming to politics later in life. That has doubtless helped give city hall Republicans their focus on the practical issues of local government: balancing budgets, securing public safety, and ensuring that the garbage gets picked up and potholes get filled. Meantime, many Democratic mayors have pursued more grandiose agendas, such as fighting inequality and climate change—issues that mayors have few real powers to address.
This difference in approach could prove crucial. Democrats may have a dominant urban presence right now, but it’s often in long-troubled, declining cities, which, signs suggest, could be facing a new era of spiking crime rates and broken budgets. Can Republicans win new adherents in these cities by preaching a pragmatic urbanism? “The idea that unifies many of these [Republican] mayors is that you have to get local government right—like picking up the trash—or your community suffers,” says Ben Cannatti, the political director of Community Leaders of America. “That’s a message that should appeal to many voters.”
The Obama era has been a boon for state Republican parties but not for local GOP officials. Since President Obama took office, Republicans have added nine governors to their slate of state chief executives and a remarkable 900-plus state legislative members, giving the GOP complete control of 23 state capitals; the Democrats control just six. (See “Rise of the Republican Governors,” Spring 2013.) But the GOP has made its state-level gains largely with the support of middle-class suburbanites and despite the opposition of city voters. Though New Jersey governor Chris Christie won reelection in a 2013 landslide, for example, he lost both of the state’s most urbanized counties—Essex and Hudson. Michigan’s Rick Snyder managed to get reelected in 2014 while garnering just 7 percent of the vote in Detroit. Even in heavily Republican states, cities are a sea of blue. While Republican Greg Abbott won the 2014 Texas governor’s race with 60 percent of the vote and majorities in 235 of the state’s 254 counties, he lost Dallas County, home of the nation’s ninth-largest city, and Travis County, where Austin makes up 85 percent of the population.
Yet one can find exceptions to these voting trends, with GOP candidates doing well even when the urban political landscape is tilted against them. In some cases, recalling Giuliani’s victory in New York in 1993, voters have turned to Republican candidates when their cities have faced turmoil. Faulconer’s election is one example—though with a twist. When former Democratic congressman Filner won San Diego’s mayoralty in 2012, some political observers predicted that Democrats had grabbed permanent control of the city, noting that the party enjoyed a 14 percent advantage in voter registration over the Republican Party. Though his predecessor, Republican Jerry Sanders, had helped right San Diego’s finances after a pension scandal, Filner campaigned on the theme that his brand of moderate Democratic politics was more appropriate to the city’s modern priorities. And with San Diego’s budget in order, no crisis on the horizon, and President Obama topping the Democratic ticket in a national election year, voters agreed.
The Filner administration quickly disintegrated, however, after a tsunami of sexual-harassment charges against the mayor from 19 accusers, including former staffers and a Navy rear admiral. In the special election, Faulconer appealed to voters as a Republican with city council experience who promised fiscal conservatism and a pro-business approach to development. Credited with helping to reform San Diego’s pension system when he served on the city council, Faulconer campaigned for market-based policies—such as competitively bidding out public services—and against union-backed efforts to force contractors to pay prevailing wages on government-funded construction projects. “I’m somebody who’s going to continue the financial reforms [started by Sanders] . . . so we have the dollars to reinvest into our neighborhoods,” he promised.
Faulconer also benefited from a political development that could boost Republicans in other cities: urban Democrats’ move to the hard left. Faulconer’s main Democratic opponent, progressive councilman David Alvarez, tried to fire up his base by waging class warfare. “People really are tired of only the wealthy benefiting,” he declared, inveighing against the business community and promoting the idea of levying new fees on real-estate developers to help pay for more government spending. He endorsed a minimum-wage hike to $14.50 per hour and rejected the voter-approved pension reforms that Faulconer had backed. Unions gave him massive support, pumping $4 million into his campaign. But San Diego voters—especially independents, who constitute 35 percent of the city’s registered voters—weren’t impressed. Alvarez captured just 46 percent of the electorate in a runoff with Faulconer. Earlier this year, Faulconer did even better in winning reelection, gaining 57 percent of the vote in the open primary against two Democrats, which earned him four more years in office.
Faulconer isn’t alone in the Golden State. Despite its much-hyped turnaround, California has seen high-profile city bankruptcies in Stockton and San Bernardino, while other cities, like Fresno in the economically beleaguered Inland Empire, have flirted with insolvency. Voters have elected Republican mayors to ride out the storm in these struggling places.
Fresno mayor Ashley Swearengin jumped into politics with a management background when she took on the task of running a city of 520,000 residents, California’s largest inland metropolis. Now one of California’s most popular local Republicans—frequently mentioned as a potential gubernatorial candidate—Swearengin is credited with helping to rescue Fresno from fiscal disaster. She made her first successful bid for Fresno’s mayoralty in 2008, after serving as an executive at several major California law firms, running a local small-business incubator, and cofounding an economic-development organization. “I think about being the mayor of Fresno as being the CEO of the public’s business. The public has entrusted city hall with its resources to cover essential services,” she said during that campaign. “And I think a lot of the disenfranchisement that we see among the voters today is because many of those essential services are being overlooked.” The Fresno Bee portrayed her effort as that of an outsider versus the quintessential city insider: Henry T. Perea, her Democratic opponent, won a seat on the city council at 25 and had spent most of his life in politics. The son of a county supervisor, Perea enjoyed muscular backing from Fresno’s public unions. Still, in a city where Democrats topped Republicans on voter rolls by more than 10,000, Swearengin captured 55 percent of the ballots.
Swearengin faced constant budget pressure during her first term, as the city economy struggled and key local institutions—the Fresno Metropolitan Museum and a downtown revitalization project—defaulted on loans. In her first four years, she slashed $100 million out of the city budget, shrinking the workforce and outsourcing commercial trash collections. But economic recovery was slow to come to inland California, and with the Fresno area unemployment rate still at 15 percent in mid-2012, Wall Street analysts worried that the city wouldn’t be able to avoid the fate of the bankrupt California municipalities. “The harsh spotlight (of potential bankruptcy) has shifted to Fresno,” declared a Citicorp report. But Swearengin made a final push, negotiating further cuts and givebacks from unions, and then got a boost when revenues finally started to turn upward. By the time her belt-tightening was done, Swearengin had cut one-quarter of Fresno’s workforce—1,000 workers—in a bid to secure the city’s financial future.
Voters have elected Republican mayors to ride out the storm in struggling cities.
Swearengin’s Fresno rescue prompted the vice president of the California Republican Party, Marcelino Valdez, to label her “the golden child of the party right now.” After getting reelected as Fresno’s mayor in a landslide in 2012, she ran a notable, though ultimately unsuccessful, campaign for state comptroller in 2014, winning 46 percent of the vote in a state where Republicans make up just 28 percent of the electorate.
San Bernardino mayor R. Carey Davis got into politics only after the city had filed for bankruptcy in July 2012, a consequence of high government costs and a reeling economy with a staggering 15.7 percent unemployment rate. In a city where median household income amounted to less than $40,000 per year, hundreds of police and firefighters collected more than $100,000 annually in pay, thanks to politically motivated giveaways. The city’s Democratic mayor, Pat Morris, admitted that San Bernardino’s fiscal woes resulted from its political establishment being “remarkably generous to city labor groups, and our city council largely being elected by that same set of unions.”
Enter Davis, a San Bernardino native but political novice, urged to run for mayor by neighbors disgusted by the city’s reputation for dysfunctional politics. An accountant and comptroller of a large Los Angeles company, candidate Davis attracted attention within the city of 210,000 with his clear analysis of San Bernardino’s budget problems and dubious fiscal practices. He commuted every day to his job in Los Angeles while campaigning in the evening, promising to renegotiate union contracts, reform the city’s charter to increase government transparency, and revitalize a sagging downtown. Though some denigrated Davis as a mere numbers guy, lacking the charisma and political skills needed to lead a city, voters elected him mayor in February 2014.
Since then, Davis has fashioned a bankruptcy reorganization plan for San Bernardino and renegotiated key contracts with some city unions, though he’s also run into obstacles, including legal challenges to some of his reforms. His greatest test, however, has been the enormous strain put on San Bernardino’s resources by the mass shooting last December by Islamic terrorists Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik—an unprecedented burden on a city already in bankruptcy. “Our community has proven that it will not be paralyzed,” said Davis, as his administration struggled to get back to everyday governing after the attack, which killed 14.
Rescue missions aren’t the only tasks that voters have given to urban Republicans of late. GOP mayors are also governing in prosperous, fast-growing cities, especially those in the West and the Sunbelt—among them, Fort Worth, Jacksonville, Albuquerque, and Oklahoma City. In these family-friendly cities, the percentage of homeowners is higher than in more fashionable zip codes; neighborhoods are packed not only with single twenty- and thirtysomethings but also with households with children under 18. Mayors here, unlike those of shrinking eastern and midwestern cities like Detroit, Baltimore, Cleveland, and Newark, have the challenge of managing growth. Fort Worth’s population has almost doubled since 1990, to 834,000; Oklahoma City’s has increased by nearly 50 percent, to 632,000; and Jacksonville’s has surged by more than one-third, to 868,000. “This place is humming. This place is on fire,” Oklahoma City mayor Mick Cornett said on Meet the Press two years ago. Even the recent slump in energy prices hasn’t slowed things down that much.
Cornett is the first mayor to win four terms in Oklahoma City, and this year, he assumed the presidency of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, a rarity for a Republican. He spent 20 years as a journalist before starting his own video-production company, and then was elected an Oklahoma City councilman in 2001 and mayor in 2004. The city reflects his entrepreneurial spirit. It’s been named the nation’s best place for starting a business several times, including in 2012 by the Kaufmann Foundation, which lauded its low costs, relatively low taxes, and ease of getting regulatory approvals and permits.
Oklahoma City began its current growth run after the devastating 1995 bombing of the city’s Federal Building, which killed 168. Cornett credits Oklahoma City’s surge to a 20-year investment in its infrastructure to make its downtown more attractive, including construction of a canal, new development along the Oklahoma River, a streetcar transit system, and improvements to meeting and convention space. Much of this building was financed on a pay-as-you-go basis, instead of with debt, as is typically the case in other cities. “We did something unique for many of our infrastructure packages: we paid cash,” Cornett told the Republican National Convention in 2012. Cornett says that his biggest challenge is keeping up the momentum in a rapidly changing metro. More than half the population wasn’t living in Oklahoma City before the revival began. “I’m concerned that people in the city will forget how we got here,” he told City Journal in December.
Fort Worth mayor Betsy Price is also grappling with the challenge of growth. Over the next 20 years, the city, already the nation’s 16th largest, is projected to add nearly 300,000 residents, on top of a gain of about 325,000 over the last two decades. Many Texas communities, experiencing similar expansion, have borrowed heavily to build new infrastructure. One outcome is that local debt per resident in the Lone Star State has soared nearly 50 percent in just a decade. A former tax assessor—she also chairs the steering committee of Community Leaders of America—Price has sought to keep Fort Worth’s borrowing within amounts that could be paid back without raising taxes. That meant leaving projects that were on some local politicians’ wish lists off the last big bond offering, in 2014. To sort through what projects got the go-ahead, Price held some 50 community meetings around the city, in what the Fort Worth Star-Telegram described as the most carefully vetted bond offering in the metro’s history. “Residents told us what they wanted, and we gave it to them,” says Price, who calls “transparency” in government a basic conservative principle. As a consequence, Fort Worth’s debt per capita of $968 is second-lowest among 15 large Texas cities, according to the Texas Transparency website.
One factor in cities’ leftward drift, argue political observers, is that urban populations are getting younger, and young people are more likely to vote Democratic. Price thinks that Fort Worth defies that trend. The city is one of the nation’s most youthful, with a median age of 31.5 years, but it also has considerably more households per capita with children under 18 than the national average, thanks to low housing costs—due in part to the relative ease of building in the city—and a good quality of life, with a crime rate lower than New York City’s and less than a quarter of Detroit’s. (To help achieve that safety, Fort Worth residents voted to dedicate 0.5 percent of the city’s sales tax to anticrime programs.) Price has also tried to engage younger residents, many of whom are coming to the city because of its job opportunities. Though many of these young workers are socially liberal, says Price, when they learn about how city government actually works, “it turns out they are often fiscally conservative.”
The success of these mayors raises the question of whether more Republicans can win at the local level.
In 2009, Richard Berry became the first Republican mayor of Albuquerque in 24 years by pledging that he could lead the city through its own expansion challenges. A businessman in the contracting field, Berry won a seat in the New Mexico state legislature in 2006, where he emphasized spending restraint and regulatory reform. Three years later, he took on three-term Albuquerque Democratic mayor Martin Chavez in a campaign that focused on the rapid rise in government spending. Noting that Albuquerque’s general-fund spending had increased by nearly 50 percent during Chavez’s last eight years, Berry argued that the city’s inflated budget made it vulnerable to fallout from the 2008 recession. Berry also criticized what he termed Chavez’s attempt to create a political dynasty; Chavez had managed to get the city’s term-limits law overturned so that he could run again in 2009. Berry’s criticisms stuck, and after a narrow victory, he took office and immediately ordered cuts in the city’s budget, including canceling some planned projects and rolling back employee raises negotiated by his predecessor. Berry even put the city’s finances, including its checkbooks, online, and invited the public to scrutinize them.
Though his actions earned him public-employee-union ire, Berry’s first term won public plaudits and an easy path to reelection. In 2013, he won 68 percent of the vote in the city’s nonpartisan open primary, the highest percentage that any Albuquerque mayoral candidate has ever received in the first round of voting—an extraordinary achievement in a city where Democratic voter registrations significantly exceed the number of Republicans. Berry captured nearly nine in ten Republican votes, but polls showed that four out of ten Democrats also voted for him.
Berry’s biggest second-term challenge is dealing with a series of controversial cop shootings of civilians in the city and a Justice Department report critical of the Albuquerque police department. Based on recommendations by a law-enforcement think tank that Berry hired to study the situation, he has instituted some 60 changes to how the police department operates, including raising standards for hiring officers, instituting crisis-intervention training for cops on the beat, and mandating body cameras.
The success of these mayors—both in winning votes and in governing—raises the question of whether more Republicans can win at the local level with similar strategies. Community Leaders of America thinks that they can. The group’s aim is to bolster Republican representation at the municipal level by recruiting good local candidates to run for office, helping GOP municipal officials share ideas that work, and raising the profile of these officials. “We think there’s a good story to tell about Republican mayors getting things done, and we want to communicate that story,” says political director Cannatti.
To do that, however, the group must overcome the national party’s seeming indifference to Republican mayors and other municipal elected officials. With both political parties becoming ideologically more rigid nationally, the focus of GOP mayors on pragmatic issues like delivering public services efficiently and investing in local projects appears to have little appeal to the national party, though voters typically display more faith in local government than in the policies and practices of Washington. By contrast, Democrats view their mayors as part of the party’s ground game and frequently promote them nationally. San Antonio mayor Julian Castro, for example, gave the keynote address at the 2012 Democratic convention and later was appointed secretary of Housing and Urban Development by President Obama. Five other mayors spoke at that convention, including Newark’s Cory Booker and Los Angeles’s Antonio Villaraigosa. At the 2016 DNC, eight mayors spoke, including Boston’s Martin Walsh and Atlanta’s Kasim Reed. By contrast, Cornett was the only Republican mayor to speak at the party’s last two conventions, delivering mere three-minute addresses representing all GOP mayors. “The Republican Party seems to not want to allow Republican mayors to be part of the story,” Cornett told Politico after his 2012 speech.
One challenge is that the anti-big-government ethos of the national party sometimes clashes with the more pragmatic approach that mayors must take to solving local problems. Several prominent conservative groups in California, for example, declined to support Swearengin in her bid for comptroller because she backs the state’s high-speed rail project, which would go through Fresno and, she hopes, boost the city’s struggling economy. Many Republicans oppose the rail service, for good reason, but some conservatives have made it a narrow litmus test. By contrast, Swearengin won the endorsement of many of the state’s major newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times, which focused instead on her work guiding Fresno through its budget problems.
GOP mayors argue that to govern effectively with the limited powers of municipal government, it’s sometimes necessary to depart from the national party script on issues like taxes and climate change. San Diego’s Faulconer, looking at the prospect of litigation from California green groups unless the city adopted a plan to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, rallied the business community together with local environmentalists to fashion a green plan that included increased investment in mass transit, retrofitting of old buildings, and expanded use of solar power. “The reason we’ve gotten such nationwide attention is because we did it the right way,” he said earlier this year. “We have ambitious goals but we have goals that are achievable.” Meanwhile, Jacksonville mayor Lenny Curry, an entrepreneur elected in 2015 with the backing of the city’s business community, is leading a campaign to extend a temporary city sales tax in order to fund Jacksonville’s pension debt, which threatens the fiscal future of the nation’s 12th-largest city. He justifies his effort by arguing that if Jacksonville doesn’t get its pension problem under control, residents may wind up paying more taxes later on.
The Republican Party’s conflicted relationship with its mayors is not new. When Rudy Giuliani, arguably the most visible and successful American mayor in the last 50 years, ran for president in 2008, many conservative groups opposed him, even promising to leave the party if he was nominated because they considered him too liberal. The website Right Wing News even described Giuliani as governing New York from “left of center,” despite his dozens of tax cuts, introduction of work programs to reduce welfare dependency, and dramatic crime-fighting gains.
The core of Giuliani’s philosophy on urban governance could be a model for today’s Republican mayors. He argued that local government should be responsible for delivering basic services well but that a city’s residents also should be accountable for their actions and their destiny, and not expect government to take care of them. He once described his job by quoting from the ancient Athenian oath of fealty, in which leaders pledged to “transmit this city not only not less, but far greater and more beautiful, than it was transmitted to us.” That’s a pledge that a new generation of GOP mayoral hopefuls might well campaign on—and govern by.
Top Photo: Fresno mayor Ashley Swearengin helped navigate her city through difficult fiscal times. (Chris Carlson/AP Photo)