Mayors have had little success in becoming president, with only one big-city chief executive, Grover Cleveland of Buffalo, later governor of New York, actually making it to the White House. Yet this year’s running of the donkeys includes several: a minor-city chief executive, Pete Buttigieg of South Bend; a former big-city mayor, Cory Booker of Newark; former San Antonio mayor Julian Castro; and John Hickenlooper, formerly chief executive of Denver before becoming Colorado’s governor. They may yet be joined by New York’s Bill de Blasio. Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti considered a run but thought better of it, perhaps realizing that his city’s burgeoning homeless population and rampant inequality would dog him on the campaign trail. The other mayors’ records are not much better than Garcetti’s, but they didn’t hesitate to jump in.
Buttigieg’s record is nothing remarkable. South Bend remains plagued by racial tension and a high murder rate. Buttigieg’s big challenge, according to Slate’s woke take, is whether being gay will make up for the unfortunate reality that he is also white and male, especially given his failure to embrace “the idea of gayness as a cultural framework, formative identity, or anything more than a category of sexual and romantic behavior.”
As mayor of Newark, Cory Booker was an improvement over the corrupt Sharpe James, particularly in attracting philanthropic investment, but he left behind the same crime-ridden, impoverished municipality. Castro, as CityLab has noted, operated under a weak-mayor system, and his city’s healthy economy owed more to Texas’s free-market allure and policies of earlier mayors than to anything that he accomplished. Hickenlooper, a rare species of pragmatic Democrat, was arguably more successful than the others, but his greatest accomplishment, the expansion of Denver’s troubled transit system, has become plagued by overruns and declining ridership. In any case, Hickenlooper, the most attractive of the mayoral brood, has made no impression in the polls and seems destined to finish out the race on the sidelines.
As for the ethically challenged de Blasio, he inherited a strong economy, now adjusting down to the national average—which, to be fair, is a lot better than Los Angeles and Chicago, which rank well behind in job creation.
So why mayors for president? A popular notion says that mayors are uniquely positioned to “rule the world,” as political theorist Benjamin Barber put it. City boosters like Parag Khanna see mayors as running the vital and creative parts of the world, and thus as the natural leaders of the future. But much of this thinking misses and important qualification concerning population. Reporters frequently see big-city mayors as representatives of the vast, economically dominant metropolitan areas. But in nearly every American major metro, including even New York, the population of the core municipality is topped by that of the metro periphery. In New York, de Blasio presides over less than 45 percent of the metro-area population; in some cities, like Atlanta and Miami, the mayor governs less than one in ten regional residents. On average, little more than one-quarter of major metropolitan area residents live in the core municipalities, many in neighborhoods little different than the suburbs around them.
Contrary to what you might hear in the mainstream press, Americans are not flocking to core cities. Big-city mayors are, in relative terms, losing constituents. Last year, the counties containing America’s three largest cities—New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago—all lost population. Since 2010, a net 1.8 million people have moved away from the urban core counties of major metropolitan areas, largely to lower-density counties. As they start owning property, getting married, and having children, millennials are driving this trend. Since 2010, 80 percent of millennial population growth has been in the suburbs, where single-family houses predominate. New York City now suffers the largest net annual outmigration of post-college millennials (ages 25 to 34) of any metro area—some 38,000 annually—followed by Los Angeles, Chicago, and San Diego. New York’s losses are 75 percent higher than during the previous five-year period.
The view that dense core cities will dominate the future is misplaced. It’s the metropolitan areas—from the core to the far periphery—that really matter. In some cases, notably New York, the cores remain the most pivotal places in the metro areas, but Gotham is an exception to an increasingly multipolar urban landscape. For most mayors, prosperity relies on their relationship with the periphery; cities without viable suburbs and beyond will find themselves unable to hold onto employees as they age.
A common argument for the central importance of mayors is economic. In some industries—social media, high finance, communications, and tourism—a few big cities, such as New York, Los Angeles, Seattle, and San Francisco, have achieved considerable dominance. But, since 2010, more than 80 percent of metropolitan job growth, particularly that which employs middle-class workers, has taken place in the suburbs. This is not a matter of low-income jobs concentrating on the periphery. In reality, lower-density areas account for the vast majority of new patents, a key indicator of competitive economic innovation. Since 1970, according to a recent Harvard study, suburbs have outperformed their urban counterparts in terms of jobs, income, and educational achievement; despite the urban “boom” earlier this century, the pattern remained very much the same since 2000.
Cities and suburbs play different roles in the innovation economy. Core cities excel at innovation detached from the physical world, but tech companies that actually make things or apply innovation to the physical world are moving to suburban areas, such as north Dallas—home to several former California companies, including McKesson and Toyota America—or, in Apple’s case, to suburban Williamson County, outside Austin. They need the space and the access to mature talent that gravitates to suburban neighborhoods.
The employment patterns of large cities—dependent on high-wage, high-education-dependent sectors—also tend to accentuate the inequality that progressive mayors complain so much about. Indeed, according to Pew, the largest gaps between the bottom and top quintiles are found in the most progressive metropolitan areas: San Francisco, New York, San Jose, Los Angeles, and Boston are the five least-equal cities in America. In all these “superstar” cities, the middle-class family is rapidly disappearing, even as poverty remains stubbornly high. Teachers, firemen, and police officers struggle to afford homes in many American cities, according to a study from Trulia. This pricing-out also applies to many skilled blue-collar professions like technicians, construction workers, and mechanics. In California, according to a recent study, not one union construction worker could afford a median-priced house in Los Angeles, San Francisco, or surrounding areas.
This class chasm is evident on the streets of many cities. Even overwhelmingly white and once heavily working-class Seattle now shows signs of the social breakdown associated with its bigger counterparts. And the City by the Bay, arguably the exemplar of the new urban economics and home to many large new IPOs, does not present a hopeful example for the future. San Francisco is home to more drug addicts than high school students.
In 1884, a quarter-century before the Census Bureau first measured urban centers, core cities represented 80 percent of the population of metropolitan areas. Urban life did not necessarily exempt residents from the nation’s political norms. Indeed, even as late as the 1990s, many cities, including New York and Los Angeles, boasted a semblance of a two-party system, and politicians had to seek common ground with middle-of-the-road and even conservative voters. The changing economy and demographics of cities have all but eliminated this kind of urban politics. The middle class, according to Brookings, accounts for 23 percent of the central city population—half the level of 1970, eliminating the political ballast that tethered cities to reality. As cities become dominated by the ultra-rich, hipsters, singles, and the poor, they have shifted to a far-Left politics at odds with the rest of the country.
Urban voter-turnout rates in municipal elections have dropped below 20 percent, and the voters who do turn out tend to be hard-core Left: public employees, democratic-socialists, and aggrieved minorities. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s primary victory over Democratic powerbroker Joe Crowley was achieved with turnout of less than 12 percent of the total Democratic registration of almost 240,000. If demographic and economic trends remain in place, we can expect ever-greater shifts to the far left.
In the process, the demand for needed reform is likely to decline. There will be less pressure to fix lousy city schools if the only ones left behind are the poor (lacking political clout) and the teachers’ union (happy with the status quo). If industry is fleeing, as is occurring in virtually all big urban centers, including New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and San Francisco, there’s less concern about higher energy prices and greater regulatory constraints as a result of extreme green policies. In New York, Mayor Bill de Blasio happily advocates green energy policies that guarantee ever-higher prices, and he even wants to eliminate the steel and glass towers so emblematic of New York. New York’s treatment of Amazon, which made a short-lived decision to locate a headquarters in the city before reconsidering, is emblematic of the post-capitalist politics that now shape the agendas of progressive big-city mayors.
In the past century, big cities could claim that they were different from but also emblematic of the larger society. They attracted and nurtured the middle class. Until cities reclaim those identifications, most of America will reject the extreme turn of urban politics—and those who epitomize it.
Photos, L-R: Julian Castro (Mario Tama/Getty Images), Cory Booker (Kris Connor/Getty Images), Pete Buttigieg (Ethan Miller/Getty Images), John Hickenlooper (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)