What Mayors Can Teach Us About Public Discourse

Pittsburgh Post Gazette
  Ed Rendell/Pittsburgh Post Gazette

Mayors must function in a political world that is far closer to what the ancients in Greece and Sicily had in mind as the model for a democratic life.

There is no level of public office quite as consequential to the domestic lives   of urban Americans as the leader elected to run a city. Mayors usually stand out as particularly accessible effective communicators. By contrast, legislators savor deliberation and the arts of self promotion, often with heads in policy clouds rather than the delivery of specific services.  Legislating is measured in increments that would seem pathetically unproductive to mayors who must meet payrolls, collect taxes, and carry on the myriad life-sustaining operations of a city.  And while presidents plainly carry the heavier burden of executive leadership, the presidency is now so “imperial” as to be cut off from contact with the lives of most constituents.  Indeed, the rhetorically challenged George W. Bush rarely moved beyond the white house unless encased in a bubble that limited access and assured he would not be burdened by the visage of a disenfranchised constituent.   

Mayors must function in a political world that is far closer to what the ancients in Greece and Sicily had in mind as the model for a democratic life. They are never very far from their voters and their problems, and their leadership more directly affects the quality of life of their constituents.   Mayors are expected to be on the ground and engaged, dealing with a staggeringly long and well-known list of challenges:  finding money for schools, garbage collection, snow removal, sewer and water repair, health care, police and fire protection, social services, roads and public transportation.  To achieve a level of coverage for these basic needs they must run a human gauntlet that seems to always include virulent city council members, local businesses ready to flee to less expensive locales, and—in the unluckier of the nation’s cities—members of the press who add to the challenges of governance by treating municipal politics as a shooting gallery.  Mayors must also have the staying power to tackle endless community meetings, defiant unions, indifferent state legislatures, disproportionate numbers of the nation’s poor, and drop-everything visits to heartbreaking scenes of urban mayhem.  Their budgets require that they do more with less as tax bases erode, and as suburb-dominated legislatures back away from funding the essentials of city life. 

Perhaps the difficult political challenges of the cities are why many academics and journalists ostensibly interested in governance focus on the presidency. There is an allure to the Oval Office and the journalistic stars that cover it. The Washington-based mass-media “communitariate” has many of the same inducements that feed the parallel world of Hollywood journalism.  Events in these datelines happen in nicer settings.  Everyone involved is better dressed and convinced they are dealing with great ideas rather than a broken and distracted polity.  And like the celebrity watchers who live near the glitter of northwest Los Angeles, those safely at home northwest of the National Mall can pretend not to notice the paradox of urban disintegration amidst a city of ostensible leaders.

An emphasis on the political glitter of Washington D. C. is unfortunate, since there is a more vital political culture on display in the nation’s city halls.  Many mayors are unusually good matches for the colorful gadflies attracted to neighborhood politics.  Effective municipal leaders seem born to the challenge of engaging the weak and the powerful alike.   Biographer Carl Solberg described the “prairie progressive” Hubert Humphrey as “possessed and effective.”  His description of the one-time Mayor of Minneapolis could have been applied to other leaders of cities that were once the engines of the nation’s wealth and identity.  “He couldn’t shake enough hands, join enough lodges, send enough Christmas cards,” Solberg recalls.  “He was forever late on the [campaign] trail because of his desire to please his last audience—end all their doubts, answer all their questions, convert them totally to him. Wanting to be loved, he was unable to be cruel.”

So let’s call it a “theory of mayors” and admit its exceptions up front.  As the example of Toronto’s Rob Ford reminds us, not all succeed.  A few are a poor fit for the forced optimism the job demands.  And many of the best move on to less tumultuous work in the Congress or private consulting. But it is instructive that, while we may be lucky to get one good president in a generation, a replenished cadre of rhetorically gifted civic leaders always seem attracted to the messy front lines of American political life. A list of recent leaders who were often superbly suited to the communication demands of municipal leadership should include Humphrey in Minneapolis, Gavin Newsom in San Francisco, Cory Booker in Newark, Harold Washington in Chicago, Shirley Franklin of Atlanta, and Michael Bloomberg in New York City.  If we want to teach learn from the past about political persuasion and occasional political courage, we would do well to skip the press conferences of the presidents in favor of the more incisive encounters of mayors such as New York’s Ed Koch or Philadelphia’s Ed Rendell.

–Adapted from Gary C. Woodward, The Perfect Response: Case Studies of the Rhetorical Personality (Lexington Books, 2010).