Thursday, March 24, 2016

What strong Mayors can do for their cities

Being mayor of a larger city is a hard job but it can also immensely satisfying. Provided the city charter is framed the right way, a mayor can have pretty concentrated power, the mayor's zone of influence can reach across a wide range of departments, but is geographically limited so that results remain visible even if the problems are complex. What a mayor does is often immediate and direct, even physical interaction with constituents is possible and frequent.
Mayors on the national stage: Rawlings Blake and Emmanuel

Thus cities have become the favorite laboratories of innovators and strong leaders who often move on to a larger sandbox, not always with success. We have seen it in our own city with McKeldin, Schaefer and O'Malley who all ascended to become Governor,  often looking ruefully back at their time as mayor as their real glory days.

Bernie Sanders was a hugely popular Mayor of Burlington, VT, being a Senator must be a let-down in many ways, the presidency  maybe the only thing left that is truly more powerful. Charleston's mayor Foxx became Secretary of the US Department of Transportation, Newark's mayor Booker went on to become Senator, Denver's popular Hickenlooper became a successful governor.

But  this isn't about whether people who flourish as mayors can be successful in other offices. This article is about showing examples of strong leadership that has moved cities forward, often from dire starting points. But it is also supposed to provide a framework from which we should judge our candidates. Are they of a caliber where one can imagine them becoming Governor or being called by the President to become a cabinet member?

Baltimore politics typically doesn't look much beyond the edge of the local horizon, maybe not the best perspective for governing a city that still deserves to be one of the leaders in the competitive field of US cities. Sure, we could look to New York's strong Mayors, at San Francisco, Austin or any of those other cities growing and flourishing, but wouldn't that be unfair? So let's start with places that like Baltimore had attained a flair of being on the rocks.

New Orleans: Hardly any other city has such a history of dysfunction, corruption and ineffective government as New Orleans. Until Mitch Landrieu. That is surprising because he didn't swoop in as an outsider but comes from a politically connected family which didn't always stayed above the fray of Louisiana's colorful political landscape. Yet, he moved New Orleans from a faltering, shrinking city, reeling in the wake of Katrina to a city that is rapidly regaining its population, has sound plans in most areas and especially gained a lot of traction in education. Last winter Landrieu made headlines by planning to double parking rates in some popular districts, an approach not necessarily popular but favored by most urban planners.

Newark: Another American urban disaster story is Newark, New Jersey. Once again, the reputation changed in short order once Cory Booker had become mayor. The magazine Governing describes it this way:
Cory Booker chased down an armed robber in front of city hall? How about when he ran into a burning building to save a woman’s life? Or when he shoveled snow from residents’ driveways after a blizzard? All true. He also rode with cops on night patrol, answered citizen complaints over Twitter and lived for eight years in a high-rise apartment where many low-income tenants rely on federal housing assistance. The story of Booker’s two terms running Newark reads like a tall tale or even a comic book: Cory Booker, Supermayor.
Booker can speak about his successes in an enthusiastic and colorful way. He brought grocery stores, corporations and a teachers village to Newark, but most of all he turned its image around by being a relentless cheerleader. (For more details read here).

Pittsburgh: I know, in Baltimore it is difficult to suggest that Pittsburgh has anything going for itself, but this isn't about the Steelers. Former Mayor Tom Murphy certainly moved the city from a place reeling from industrial pollution and departure of industry at the same time to a place where the global G7 conference was held, where an architecturally interesting and green conference center attracts a steady string of high profile conferences and transit was steadily expanded to name just a some of the progress that has put Pittsburgh on the map.

Kansas City isn't necessarily known as a basket case but neither does it have a reputation as an innovation leader. That changed with mayor Sly James who came up with the idea of "Silicon Prairie". He started with ultra-fast broadband internet access and attracted start-ups and corporations alike. His downtown began to thrive, a new streetcar began operation late last year. Visiting the Mayors's agenda on the web is pleasant just for the clarity of its presentation. just compare this to Baltimore's mayoral webpage.

Moving away from the issue of comeback strategies and challenged cities, there is also the aspect of the male chauvinism with which being Mayor is often associated. Mayors like Chicago's Daly or Rahm Emmanuel or also New York's Bloomberg nurtured that concept further.
It is notable, then, that several big cities in Texas of all places have female Mayors, even if the position isn't as strong in Texas as it is here because cities are part of their county and they also have city administrators leaving the office of Mayor as a more ceremonial post.

Houston, San Antonio, Fort Worth. Listing these three in a row is not meant as a put-down against Texas but to show one thing these three rapidly growing successful cities have in common: Women mayors. All three are engaged in building better transit, two in connecting via high speed rail and Houston just received fame from being the first city in the US to revamp their bus system in one big re-set. The mayors are Annise Parker (Houston), Ivy Taylor in San Antonio and Betsy Price in Forth Worth.

For some it may be a surprise, but Salt Lake City is a place of progressive policies on many fronts. Here a woman followed a very strong Mayor and all indications are, she will continue a strong course and be a real leader.

Salt Lake City: A blue island in a red state, Salt Lake has become a beacon of progressive urban policies first under Mayor Ralph Becker and now under with Jackie Biskupski, Utah's first openly gay mayor. Becker aggressively expanded light rail, created an innovative "bike turn box" and brought innovation conferences to his city

Clearly, this blog cannot do justice to the many innovative mayors across the country. I would be really amiss, though, if I didn't mention former Charleston Joe Riley. In the words of Ed McMahon, a Fellow at ULI:
Joe Riley believed that the Mayor was the chief designer of the city. He was willing to say “no” to bad development and as a result Charleston has become one of the nation’s best small cities. 
Hopefully this little tour across the country allows folks to look at our candidates for mayor with the question in mind who of the candidates would have the potential to rise to become on of those nationally recognized leaders that can put Baltimore back into the mix of places with new and creative ideas and high quality of life for all.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Most innovative mayors in the US (Newsweek, 2012)
In a Time of Shutdown, the Age of the Mayor (Esquire 2013)