Big City Mayors and the Future of American Politics

Last week, Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York cited his profound disappointment in both presidential candidates. Bloomberg, an ex-Republican who promotes gay marriage and big business alike and remained an undecided voter in the 2008 election, doesn’t trust that Romney’s Bain Capital credentials are a stand-in for good national fiscal management, but hasn’t warmed up to an Obama economic agenda that focuses on “fair share” tax schemes.
Bloomberg’s moment in the political limelight is a critical one: rarely over the last eight years have big city mayors played such a pivotal role in engaging national politics. Bloomberg’s public indecision is just one example of how the last two years have embedded urban politics in a national partisan horse race. It follows DNC speeches by Los Angeles’ Antonio Villaraigosa and Newark’s Cory Booker, not to mention a Log Cabin Republican ad campaign at the RNC by San Diego’s gay GOP leader Jerry Sanders. Last year also brought Obama’s former advisor, Rahm Emanuel, to mayoral glory in his native Chicago, shattering a dense political machine that had existed since the early 1900’s.
American cities are political ecosystems that are often far removed from national politics: they tend to be largely Democratic, marked by intense ethnic and racial conflict, and centered around economic development strategies specific to local regions. Aligning with national movements is a messy thing for politicians in big cities – the site-specific interests that they have been elected to represent are less fiercely partisan and more rooted in the politics of neighborhood identity and economic development.
But maybe it’s time for America to learn from its biggest cities.
Bloomberg, an independent business baron and civic giant, has filled his city with innovative economic revitalization initiatives, sustained the most innovative educational overhauls in urban American history, and assembled one of the most diverse, dynamic, and politically eclectic coalitions to craft a city that flashes and sparkles. Obama has cited various institutions in New York’s educational and economic landscape as models for the country as a whole. Initiatives to boost business and revitalize public education have also been lauded in Houston, Newark, DC and other hotbeds of creativity.
By encouraging America’s most innovative and effective growth strategies, big city mayors are perhaps in a better position than anyone to gauge the success of national politics. In no place are politics shaped by independent thinkers and entrepreneurial actors than in the dense, conflict-ridden landscapes of American cities. Blomberg’s visibility this week in critiquing the bureaucratic and partisan nature of national politics highlights the critical role that local leaders can play as the nation’s woes evolve and as room for new solutions emerges.