When the burdens of the presidency seem unusually heavy, I always remind myself it could be worse. I could be a mayor. –Lyndon Johnson
There is nothing rational about cities, is there? Let’s take this sea of humanity, all hailing from different backgrounds, different ethnicities, and different races, and let’s put them virtually on top of one another, and watch them essentially live, work, eat and play together. What could possibly go wrong?
Yet, by the year 2050, it is predicted that two-thirds of the world’s population will live in cities, which — as federal and state governments wallow in dysfunction — have become our last, best hope for experimentation and public innovation. But they don’t work by accident.
Cities, as The Citizen’s founding chairman, the late Jeremy Nowak, used to remind us, are not governments — they’re networks of interlocking, and sometimes competing, interests. The ones that flourish are led by mayors who wear many hats, some combination of convener-, cheerleader-, and cajoler-in-chief.
In this town, there was the legendary reformer Richardson Dilworth, who famously said, “Just imagine where cities would be were it not for men like me to fight for them.”
I’m a nerd for cities, and for mayors. Historically, the best of them are swashbuckling change agents, on-the-ground shapers of the public will who eschew finger-to-the-wind politicking. In this town, there was the legendary reformer Richardson Dilworth, who famously said, “Just imagine where cities would be were it not for men like me to fight for them.”
In the 80s, there was Batimore’s Kurt Schmoke, a Black mayor decrying the drug war long before it was popular to do so (“the most dangerous man in America” he was called by African-American congressman Charlie Rangel) and advocating for school choice and vouchers, so poor inner-city kids could access the type of high quality education offered in the suburbs. Talk about being ahead of your time.
Mayors have always shaped their local zeitgeist, and cities have long adopted the personalities of their mayors. I was in grad school in pugilistic 1980s New York City when, at 6am on trash day every week, Mayor Ed Koch’s familiar whine would boom from a speaker atop mechanized street sweepers throughout the city, upbraiding those whose illegally parked cars were impeding trash pickup: “Your car is parked illegally! Get it outta here!” We were literally waking up to the sound of the mayor doing his job for us every week.
In the 90s, Philly saw a gregarious, passionate dealmaker named Ed Rendell rescue the city from bankruptcy through a careful mix of force of will and a willingness to eschew his own ego in order to fight another day. He was followed by a mayor, the mercurial John Street, who boldly removed countless abandoned cars from far-flung neighborhood streets — an inspiring public statement that corners in North Philly were deserving of the same customer service as Center City’s bustling grid.
The birth of our new podcast
What do they all have in common? Mayors don’t have the luxury of ideology, as demonstrated at our annual Ideas We Should Steal Festival last year, when we convened a discussion between two former two-term mayors that led to our new podcast, How To Really Run a City. “There’s no conservative or progressive way to fix a pothole,” former Philly Mayor Nutter said. “You just have to fix the fucking pothole.”
That conversation between Nutter and former Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed was, by turns, funny, profane and revealing of the mysteries and mastery of big city leadership. But we’d just scratched the surface. Hence, our new podcast, where both will be joined by a different urban innovator each month, shedding light on the ideas that can move the needle on long intractable problems. (In today’s inaugural episode, that is Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf.)
Listeners will get a window into how politics really works, and they’ll hear some banter between two veteran pols with deep connections. In 2007, during Nutter’s underdog run to the mayoralty, Reed, a promising Atlanta pol, found himself visiting a girlfriend in Philly when he saw on TV the ad that pushed Nutter over the top.
Reed promptly reached out to Nutter’s ad makers, Neil Oxman’s The Campaign Group, and soon retained that firm’s J.J. Balaban, now with Technicolor Political, to shape his own run to City Hall. As time went on, Reed and Nutter found themselves often comparing notes and sharing chuckles on Air Force Two with then-Vice President Joe Biden.
In terms of both governing priorities and results, Nutter and Reed seem to have been separated at birth. Reed, who left office after two terms in 2018, hired more than 900 police officers, creating the largest police force in his city’s history, which not coincidentally resulted in a 37 percent drop in crime. He reopened all of Atlanta’s recreation centers (two-thirds of which had been closed when he assumed office), and recruited 17 major companies to headquarter in Atlanta, making his city the fourth-fastest growing metro in the nation.
I first became aware of him in 2010 when Thomas Friedman featured him in the New York Times as a new breed of leader, what Friedman termed “pay-as-you-go progressives.” Reed, Friedman wrote, “cut back pensions for all new employees to pre-2000 levels and raised the vesting period to 15 years from 10. When union picketers swarmed city hall to protest, Reed invited them all into his office in shifts where he patiently explained, with charts, that without pension reform everyone’s pensions would go bust.”
The upshot? Much of the money being siphoned off to shore up Atlanta’s vast unfunded mandate — some 20 percent of the city’s budget! — was soon available for investing in the people of Atlanta, and Reed sailed to reelection.
By the end of Nutter’s two terms in 2016, homicides were at a 60-year low, high school graduation and college attainment were up, Philly had added hundreds of miles of bike lanes, and the city gained population in every year of his administration, including the largest percentage of millennial population growth in the nation. In a town long dominated by insider transactionalism, he instituted sweeping ethics reforms.
These are city guys, and they align more with the late legendary mayor of Boston, Tom Menino, who boasted, Mr. Rogers-like, that “the true privilege of being mayor is that I have the opportunity to be everyone’s neighbor.”
Like Reed, Nutter tried to tackle the city’s runaway pension debt by proposing to sell off PGW, which would have been a net $400 million windfall and would have worked toward freeing up some 16 percent of the budget for growth-oriented investments. But Nutter was stymied by a recalcitrant Council President, Darrell Clarke, who seemed to not want to give the mayor a political win.
Full disclosure: In Nutter’s second term, I became critical of what felt like the slow pace of change, so much so that the mayor once asked me back then where my anger was coming from. It’s only now, in retrospect, that I realize just how hard changemaking is — particularly in a historically corrupt, one-party town that has long been cursed by the soft bigotry of incrementalism. And that’s part of what we’re going to dive into each month with these former mayors — just how daunting are the challenges big cities face, and what are the amino acids of politics an urban chief executive can access to turn things around?
This won’t be some lecture hall snoozefest. Reed is a cut-up, and I don’t have to tell y’all about Nutter’s deadpan wit. But in the end there will be a serious point to be made. I’ve spent a lot of time with both men now, and I have to tell you: We talk all the time in this country about patriotism, often in the most superficial of ways. But we rarely talk about local patriotism. It’s not even a thing. Nutter and Reed? Man, these dudes bleed the colors of their respective cities.
LBJ may have thought being mayor was tougher than being president, but I doubt Nutter and Reed would have traded City Hall for the Oval Office. These are city guys, and they align more with the late legendary mayor of Boston, Tom Menino, who, in arguing that being mayor was its own reward, boasted, Mr. Rogers-like, that “the true privilege of being mayor is that I have the opportunity to be everyone’s neighbor.”
Listen to Episode One:
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