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  • Writer's pictureJoe Pace

Favorite Non-Fiction Books, #94: Shortest Way Home

Now he's just some secretary.

When it comes to the Presidency, I've always been partial to candidates who have had some executive experience in government. Some of our most effective modern Presidents have been former governors (both Roosevelts, Reagan, Clinton - we can argue about Carter and Bush). Having to balance competing interests and balance the budget, to make actual choices and engage in the sloppy and frustrating art of governing, to manage senior staff and work with legislators both friendly and hostile. Even the ceremonial role as chief executive of a state is similar to the demands of the presidency. If that's not preparation for the White House, I don't know what is. 17 American presidents have served as governors.

And yet only two have been mayors - Grover Cleveland, who had been mayor of Buffalo (and then Governor of New York before his election to the presidency), and a brief stint as mayor of Northampton by Calvin Coolidge. Only one sitting mayor has ever been his party's nominee for president - NYC's DeWitt Clinton 1812 (Madison beat him 50.4 - 47.6%). Two other Big Apple mayors tried it - John Lindsey in 1972 and Rudy Giuliani in 2008 - but both got nowhere. Ask Martin O'Malley (former Baltimore mayor) about his 2016 experience.

Despite a dearth of historic mayoral success, are we on the verge of seeing a transformation a pathway to higher office for urban leaders? In 2020 the Democratic primary has six mayors or former mayors: Cory Booker (Newark), John Hickenlooper (Denver), Julian Castro (San Antonio), Bill DeBlasio (NYC again), Wayne Messam (Miramar), and Pete Buttigieg (South Bend). While none seems poised to storm the top tier of candidates (except perhaps Buttigieg or even Booker if the chips fall his way), the sheer number of City Hall veterans is interesting. There has been some academic study into why mayors haven't advanced politically, and the major reasons are cited as the perception of cities by suburban voters who hold so much electoral power. Since the days of the agrarian vs commercial feuds of Jefferson and Hamilton, there has always been a sharp divide between cities and not-cities in America. For most of our collective history, cities were seen as corrupt administrative backwaters, a perception flavored by a healthy dose of racially intolerant regard for ghettos and immigrant populations.

In the last decade or so, things are changing. Metro areas are swelling to include their immediate suburban neighbors, and those areas are growing bluer. Northern Virginia, Southern California, even parts of Texas are seeing the growth of the megalopolises where an increasing proportion of Americans live. Virginia and North Carolina's shift to the Democratic column in national races is driven by these ravenous municipal-commercial centers - and demographics suggest that Texas and Arizona aren't far behind, perhaps even Georgia. As Rust Belt populations shrink and age, the Sun Belt and Mid-Atlantic continue to grow more diverse, more vibrant, wealthier, and more progressive. America's electoral map is changing, and becoming more favorable to mayors who can manage the snarling beasts under their control.

Also, as our partisan legislative processes stall in Washington and state houses, cities are becoming the places where innovation and problem-solving can thrive. The new generation of data-based, pragmatic, solution-oriented leaders are coming not from the Senate or state assemblies, but from municipal councils and mayor's offices. These women and men are trained to look beyond partisanship at real answers that deliver services to their residents. Even at the super-local level, in small towns like Exeter (15,000 people) or even Kensington (2,100!), we look for new ways to address problems and make funding work. It's where the real governing is happening in America.

That's why I'm open to a mayor for President, even of a small town like South Bend, Indiana (100,000). I like that Pete Buttigieg is young, even as that ruffles the feathers of some. I don't care that he's gay (I also don't care that he's white, or male, even if some do). I care that he's been in the municipal trenches, and even though his record isn't spotless, he's been engaged in the messy work of getting things done locally. I care that he's a veteran not just of City Hall but of the United States Navy. I'll always have a soft spot for those who raised their hand and offered to serve rather than have their rich daddy buy them a medical deferment. I'm eager to hear more of Mayor Pete's values-based campaign that seeks to position the Democratic Party as the party of freedom, of choice, of shared prosperity, and of equality of opportunity.

Pete Buttigieg will be at the Exeter Town Hall at 7:00pm tonight. I'll be there, with my ears open. Because that's the only way any of this works.

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