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Nation's New Mayors Revive Big-City Liberalism

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio speaks after being sworn in during the public inauguration ceremony at City Hall in New York on Jan. 1.
Seth Wenig
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio speaks after being sworn in during the public inauguration ceremony at City Hall in New York on Jan. 1.

Like all newly elected politicians, the class of mayors being sworn in as the year begins has made many grand promises.

From New York Mayor Bill de Blasio's pledge to provide universal pre-kindergarten classes, financed through taxes on wealthy individuals, to Seattle Mayor Ed Murray's push for a $15 minimum hourly wage, their agenda looks decidedly liberal.

New mayors in cities such as Boston, Minneapolis and Pittsburgh have also been talking about the importance of racial inclusion and the need to address income inequality.

De Blasio's election, in particular, along with the near-extinction of Republican mayors of big cities (the largest city with a Republican mayor is Indianapolis), has prompted reams of commentary about a revival of big-city liberalism.

"It's not news that there are Democrats being elected in major American cities," says Dan McGrath, executive director of TakeAction Minnesota, a progressive social justice organization. "It is news that there's a new brand of progressive Democrats being elected in these cities that are pushing a different agenda than we've seen in the past."

Still, there are reasons to think liberals might end up being disappointed. There have been plenty of progressive mayors elected over the past 20 years, but most of them have been more managerial in approach — concerned primarily with budgets and public safety — than ideological.

The "reality of managing" will inevitably force the new city hall leaders to compromise, says Amy Liu, co-director of the Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program.

"Most mayors in the country are Democrats who have mostly been governing from a stand that's more pragmatic than ideological, and I think that's going to continue to be the case," Liu says. "For the most part, they're not tackling the more polarizing issues that might be harder to get done."

Being Held Responsible

Members of Congress have to vote on everything, but they can focus on any pet cause of their choice, whether it's hunger, banking regulation or public transportation.

Mayors, by contrast, have to worry about everything. And they can't just talk — they have to deliver basic services such as parks, police and fire protection.

"The very nature of being a mayor requires pragmatism," says Marc Morial, the president of the National Urban League and a former mayor of New Orleans. "Mayors have to do more than wax eloquent and wax ideological on issues — they have to deliver."

Even from de Blasio, there has been recognition that delivering on basic services may be a bigger priority than pursuing broad policy change, as signaled by his choice of William Bratton as police chief, explains Vincent Cannato, a University of Massachusetts Boston historian who has studied New York City mayors.

"If crime goes up, if snow isn't plowed, he's going to get blamed and it's going to discredit whatever else he wants to do," says Cannato, the author of The Ungovernable City: John Lindsay and His Struggle to Save New York.

Operating Under Limits

There's only so much a mayor can do to bring about societal change. Many of the sweeping social problems these mayors are talking about, such as wealth disparity, can't be cured within the limits of one city's boundaries.

Even on local issues, mayors are having to compromise. In an era of constrained resources, mayors are collaborating with private sector players not just on development projects but basic services such as crime prevention. That means their approaches have to be more pragmatic and market-oriented than ideological, says Liu, the Brookings senior fellow.

"By virtue of needing a whole bunch of partners, which is what most of these mayors need, they're going to be somewhat constrained by having to find common ground," says James Brooks, a program director with the National League of Cities.

In de Blasio's case, his hopes for funding universal pre-k depends on agreement from state officials in Albany on raising taxes, which they appear to have little appetite to do.

Still, education is an area where de Blasio can make good on his rhetoric about addressing poverty and inequity, suggests Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the liberal Century Foundation.

The mayor's skepticism about charter schools has already drawn criticism from Republicans, notably House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia.

"For the past decade or so, school reform has been defined essentially as being an effort that challenges the unions," Kahlenberg says. "Someone like de Blasio has a chance to really redefine what it means to be an education reformer."

A Voice For Change

Mayors in recent years have not shied away from lending their voices to liberal causes such as gun control and same-sex marriage. Morial, the National Urban League president, says the new group can do a lot more.

De Blasio not only won control of the nation's largest city and media capital, Morial points out, but "won big."

"That is an affirmation to him that the public wants to see this generation of mayors address and be part of the debate about this issue of income inequality," Morial says, suggesting the mayors can add their voices to a chorus that includes President Obama and Pope Francis.

"This issue is now being discussed much more openly and by more people than I've seen in many generations," he says.

Not every mayor just coming to office ran on a platform of progressive change. Among those who did, some won more due to the weakness of their opponents or quirks of their campaigns than popular demands for liberal action.

But the fact that many of the most high-profile mayors are talking about income disparities and minimum wage hikes shows that their deepest impulses are progressive in nature.

All mayors have to collaborate, says McGrath, the TakeAction Minnesota director. The question is whom they choose to collaborate with.

He notes that Betsy Hodges, the new mayor of Minneapolis, has made a point to engage with people of color and immigrants who are "not considered traditional power players in City Hall.

"I'm absolutely heartened by the fact that there's a lot more talk about the problem of wealth inequality in our world," McGrath says. "I'm even more heartened that there are elected leaders like Betsy not just paying it lip service but creating and aligning grassroots movements to make change."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Alan Greenblatt has been covering politics and government in Washington and around the country for 20 years. He came to NPR as a digital reporter in 2010, writing about a wide range of topics, including elections, housing economics, natural disasters and same-sex marriage.