Muriel Bowser
Washington, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser Credit: AFGE/Flickr

American voters have never sent a city mayor directly to the White House. They have never regarded being mayor as sufficient qualification. It’s OK to be a corrupt businessman, a mediocre governor, or a senator who hasn’t managed anything more than his own staff. But to work at gritty levels where ordinary folks meet the schools, police, and other essential services? To navigate the intricacies of race? To witness the intimate impact of government callousness or compassion? All that is deemed irrelevant by the political professionals and the electorate. As America burns, maybe it’s time for some rethinking.

Certain mayors in this crisis have found the right tone of passionate eloquence to voice the country’s widespread revulsion at Officer Derek Chauvin’s murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. They have touched the chords of historical outrage over deprivation and oppression. They have mixed moving pleas for peace with scathing condemnations of those whose violence, arson, and looting have sullied the noble purpose of the protests.

The fine words have not always worked. Witness Mayor Jacob Frey of Minneapolis, whose eloquent outrage at Floyd’s murder did not protect him from being booed out of a protest rally Saturday after he (sensibly) refused to “defund” and abolish the police, which would mean giving streets over to gangs and vigilantes. Such trial by fire can be an education.

Being mayor is a tough job, and mayors across the country have been exercising tough love. They’re not all good at it, and ingrained cultures of both police and citizens impede progress even by the most enlightened. But they’ve had actual experience at the grassroots, never a bad thing in governing, especially from the highest post in the land.

That experience has not proved persuasive to voters. Grover Cleveland was mayor of Buffalo, but his stepping stone to the presidency was as governor of New York State. Calvin Coolidge was the small-town mayor of Northampton, Mass., but before and after that, he served in the state legislature, from which he was elected vice president; he became president when Warren Harding died.

Modern candidates have not gained much traction from their mayoral backgrounds. Vice President Hubert Humphrey had been mayor of Minneapolis before becoming a U.S. Senator, but the Minneapolis job didn’t figure prominently in his political reputation.

New York Mayor John Lindsay, a liberal Republican, got nowhere after he switched parties and tried for the 1972 Democratic presidential nomination. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio made a fleeting effort last year. Pete Buttigieg was still mayor of South Bend, Indiana, when he launched his bid for this year’s Democratic presidential nomination, and despite his obvious ability to learn from that role—including hard lessons about policing and race—those qualifications failed to draw sufficient votes. Julian Castro had been mayor of San Antonio, then Secretary of Housing and Urban Development in the Obama administration. His years as mayor informed his positions but were rarely cited in his run for the nomination. Senator Bernie Sanders was mayor of Burlington, Vermont, but again, he didn’t talk about it much.

Perhaps the credential will mean more now that we’re seeing how vital local government is to addressing the pandemic and improving police-community relations. Not that being a mayor necessarily makes you fit to be president. In 1928, Chicago Mayor William Hale Thompson was foiled in his run for the Republican nomination, in part because he opposed Prohibition and took financing from Al Capone. In 1972, Los Angeles Mayor Sam Yorty, a red-baiter who inflamed police brutality against blacks, tried for the Democratic nomination and won only six percent of the vote in the New Hampshire primary. And Rudy Giuliani, Mayor of New York during 9/11, whose support for abortion rights torpedoed him with Republicans, tarnished himself with his work as President Trump’s personal lawyer and backdoor emissary to Ukraine; an exemplary president he would not be.

Plenty of good presidents haven’t been mayors. Think of Washington, Jefferson, Adams, Lincoln, both Roosevelts, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Carter, Clinton, and Obama. And while mayors lack the foreign policy experience valuable in the White House, most of those presidents did as well.

You can study foreign policy. You can hire good experts. But from the pinnacle of the White House, you can’t absorb the people’s pain. You can’t detect the layers of hardship and the crosscurrents of concerns.

Since the murder of Floyd, mayors have risen above the flames to walk a delicate line of hurt and warning. Frey of Minneapolis, who is white, immediately fired the four officers involved, requested the national guard, and gave voice to the “anger and sadness that has been ingrained in our black community, not just because of five minutes of horror, but four hundred years.” “Being black in America should not be a death sentence,” he declared, and also denounced the looting as “unacceptable. Our communities cannot and will not tolerate it.”

For displaying his strength of character, Frey was denounced by Trump as “weak” and then shamed by protestors who should have recognized the mayor, elected in 2018, as their ally in pressing for police reform. “Go home, Jacob, go home!” they shouted as he was forced to leave the demonstration on a long, humiliating walk through the crowd.

His neighboring mayor, Melvin Carter of St. Paul, who is black, managed to touch every important note. He also placed Floyd’s killing in the long landscape of history, “not just over the past decade as camera phones have become the norm, but over the past decades and generations and centuries in our country.” Then he went on:

 “That anger is real, and I share it with you. So today we’re asking our community for peace, but I want to be very clear, we are not asking you for patience …  I am not asking you to sit to the side and patiently wait while we slowly and incrementally stem the bloody tide of African-American men killed by law enforcement. We’re asking you to take that energy, that energy … that can either destroy us or it could bring us together and build us up in a way that we have never been together before as a country. We’re asking you to take that energy and use it not to destroy our neighborhoods but to destroy the historic culture, to destroy the systemic racism, to destroy … the laws, the legal precedents, the police union contracts, all of the things that make it so difficult to hold someone accountable when a life like George Floyd’s is so wrongfully taken.”

Indeed, as Carter and other mayors know so well, police don’t change easily. Their unions are mostly devoted to defending officers, not to correcting them and their departments. Where contracts require arbitration to rule on dismissals, many officers fired return to their jobs. It’s a good bet that the vast majority of police officers were as revolted by the video of Chauvin’s knee on Floyd’s neck as other Americans; many police chiefs said as much, and some cops prayed, marched, and took a knee with protesters. Yet police departments are among the country’s most racist institutions, and reformist mayors such as Frey have found them practically impervious to change.

One mayor worth hearing at length is Keisha Lance Bottoms of Atlanta, who is black. She excoriated the violent among the peaceful protesters:

“I am a mother. I am a mother to four black children in America, one of whom is eighteen years old. And when I saw the murder of George Floyd, I hurt like a mother would hurt. And yesterday I heard there were rumors about violent protests in Atlanta, I did what a mother would do. I called my son and I said, ‘Where are you?’ I said, ‘I cannot protect you, and black boys should not be out today.’

So you’re not gonna out-concern me and out-care about where we are in America. I wear this each and every day and I pray over my children each and every day. So what I see happening on the streets of Atlanta is not Atlanta. This is not a protest. This is not in the spirit of Martin Luther King Jr. This is chaos. A protest has purpose. When Dr. King was assassinated, we didn’t do this to our city. So if you love this city, this city that has had a legacy of black mayors and black police chiefs and people who care about this city, where more than 50 percent of the business owners in Metro Atlanta are minority business owners, if you care about this city, then go home …

“You’re not honoring the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement. You’re not protesting anything running out with brown liquor in your hands breaking windows in this city . . .  If you want change in America, go and register to vote. Show up at the polls on June ninth. Do it in November. That is the change we need in this city. You are disgracing this city . . . We are better than this as a city. We are better than this as a country. Go home. Go home. In the same way I couldn’t protect my son yesterday, I cannot protect you out in those streets.”

Mayor Muriel Bowser of Washington, D.C., also black, had a few choice words for Trump.

“I call upon our city and our nation to exercise great restraint, even while our president tries to divide us,” she declared. “We are grieving hundreds of years of institutional racism, systems that require black Americans to prove our humanity just for it to be disregarded … We need leaders who recognize this pain and in times of great turmoil and despair can provide us a sense of calm and a sense of hope. Instead, what we’ve got in the last two days from the White House is the glorification of violence against American citizens. What used to be heard in dog whistles we now hear from a bull horn. So to everyone hurting and doing our part to move this country forward, we will look to ourselves and our own communities for this leadership and this hope.”

That statement came before Trump fanned the flames again a week ago by telling governors that they were “weak,” urging tougher police measures, and threatening to call in active duty troops. Even though the governors and mayors rejected the president’s call for police violence, some rank and file officers heeded it, thereby playing their roles in the pageant of police brutality that reinforced the angry mourning that has swept across the land.

David K. Shipler

David K. Shipler is a Washington Monthly contributing writer; Pulitzer Prize–winning author of seven books, including Russia: Broken Idols, Solemn Dreams; and former Moscow bureau chief for The New York Times. He blogs at The Shipler Report and cohosts the podcast Two Reporters. Follow David on Twitter @DavidShipler.