Editor’s Note: John Avlon is a CNN senior political analyst and anchor. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion articles on CNN.
Then-New York City Mayor Fiorello La Guardia famously said, “There is no Democratic or Republican way to clean the streets.” The quote captures the idea that the best mayors are nonideological problem solvers, governing closest to the people, focused on uniting citizens in a common cause.
And if that sounds like the opposite of Donald Trump’s Washington, it may explain why an unusual number of attendees at this week’s US Conference of Mayors meeting see a future president in the mirror. In fact, an unprecedented seven current and former mayors are considering a 2020 run.
If history is any guide, it could all end in tears. No one has ever catapulted directly from City Hall to the White House. But Trump’s election also suggests that it’s time to throw the rule book out.
At the top tier of potential candidates are former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, former New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu and – the only one with an exploratory committee – the 37-year-old mayor of South Bend, Indiana, Pete Buttigieg.
The list swells when you consider that US Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey first roared to national prominence as the two-term mayor of Newark and former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper came to politics in a nonpartisan election as Denver’s mayor after starting a pioneering brewpub.
Looking on from the wings are Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, who has been straining to build a reputation as a national progressive leader since reaching office.
You’ve got to go back to 1972 to find two mayors running for president in the same year – New York’s John Lindsay and Los Angeles’ Sam Yorty – and neither made much of a dent in the Democratic primary process. More recently, Rudy Giuliani tried to translate his 9/11 leadership of New York City into a 2008 bid, which I worked on. And only Presidents Grover Cleveland and Calvin Coolidge served as mayor – of Buffalo, New York, and Northampton, Massachusetts, respectively – before running for governor and reaching the presidency.
In a broad and shallow field of Democratic candidates, mayors have an edge over the ambitious one- or two-term congressmen in that they’ve actually held executive office. That’s been the key criteria for most presidents, albeit at the gubernatorial level. And it’s worth remembering that mayors of major cities like New York or Los Angeles govern far larger populations than those of 30 or so states – including Bill Clinton’s native Arkansas.
The mayors certainly face their hurdles. None of them are in the top tier of early polling. But Mike Bloomberg is in the unique position of having the center lane open while most candidates compete for the progressive-activist crowd. If he gets in the race, the self-made billionaire would be able to spend an unprecedented amount of money to make his case for data-driven excellence in government. And while populists will find plenty to gripe about in his biography and beliefs, Bloomberg has undeniably been a leader on many of their biggest issues – particularly climate change and gun reform.
Mitch Landrieu has been flattered but not yet convinced by requests to throw his hat in the ring. He’s a comparatively young 58 and coming off a successful two terms in which he led the rebuilding after Hurricane Katrina. Like Trump, he has a gift of talking like a regular person, not a politician, and it’s easy to imagine him going toe-to-toe with the President on a debate stage. Unlike Donald Trump, he knows how to govern and connect with the African-American community. Despite his local Louisiana roots, he’s got the perspective of a statesman. His address arguing for taking down Confederate monuments is one of the best speeches of our young century, offering a searching explanation for how we need to wrestle with our history to do the right thing in real time.
Pete Buttigieg is the only one with his hat actually in the ring. And while his Indiana hometown is not typically seen as a springboard to national office, he’s developed a reputation as an earnest and inspirational leader from the industrial Midwest, a region that is sure to be a key battleground. At 37, he’s the youngest candidate in the race and boasts an impressive resume as a Rhodes scholar and an openly gay Afghanistan War vet.
Cory Booker and John Hickenlooper have good shots of becoming top-tier candidates if, as expected, they get in the race and their experience as mayors is balanced by their statewide successes, making the leap look less extreme. Booker can claim to bridge the two wings of the party while Hickenlooper can look to his centrist success in changing the political character of Colorado from reliably red to purple, trending blue.
These are early days, and there’s plenty of time to turn conventional wisdom on its head. Back in 2007, Giuliani was the front-runner in many polls for the GOP nomination. I worked as director of speechwriting and deputy director of policy on that campaign, and so, I saw firsthand the turbulence that can come when a former mayor tries to run for president, even with a national reputation for leadership created in the wake of the defining attack of our time. Rudy’s success as mayor – cutting crime and welfare and taxes – couldn’t ultimately overcome conservative concern about his social policies in being pro-choice, pro-immigration and pro-gay rights. And that was in a party where compassionate conservatism still had a constituency.
Mayors should have a much easier time rising in the Democratic Party, where the social liberalism that comes from leading diverse urban areas is an asset while the core fiscal and law enforcement responsibilities could help balance the party’s progressivism for a national audience of swing voters in swing states.
It’s still a huge leap, but at least mayors can say they would never allow the government to shut down. They understand that the basic job of governing is far more important than grandstanding. And out of practical necessity, they’re practiced in the politics of addition rather than division. While politics in Washington has degenerated into dysfunctional hyper-partisanship, it’s increasingly our local communities that give us hope. Watching fellow citizens work together to solve common problems offers a compelling countervision of America after four years of bitter polarization and self-inflicted paralysis.