A stable of the nation’s current and former Democratic mayors are eyeing 2020 presidential campaigns, hoping the dysfunction in Washington creates an opening for candidates with hands-on executive experience.
At least seven people running or considering runs for president in 2020 are or were mayors: South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg; former San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro; former Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper; former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg; former Newark, New Jersey, Mayor Cory Booker; Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti; and New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu. And those a few years removed from their time running cities – like Booker and Castro – are reintroducing voters to those chapters of their lives as 2020 looms.
The mayors gathered in DC on Thursday for the winter meeting of the US Conference of Mayors, with the ongoing partial government shutdown providing them with a potent talking point: The federal government shuts down; local government does not.
“When you are mayor and you look at this, it’s puzzling,” Buttigieg told reporters. “Because in any American city, if you allowed the city government to shut down for a minute, and stopped delivering water and stopped picking up trash, they’d run you out of town on a rail. You just don’t let it happen.”
Garcetti said “America is crying out for leadership” and that mayors are prepared to offer it.
“I know that if this room stormed Capitol Hill we would get this shutdown taken care of in a few hours,” Garcetti told an audience of mayors.
The government shutdown, which dragged into its 34th day on Thursday as over 800,000 federal workers remain out of work, has become a foil for mayors eyeing 2020. Throughout the halls of the conference mayors laughed at the absurdity of mayors closing down local governments and shook their heads at the impasse on Capitol Hill over funding for President Donald Trump’s border wall.
“At a period of time when Washington is broken and nothing gets done, mayors get a lot of things done,” said Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who will leave that office in the spring but hasn’t signaled he is considering a presidential bid. “People are frustrated with the continued dysfunction (in Washington) and what a mayor offers … is they have a record of results, and a record of results stands out in a period of broken government.”
Only three previous presidents had ever been mayors – Andrew Johnson, Grover Cleveland and Calvin Coolidge – but the cadre of mayors looking at 2020 bids believe that if any presidential cycle is ripe for a mayor to win, this would be the one.
“Mayors feel empowered,” Hickenlooper, a former governor of Colorado who served as Denver’s mayor for eight years, said in an interview with CNN. “Most mayors got into business because they want to serve, and they believe in America’s ideals. They see that being broken apart, and mayors are the front lines and I think they take that personally.”
Hickenlooper, a potential candidate who has inched closer to a run since leaving office earlier in January, has hired a number of top staffers to his political action committee and is starting to book early-voting-state travel, including a trip to Iowa on Sunday. Asked by CNN if he thinks mayors offer something different than senators and businesspeople, Hickenlooper didn’t pause: “Absolutely.”
“Mayors, in terms of public service and political life, mayors are the most granular,” he said. “They are the ones who are actually solving people’s problems day in and day out. Right now, people are so disenchanted with government and so suspicious, mayors have this golden opportunity to demonstrate that they listen.”
Frank Cownie, the mayor of Des Moines, Iowa, and a frequent recipient of 2020 calls, said he believes mayors are able to sell tangible accomplishments and, for that reason, mayors running in 2020 will find success in Iowa.
“We know how to deliver,” he said. “And for that reason, I think they are going to get some traction because they do deliver. … And we are not shutting down.”
And even for a potential candidate whose most recent political job wasn’t mayor – like Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, who was elected mayor of Newark in 2006 – their local government experience will feature prominently as a way to demonstrate their executive experience. For Booker, in particular, his tenure as Newark’s mayor is likely to feature prominently in his 2020 campaign message, especially as a way to distinguish him from the slew of other Democratic senators running for president.
“I think his campaign will represent a bit of that grit and determination of Newark more than US senator from Washington,” said one Iowa Democratic operative, who is currently neutral, “and I think that will serve him well.”
However, Booker now faces a challenge that would have seemed unthinkable just a few years ago: reminding Democratic voters of his record as, formerly, one of the most famous mayors in the country.
Booker was hardly underexposed as mayor: His unsuccessful 2002 campaign, in which he challenged Mayor Sharpe James, inspired dozens of glowing profiles and the Oscar-nominated documentary “Street Fight.” Then came the two-season, all-access Sundance docu-series “Brick City,” which followed Booker’s arc as mayor following his 2006 victory.
But for many people, that’s now ancient history – and Booker, who will address the mayors’ conference later Thursday, is reintroducing Democrats to this key chapter of his story as he ramps up toward an all-but-inevitable presidential campaign.
And on Thursday it was clear there is no limit to how far Democrats will reach to invoke city government experience.
Former Vice President Joe Biden, while speaking at the mayors’ conference, even made light of the fact that he had served for two years as a member of the New Castle City Council in Delaware, from 1970 to 1972.
“You know, I was a local official,” he said. “I ran for the United States Senate because being a local official was too hard.”
Adding to the joke, Biden said, “You all think I’m kidding. I’m not kidding. (The voters) know where you all live. They know where you live!”