Mayors Take Center Stage: Leadership During the Pandemic & Beyond

In 2010, New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote that former Chicago Mayor Richard Daly “lacks the classic leadership traits. He is a poor speaker. He has no charisma. But the spirit of Chicago pervades his skin and bones … His love for the city has caused him to pay attention to those boring things that have to get done for the city to work.”

At a time when the minutiae of Washington, D.C., dominates the daily headlines, it’s easy to overlook how much political energy and revolutionary engagement springs from city hall.

City Hall building.
Photographer: Si Vo | Source: Shutterstock

“On the presidential level, we’re always looking for a savior,” Brooks wrote. “[B]ut Daly shows that a prosaic workhorse sometimes turns out just as well or better.”

Whether managing potholes or parking, integrating refugees or adjusting to new environmental realities brought about by climate change, mayors spend their days on the frontlines, looking their citizenry in the eye and responding to disruptions spurred by nature, technology, the economy, and demographics.

Sure, communities from coast to coast strive to build thriving business landscapes, clean environments, and safe streets. But cities are networks, and their success is contingent on investments and action from a broad swath of stakeholders—public, private, and civic. The mayor collects and composes those puzzle pieces for the city’s image to emerge.

“Leadership, political savvy, administrative skill, the ability to attract business, jobs and tourists,” NPR writes. “Those are just a few of the qualities a successful mayor needs.

Optimism on the Frontlines

Mayors on the frontlines.
Photographer: Microgen | Source: Shutterstock

Perhaps no year in modern history better tested or presented more opportunity to mayors than 2020. Urban areas were among the hardest hit by the coronavirus pandemic and the economy’s ripples turned to waves in many communities. The Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd and resulting Black Lives Matter protests served as catalysts for serious questions to be asked—and answered—on social justice. And let’s not forget the wildfires that raged in dozens of communities across the West Coast of the United States. Compounding logistical nightmares each requiring scrupulous jugglers to keep every element of society afloat.

“Mayors are on the frontlines of the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Michael Bloomberg, former three-term mayor of New York City.

Traditionally defined by their hopefulness, city leaders have had their optimism tested over the past year. The pandemic has not only compromised public safety, but also taken a run at city coffers, according to the annual Menino Survey of Mayors out of Boston University’s Initiative on Cities. This year’s survey indicated that 45 percent of mayors anticipate “dramatic” cuts to school budgets, while 38 percent expect cuts to parks and recreation, and 35 percent forecast transit system reductions.

“This year, while we still hear glimmers of optimism, their pessimism in the face of a once-in-a century pandemic is palpable,” Graham Wilson, director of the program, said.

An Opportunity for Government Innovation

“We were one of the first cities to do it,” Denver Mayor Michael Hancock recalls of his jurisdiction’s stay-at-home order toward the start of the pandemic. “We were one of the first cities to mandate masks. It was a tough call, but it saved lives.”

The leader of Denver since 2011, Hancock makes daunting decisions and tackles the growing pains associated with his budding city on a daily basis. In 2017, when President Trump issued an executive order threatening to withhold federal dollars from sanctuary cities—including Denver—Hancock responded rationally and with restraint, dedicating months to a lobbying effort to adjust the local laws.

Confronting the lockdown with a comparable philosophy of resilience and innovation, 92 percent of the 130 mayors examined in this year’s Menino Survey crafted outdoor dining selections in their respective cities to enable restaurants to operate despite the lockdowns.

“We shut down streets and figured out we could do some wonderful things,” Hancock explains. “People enjoy restaurants while out in the street. We may never open those streets again.”

A New York restaurant uses the street for extra seating space.
Cities across the world are rethinking how to use their streets. | Photographer: Renata Ty | Source: Shutterstock

As Winston Churchill famously said: “Never let a good crisis go to waste.”

“We saw new ways of delivering services, new forms of governance, imaginative new uses of public spaces, and new ways of building community—we expect to see ideas in these areas and more,” said James Anderson, head of government innovation at Bloomberg Philanthropies.

Standing Up and Standing Out

Some mayors even defied state political leadership in the name of protecting their populations.

When Georgia Governor Brian Kemp sued Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms over the city’s enforcement of a mask mandate, he solidified the struggle between cities and states over how to respond to the virus.

Bottoms said she believed Kemp was motivated by his political ideology rather than the leadership required to meet the moment. She was one of several city leaders who challenged state lawmakers in responding to the outbreak. Mayors of cities in Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, and Tennessee described their counterparts at the state level as lacking coordination and consistency while precautions such as face coverings and social distancing took on political undertones.

Mayors are now responsible for the management and distribution of COVID-19 vaccines in their communities and seek to encourage trust in science.

“Distributing these vaccines and building confidence in them is the last big hurdle to ending this health and economic crisis and returning to our way of life,” said Tom Cochran, CEO and executive director of the U.S. Conference of Mayors. “Mayors have driven the local response to this pandemic from the beginning, and mayors are going to be central to ending it.”


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