From New York City to Detroit and Los Angeles to Pittsburgh, an unusually large new cohort of mayors from major U.S. cities took office at the start of 2014.
Many (though not all) take the reins in an era of healthy economic growth and innovation. Yet in a time of unprecedented wealth inequality in America, they face significant issues trying to ensure that huge swaths of their constituents are not left behind.
Each city’s challenges are unique. But looking at the new mayors together, there are clearly common issues they must tackle, such as a dearth of living wage jobs; the difficulties of gentrification, rising costs of living, and the pressures of over-development; and expanding and improving basic city services at a time of tight overall budgets.
Here’s a look at a sampling of the new class, with a local experts’ take on each mayor's priorities and potential to make change. With little track record to speak of yet, it’s still a clean slate for them all. That means wide open opportunities for progress and innovation that we'll see if they can fulfill.
The problem of growing inequality is a trend across the U.S., in part shaped by economic forces that are beyond any mayor’s direct control. But as with most everything in the nation’s largest city, New York takes things to an extreme.
After 12 years in office, former Mayor Michael Bloomberg left a thriving city shaped by his often-groundbreaking policies. Mayor Bill de Blasio swept into office as a populist determined to address what is likely the biggest failing on Bloomberg’s watch: the rise of "two cities"— a phenomenon marked by soaring income inequality, increasingly unaffordable costs of living and housing, and the largest homeless population since the Great Depression.
"Just like Mayor Bloomberg seeded so many innovations in sustainability and walkable streets ... I think de Blasio has the opportunity to really be a pioneer for addressing the challenges of the working poor," says Jonathan Bowles, executive director of the New York-based Center for an Urban Future. "In so many ways, New York is on a roll. But there are a lot of New Yorkers who don't feel like they’ve participated in that growth. De Blasio has this opportunity to really create a test lab for the rest of the country in addressing these issues of restoring economic mobility."
One of de Blasio's array of proposals put out to differentiate his priorities from his predecessor is to increase taxes on the wealthy to fund education that addresses the "skills gap"—starting with his hope to implement universal pre-K education and more after-school programs. He also aims for a "dramatic expansion" of affordable housing, through direct city building projects as well as more requirements for new developers, incentives for landlords, and better renter protections.
Bowles says he’s optimistic that de Blasio can push through innovative solutions—and hopefully also tackle less sexy projects, such as focusing on modernizing the city’s aging infrastructure. "Without a lot of help from Washington and with a precarious budget situation already, it’s not going to be easy," he says. "But I think it’s the right time."
Boston, long a major research and technology center on the East Coast, echoes New York in having among the healthiest economies in the nation. And like its neighbor, its biggest struggle is now with those left behind. "The consensus is very strongly that the new mayor is inheriting a very strong situation, and there’s an opportunity to build on that," says Paul Grogan, CEO of the Boston Foundation. "Part of our success in Boston is in building an innovation economy. If you are qualified for the kinds of jobs that economy has created, you do very well. If you’re not, you’re pretty harshly punished."
Mayor Martin Walsh, the first new Boston mayor in 20 years, came into his job relatively light on specific proposals (he won over many voters with a larger-than-life personal story as a childhood cancer survivor, a recovering alcoholic, and union leader). But he made inequality, affordability, and education—what Grogan views to be some of the top challenges in Boston—the pillars of his campaign and inauguration speech. One proposed tactic, which is controversial, is boosting Boston’s already strong network of charter schools. Though Boston is a coastal city that faces threats due to climate change, Walsh is a relatively blank slate on issues of resiliency, the environment, and sustainability.
Grogan notes that, in many ways, former mayor Tom Menino was not himself directly responsible for what made Boston such a vital city today—largely, cleaning the incredibly polluted harbor and the continued expansion of its education and research institutions. What he did right, says Grogan, was enable growth by being a competent executive who improved city services and kept the city safe and clean. On Walsh, Grogan says: "Much of what he’s going to be doing, he has no track record on—which he freely admits. So it’ll be a bit of an adventure."
With her campaign message of "One Minneapolis," mayor Betsy Hodges comes into office with a major focus on addressing the disparities in income, education and opportunity among the city’s minorities and its white residents. The focus is on inequality as in other cities listed, but the tenor is a racial one in addition to economic. "We’re absolutely at the bottom when it comes to education equality. We have more kids—African American kids, Latino kids, Asian American kids—dropping out of school and not graduating than just about any other place in the country," says Sandra Vargas, CEO of the Minneapolis Foundation. "It’s a societal issue, but it’s also become a serious problem for the economy for this region as a whole."
With a focus on improving early childhood education for all groups, Hodges calls the gaps in outcomes between the city’s whites and people of color "shameful" and "intolerable." She asks: Will we be a nation where anyone really can become president?—and notes this is a question that local governments need to play a big role in answering.
Her inauguration speech was also full of specifics that focused on the challenges of transit and smart growth, making sure development is sustainable and along transportation corridors (Minneapolis is improbably the most-bike friendly city in the U.S.). One early focus for Hodges will be creating a modern streetcar system that connects different living hubs downtown. She spoke of green, walkable and livable neighborhoods in the southern residential parts of the city, and thinks the downtown mall should be the "envy of every street in the world."
Hodges has done a big listening tour around the city to start. And while she’ll face challenges in funding and pushing through her priorities for sure, with a deep knowledge of the city’s finances from her time on the city council, Mayor Hodges starts from an advantage. "What she brings is a new energy around collaboration and a willingness to work through the tough conversations with people who are on different sides," says Vargas.
One telling but small detail: Unlike the two mayors before her, she had donors bankroll her inaugural party so that she could be more inclusive and offer tickets free of charge.
The nation’s second largest city is a bit of an exception on this list. Mayor Eric Garcetti, a hip Jew of Latino heritage who, at 41, is the city’s youngest leader in more than a century, actually took office this past July. Following a flashy, but sometimes ineffective predecessor, he’s so far kept his head down and focused on building his administration.
With unemployment higher than 11%, the city of Los Angeles suffers from relatively slow job growth, compared with its sprawling outlying metropolitan area and many other California cities. "The mayor has to deal with ‘how do we create more local jobs?’" says Kevin Klowden, director of the California Center at the Milken Institute, a nonpartisan think tank. "A lot of it is dealing with the bureaucracy. LA is considered a very difficult place to do business."
Garcetti has put out a series of proposals on how to boost the local tech sector and foreign investments in the city, as well as improve job training and tackle LA’s troubling high school dropout rate. Ironically, one challenge is keeping the entertainment industry and its production crews—and tax revenue—in LA, as they increasingly leave the region for cheaper areas to film. (He’s already ended fees for shooting TV pilots.) As other cities have done, he’s proposing to create a more open, tech-focused civic center, appointing the city’s first CTO and ordering the release of more data. In a famously congested, car-centric city, he’s also hoping to make streets more bike and pedestrian friendly.
A challenge he will face, says Klowden, and one that stymied his predecessor on the "big" issues of reducing congestion and improving education, is that the mayor actually has relatively little power to do much of anything on his own, in comparison to most other major cities.
Transit is among the most pressing issues in Charlotte, a city that has been among the fastest-growing in the nation over the last decade. Its sunny weather, relatively low housing prices, and job growth, fueled by major employers including Duke Energy, Wells Fargo, and Bank of America, are huge draws for newcomers to the city. But like many southern metropolitan areas, its transportation is lacking:
"Our transit system has not kept up with population growth," says Shannon Binns, executive director of Sustain Charlotte, an advocacy group for broadly-defined sustainable urban growth. "We’re the poster child of sprawl."
Twenty years after entering politics at 26 as Charlotte’s youngest-ever city council member, the new mayor, Patrick Cannon, enters with a focus on trying to fund improvements related to the city’s 2030 transit plan. For the short-term, Cannon is working with other politicians to fund a streetcar line that connects the lower-income eastern and western ends of the city—unfortunately, the richer southern section, which is most of its tax base, is not a fan. Binns was impressed with Cannon’s political courage on this issue when he was the only among 10 candidates to respond to a Sustain Charlotte survey voicing support for a sales tax increase or other tax measure to fund the streetcar work.
In the long-term, Cannon has the chance to set in motion for Charlotte to become not only an economic powerhouse in the Southeast but also a more sustainable one: It is already the only southeastern city to have even one light rail line. By 2030, it hopes to add several more.
Following a difficult few decades industry fleeing the region, Pittsburgh is a city that is finally on the upswing as Mayor Bill Peduto starts his term. "It’s not the top of the bell-shaped curve, it’s just at the beginning of that upward slope," says Audrey Russo, president of the Pittsburgh Technology Council.
His major challenge, Russo says, will be continuing to nudge up the curve of economic growth. That means more effectively encouraging immigration and international business relationships in this relatively homogenous city, as well as making the city an attractive place for startups to form based on work in the region’s strong universities. It also means focusing on the city’s aging infrastructure, transportation networks, and airport.
Peduto has adopted a reformer’s approach to making the city more transparent. Already, he’s directed his transition team to take suggestions for the city’s blueprint from the public, with more than 1,100 responses in a few weeks. In Pittsburgh, Russo sees an opportunity for the city to grow while avoiding the gentrification pitfalls that have plagued New York, San Francisco, and Boston. "I think we can learn from those cities," she says. "We can be wiser about this growth, and more inclusive."
Unlike every other city on this list, Detroit, which filed for municipal bankruptcy last July and will be under the financial jurisdiction of state emergency manager until at least September, is a city on the brink.
"Detroit has had a narrative of loss for the last 10 years in very deep ways. One of the big things that our new elected leadership is going to have to do is to create a narrative of opportunity, and to help us build a foundation that really builds out on the assets of the city," says Tonya Allen, president of the Skillman Foundation, based in Detroit.
Widely admired for his skill as a manager who efficiently ran a major hospital system, Mayor Mike Duggan—the city’s first white mayor in 40 years—came to office in January. "He’s seen as a person who can really operationalize change," Allen says. His biggest challenges will be tackling the basic needs of adding more safety and policing, renewing neighborhoods from blight (the city has some 300,000 vacant buildings and lots), and finding economic opportunities that reduce the city’s extreme poverty.
Allen has big hopes for Duggan. She says he has good ideas about how to improve city management, such as creating a single city-wide vehicle maintenance department, to put back into service the ambulances, snow plows, and garbage trucks that aren’t doing their jobs for residents. On a bigger scale, she’s impressed with his "leave no neighborhood behind" approach to revitalization—giving residents much-needed hope, as long as they are willing to also put in the work.
For now, as the city's finances are run by the state, Duggan is more the COO of the city, not the CEO. But later this year, once the initial bankruptcy period is over and the emergency manager departs, things will change. Says Allen: "The mayor will be more important than any other mayor we’ve ever had."
Longtime state senator Ed Murray, now Seattle’s first openly gay mayor, came to attention last year in leading the successful drive to legalize same-sex marriage in Washington State. Now as mayor, he seeks to implement progressive change in a number of other key areas.
At the very start of his term, he made an impact already by signing an executive order that would implement a $15 minimum wage for all city employees (it could affect about 600 people). The move comes as the new mayor has already called a commission to look at instating a $15 minimum wage for all Seattle employees more broadly—an effort at the leading edge of a national movement to raise the minimum wage and address the growing affordability crisis for adults with full-time employment in these jobs. Seattle, like San Francisco, has experienced the mixed blessing of a tech-fueled economic boom that is squeezing out low-income residents.
Another challenge for Murray will face involves public safety and reforming the police. The U.S. Justice Department found Seattle’s police used excessive force and bias and is now subject to a court order to change its practices. It’s been a slow-going process so far, but Murray has vowed to pick leaders in the force who won’t drag their heels and make real changes soon.