Mayor Experience Could Help Bloomberg 2016 Presidential Run

Today’s perfect resume for the White House?

Michael Bloomberg meets with mayors from the world’s cities in Paris during November’s COP21 conference on climate change. (AP Photo/Francois Mori)

The conventional wisdom in American politics is that city mayors don’t become president. The last person to enter the White House with mayoral experience was Calvin Coolidge. So after several news outlets reported over the weekend that former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg is considering an independent run for president in 2016 and will decide on a bid by early March, many political pundits were quickly dismissive.

At this point it’s unclear exactly why Bloomberg is doing the operational research to determine whether he will make a bid. Some have theorized he’s so mortified by fellow New Yorker Donald Trump’s rise that Bloomberg thinks he can siphon off enough Trump supporters with an independent run to assure likely Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton of a victory. Others have postulated that Bloomberg will only run if Bernie Sanders is the Democratic nominee, because of the Vermont senator’s more socialist/anti-business policies and Bloomberg’s status as a wealthy, free market businessman. (Forbes estimates the media mogul’s net worth at $36.5 billion, making him the 10th richest person in the U.S.)

There’s one thing, however, that many media outlets failed to cover while jumping all over the Bloomberg-for-president news this weekend: the rise in influence — thanks to global urbanization — of big city mayors around the world. With America’s national leadership abdicating responsibility on everything from gay rights and immigration reform to fair wages and climate change, the action-taking on these issues has fallen to the country’s mayors. In many ways, the power vacuum created by partisan politics in Washington has been filled by strong, largely nonpartisan leadership at the local level.

“We’d never get away in Philadelphia with what they get away with in Washington,” former Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter once said. Nutter just wrapped up two terms and is now serving on the Homeland Security Advisory Council, thanks in part to his expertise in dealing with anti-terrorism planning on a city level.

Mayors have to keep City Hall running no matter the politics. They have to be practical, for example, about providing services to those living in the country illegally because their kids can get sick and could add to public health problems. Mayors also deal with gun control, not so much in terms of the philosophical interpretation of the Second Amendment, but for addressing daily concerns like public safety and employment. As Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn recently wrote of Florida’s pending open carry legislation in a newspaper op-ed: “Just as troubling to me is that an open-carry environment may hurt our ability to attract companies to relocate or build new job-creating facilities here in Tampa. The hard work of recruiting major conventions and large-scale events like the Super Bowl will become more difficult.”

Benjamin Barber, a senior research scholar at City University of New York and author of If Mayors Ruled the World, points to cities as centers of functioning democracy.

“We see in local government a palpable, touchable form of government,” Barber said on National Public Radio recently. “I love the example of, you know, people say — when you ask young people today, you know, about democracy, they’re cynical. They don’t believe in it. They don’t trust democracy. But when you come to the town, to the city, to the neighborhood, then these people say, yeah, I get that. Yeah, that I still kind of believe in it. That still kind of works.”

Bloomberg was at the forefront of many national issues while he served as New York City Mayor from 2002 to 2013. While many focus on his ban on large-cup soda sales for public health reasons and accused him of imposing a “nanny sate” on New Yorkers, he also made healthcare programs, pre-Affordable Care Act, available to poor New Yorkers at a level greater than other U.S. cities. He took an active role in reducing New York’s climate footprint, and has continued that work on a global level, including in Paris in November at COP21. He’s helped fund a Sierra Club campaign that has led to the closure of more than 200 coal-fired power plants nationwide.

Of course, urbanist progressives can find plenty of fault with Bloomberg too. He has worked hard in favor of free trade policies that some contend exploit workers in developing countries. He has opposed union labor over pay issues, and has supported large-scale development and tax breaks for businesses in New York. But he has, according to both his critics and supporters, tried to put functionality above ideology in his policy implementation.

“On the one hand, almost everything he has pushed hard for has been I think a good idea, in the public interest,” Barber has said of Bloomberg. “The fact is that bike-sharing, bike lanes and pedestrian zones are good for cities. And many New York children are obese, as they are throughout America. There’s so much sugar in diets, and god knows the cola companies aren’t going to do anything about it. So these are very good ideas.

“On the other hand, part of what it takes to be an effective mayor is not just to do what’s right but to get public consent to do what’s right. This mayor came out of business and has not been good at getting public consent for good and virtuous ideas. You need both. You can’t say you don’t give a damn; it takes patience and buy-in. And with Bloomberg, many of his very good ideas got shot down in courts or through the political process because he didn’t always get that buy-in. The mayor’s office has to be a very democratic office. You have to have public support for what you’re doing.”

Whether the Bloomberg candidacy comes to fruition, and whether he is more than just a spoiler for a candidate and has no chance of winning, is up for debate. But the power shift from Capitol Hill to city halls is very real. And someone like Michael Bloomberg has seen that change and is one of the first U.S. mayors to respond to it in a practical way. So don’t snicker too hard at his mulling a presidential run.

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Daniel J. McGraw is a writer living in Lakewood, Ohio.

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Tags: mayorsmichael bloomberg2016 presidential election

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