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Urban politics shift with fresh faces elected mayor in America’s largest cities

November 6, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Bill de Blasio, Mike Duggan and Marty Walsh won mayoral elections in New York, Detroit and Boston, for their pragmatic campaign approaches. Gwen Ifill talks to Brookings Institution' Bruce Katz and Atlantic Cities' Emily Badger about how these new mayors will tackle economic and unemployment challenges in their cities.

GWEN IFILL: Now back to what voters had to say at the polls yesterday. Three big cities voted for big change, electing new mayors in Detroit, Boston, and New York.

For a look at the new faces and what they tell us about urban policy and politics, we turn to Bruce Katz, director of the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution, and Emily Badger, writer for The Atlantic Cities, a Web site that covers urban affairs.

So, in a nutshell, Bruce, give me a sense of what these three races tell you about the direction of urban politics and policy.

BRUCE KATZ, “The Metropolitan Revolution: How Cities and Metros Are Fixing Our Broken Politics and Fragile Economy”: I think all these elections were about people who were able to get through to the voters and say, we want our cities to work for everyone, because, frankly, we’re still experiencing the aftermath of the great recession.

We have got to grow jobs. You just had this report on poverty numbers. The number of people in poverty and near poverty went up 26 million people in the last decade. So, mayors are on the ground. They’re close to the ground, and what they’re hearing from voters is, we need work on jobs, we need work on skills, we need work on housing and giving people access to opportunity.

And these folks were able to get that message across.

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GWEN IFILL: Emily Badger, it sounds a little like a cliche, but is change the common theme in cities like New York, and Boston, and Detroit?

EMILY BADGER, The Atlantic Cities: Change is definitely a huge story out of New York. It’s a huge story out of Boston, in a large part because we’re seeing this really sort of dramatic changing of the guard of who is sitting in this mayor’s seat.

Bill de Blasio is going to be replacing Michael Bloomberg, who has been there for three terms, for 12 years. The story is even more dramatic in Boston, in that we have had a mayor who has been sitting in that job for 20 years now. I think there are a lot of people in Boston with political ambition who have been waiting a very long time for this guy to retire for a chance to sort of have a changing of the guard there.

So, part of what we’re seeing is also sort of the continuation of the departure of some mayors who have been on the scene for a very long time. This dates back to Chicago with Mayor Daley. We have also sort of seen this early in the year in Los Angeles with Antonio Villaraigosa.

I mean, this is sort of like an opportunity to see some fresh faces in some of the largest cities in America, where we have had the exact same people in charge for a very long time.

GWEN IFILL: I think Tom Menino is 24 years older than the guy who is replacing him. So, you’re right. There’s a big — there’s a big generational shift going on.

But I want to go back to Detroit, because that’s the one that is not like the other two. It is a city under stress, that’s kind of quite dysfunctional and is on the brink of bankruptcy.

BRUCE KATZ: And I think what happened in Detroit is, they basically hired a problem-solver, someone who has deep roots in the corporate, and civic, and medical community, and that’s how Detroit is going to come back. It’s going to come back from these anchor institutions. You already see it in the downtown, along the Woodward Corridor in the Midtown.

So, they really elected someone who seems like he’s got the experience and the expertise to grow jobs, give people access to opportunity in an otherwise fiscally challenged, very dysfunctional place.

GWEN IFILL: But a majority black city elects the first white mayor in 40 years.


GWEN IFILL: And that’s because, what, pragmatism trumps all?

BRUCE KATZ: Well, I think this is really the story of cities, particularly today. As the federal government is absent, pragmatism trumps party, place trumps party, collaboration trumps conflict, because most of these mayors come in, they have got to convene other stakeholders in their city and in the region, work with their governors to get stuff done.

GWEN IFILL: And trumps race in this case as well.

BRUCE KATZ: Oh, fundamentally, absolutely.

GWEN IFILL: Emily, I want to get — go to New York, because the interesting thing about Bill de Blasio is that he is an old-fashioned liberal.

He’s a guy who was with the Sandinistas. He’s a guy who has been — he’s unapologetic, which is a big difference from Mike Bloomberg.


I mean, the most interesting contrast in the New York race wasn’t the contrast between Bill de Blasio and Joe Lhota, who he was running against. No one thousand Joe Lhota stood a chance in that race. The interesting contrast was between Bill de Blasio and Michael Bloomberg, because Bill de Blasio basically sort of built his campaign around saying, I’m going to be the guy who tackles the one thing that everyone have been criticizing Michael Bloomberg for, and that is sort of not paying attention to poverty, not paying attention to the poor, sort of not focusing enough on the fact that sort of all this great prosperity in New York is leaving a lot of people behind.

GWEN IFILL: And not the outer — not paying attention to the outer boroughs. So, last night, we saw a victory celebration in Brooklyn.

EMILY BADGER: Right, right.

And so Bill de Blasio was — was really sort of adamant about the fact that he is a progressive. He is happy to sort of wear that mantle. I don’t necessarily think that he’s going to be sort of the type of liberal we would have seen running New York 20 or 30 years ago. I mean, he’s not going to sort of take us back to the 1980s, the early 1990s, as a lot of critics have sort of claimed.

I mean, he is pragmatic as well, in addition to being a progressive, which I think he’s going to have to prove to some of his critics in the coming months, in the coming years. But this is a really sort of dramatic change in the direction. And I think what we saw was voters sort of demanding that change in direction in New York.

GWEN IFILL: Marty Walsh in Boston, elected with a lot of outside help from labor…


GWEN IFILL: … and old-fashioned Democratic constituencies, including really digging into the Latino and black vote.

BRUCE KATZ: Well, Boston is changing, like all cities are changing.

They’re really becoming majority-minority. They’re just ahead of the entire country. So, for mayors to succeed, they have to build these multicultural, multiethnic, multiracial coalitions. And that’s what I think Walsh was able to do.

He does build on a very solid legacy of Mayor Menino. Menino was in to affordable housing, children and families and, frankly, the innovative economy before a lot of other mayors. So, there’s a solid platform for him to build on, but he was able to do it in this very expansive way.

GWEN IFILL: I wonder if — we talk about what is different about these three cities, but I wonder if also the common theme throughout them isn’t that they all are interested in economic recovery in different degrees.


I mean, one of the things that’s so interesting to me in thinking about what’s common between the three of them is that all three of these winning candidates were elected by broad coalitions of different kinds of people, by low-income people, by high-income people, by different races, by different age groups.

And I think that really sort of says something about both the mandate that they’re going to have going forward, but also the idea that the issues that they’re speaking to are not necessarily ideological issues. They’re these very sort of fundamental issues about education in Boston, about sort of financial situation in Detroit, about economic inequality in New York, that are really, you know, kind of speaking to a large swathe of people.

GWEN IFILL: And these are issues that fundamentally play out in cities and in localities, not in the federal government.

BRUCE KATZ: Well, cities are the engines of our economy, with their suburban areas. They’re the centers of trade and investment, and they’re really on the front lines of this demographic change, environmental change.

They can’t duck. They can’t be absent. You can’t shut them down. They’re close to the ground. They’re close to these challenges. So we’re seeing a level of pragmatism play out yesterday, but also what we’re also seeing in cities in metros, they’re the vanguard of policy innovation and this corporate-civic-public partnership that is really powering places forward.

There’s a lot that cities can teach Washington, frankly, about how to keep your eyes on the main challenges we have in this country.

GWEN IFILL: Bruce Katz of the Brookings Institution, Emily Badger of The Atlantic Cities, thank you both very much.

BRUCE KATZ: Thanks for having us.