It seemed like a good idea at the time. Anthony Weiner — by this point the New York City mayoral candidate more likely to wind up on Dancing With the Stars than in Gracie Mansion — began shouting “bo! bo! bo!” on a float in the West Indian-American Parade, looking like an out-of-place figurine atop a Fourth of July-themed cake. “Anybody here from Jamaica-aaa?” he called out in something that could charitably be described as a weak attempt at a Jamaican accent. Then came the dancing, a perfected variety of the trot dads have embarrassed their teenage daughters with since at least 1993.
“Fucking Anthony Weiner,” said the man filming this particular time-capsule potpourri. “Hah.”
2013 was a terribly strange time to be, or want to be, a mayor — especially for the politicians with the highest profiles. In a year that saw an often unbelievable parade of global tragedies, mayoral politics frequently became a collective clown show, something to laugh at or be shocked by when everything else seemed just too dark. For the vast majority of the United States, the mayor of Toronto means absolutely nothing. But for the vast majority of 2013’s late fall, Rob Ford held our American eyeballs captive, saying “Hey, wait and see what I do next.”
Ford has been the ultimate distraction. It’s far more fun to watch a belligerent mayor knock down Toronto city council members than it is to scroll through photos of the wreckage in the Philippines, or the reports of seemingly endless American mass shootings. It should come as no surprise that Ford is now appearing weekly on D.C. radio to talk football. Because, yes, D.C. could use a distraction from its miserable team, too.
Real pain and mayhem lurk beneath the red-nosed veneer. (See Bob Filner, the former San Diego mayor accused of a litany of sexual harassment.) And the reality of Ford’s substance abuse isn’t really all that funny. But even the pairing of comedy and tragedy is an entertainment formula as old as Shakespeare. Ford’s bumbling decay is like that of a far more stupid Falstaff. Huma Abedin, standing by her husband’s side, is a reminder of the very real human cost of someone acting like a public fool.
But beyond the sideshow, 2013 has actually held a very different story about mayors. This is the year that they were some of the only politicians in America who actually got stuff done.
If you haven’t heard, the federal government is a bit of a productivity hellscape these days. Mayors, says Bruce Katz, a vice president at the Brookings Institution and coauthor of The Metropolitan Revolution, have picked up the slack. Mayors are “the vanguard of policy innovation,” says Katz. He points to Chicago’s Rahm Emanuel, who recently signed a trade agreement with Mexico City; to Philadelphia’s Michael Nutter, who has been ramping up trade missions of his own; to San Antonio’s Julian Castro, who’s worked to expand access to pre-K; to Louisville’s Greg Fischer and his bluegrass economic investment plan.
The Bob Filners and Rob Fords of the world are the exception to the rule. “This may be the only level of government that is really stepping up right now,” Katz says. And this is a trend that should continue, including from the very power-perch that Anthony Weiner failed so spectacularly at securing. The transitions of power from Bloomberg to de Blasio, from Menino to Walsh, promise to make 2014 a fascinating year for mayors, too. And this time, as the new crop of urban politicians looks to cement a political identity, the biggest stories in the media may just match the biggest stories in the cities.
“I am bullish on mayors,” says Katz. Now it’s just a matter of a few of the loudest of those bulls not crowding out everyone else.