Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa surprised few last week when he announced he would not be mounting a bid for governor.
Once hailed as an agent of change in the city and an all-but-inevitable candidate for statewide office, Villaraigosa won re-election this year with just 55 percent of the vote, despite a lack of big-name challengers. A recent poll found a mere 39 percent of Angelenos want the city to keep pursuing his policies. The cover of Los Angeles magazine this month brands him, simply, "Failure."
Across the country, other big-city mayors can relate. Hailed as policy innovators and can-do pragmatists during the Bush years, local executives have more recently found themselves searching for maneuvering room between ballooning municipal deficits, distracting political scandals and a White House with an aggressive domestic agenda.
Much of the problem is basic economics. A survey of more than 90 big-city mayors, released this month at the annual meeting of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, found that declining revenue from property taxes and cuts in state aid were leading to belt-tightening measures such as service cuts and layoffs. In a typical report, Columbus Mayor Michael Coleman said his city would face more than a $100 million shortfall next year and was cutting back on everything from trash pickup to new sidewalks.
"We're creatures of the states, and when they get hurt, they pass it right down to us," said Tom Cochran, the Conference's executive director. "There's no question: The mayors are in the worst economic crisis that they've been in since the Great Depression."
During the 1930s, Mayors Fiorella LaGuardia of New York City and Frank Murphy of Detroit worked with the Roosevelt White House to set up programs like the Civil Works Administration, which for the first time sent federal money streaming directly to municipalities, bypassing state government. But now it's unclear just who at the federal or local level is in a similar position to guide urban policy.
"It took LaGuardia for FDR's urban policies to succeed," said Fred Siegel, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute's Center for Civic Innovation. "Who are the shining lights in urban policy? I don't see the people who are going to make Obama look good."
Metro areas are more important than ever given the need for economic recovery: The 85 most populous metro areas are home to 63 percent of Americans and produce almost 73 percent of GDP. The economies of California's four biggest metro areas -- Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego and San Jose -- collectively outpace international powerhouses such as India and South Korea.
President Obama, who unlike his predecessors hailed from a big city, promised during the campaign that he would "help local entrepreneurs revitalize inner cities." Within a month of taking office, he appointed the country's first director of urban policy, Adolfo Carrion, to coordinate across departments. In a statement announcing Carrion, Obama said he looked forward to bringing "long-overdue attention" to urban areas, adding that "vibrant cities spawn innovation, economic growth and cultural enrichment."
But Carrion has yet to emerge as a strong leader on urban policy, and he has been the subject of investigation by the New York Daily News and ethics watchdogs for contributions he took from local developers while serving as Bronx Borough president. Shaun Donovan, Obama's secretary of Housing and Urban Development, has had his hands full coordinating the government's response to the housing crisis. And no mayor has so far stepped onto the national stage to lead urban policy.
A few years ago, when city budgets were stronger and the president's domestic agenda less ambitious, the nation's mayors enjoyed a prominence that seems hard to imagine in today's political landscape. Cities joined with state governments to pioneer environmental and public safety initiatives. Two New York City mayors, Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg, were considered contenders for the presidency. But with a popular and assertive president taking up much of the oxygen in the room, the era of flashy big-city mayors appears to have come to an end for now.
Chicago's Richard M. Daley, who took nearly three-quarters of the vote in 2007, pulled a 58 percent disapproval rating in an April poll. Bloomberg has seen his support soften as he makes an unpopular push for a third term. Greg Nickels of Seattle, cited by Cochran as a mayor to watch, has been weakened by party infighting and blamed for poor coordination with Olympia on stimulus spending.
Dissatisfaction with high unemployment and poor municipal services has been enough in some cities to spark recall campaigns. Akron's Don Plusquellic recently (and handily) faced down an effort to throw him out of office after 23 years in office. In Kansas City, Mo., Mayor Mark Funkhouser narrowly avoided a similar challenge when his opponents ran out of money. Recall efforts are also under way in West New York, N.J., and Sandusky and Toledo, Ohio.
The insurgencies come at a particularly bad time for struggling cities, as mayors have their hands full finagling with states for stimulus funding. A statement from the mayors conference recently complained about underfunding for infrastructure projects in metro areas, saying cities "have been short-changed in the receipt of federal stimulus funds."
For its part, the administration points out that transportation funding is only a small portion of total stimulus spending. "When you add to it other funds that are going to cities -- community development grants, weatherization funds, community health centers -- we are hard at work helping bring recovery to America's cities," said Elizabeth Oxhorn, a spokeswoman for Vice President Joe Biden.
"We have the energy draining out of big-city politics," Siegel said. "It's going to make it harder to do a good job of spending the stimulus money, and it's going to be harder when the stimulus money runs out for these guys to recover."