2013: The Year of the Mayor and the Wannabe

High-profile city politicos served as America’s sideshow this year. But behind the chaos, America’s mayors did something in 2013 that the federal government couldn’t get close to.

National Journal
Matt Berman
Dec. 9, 2013, midnight

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.

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