Why Doesn't Everyone Want to be Mayor?

On Corey Johnson's exit and the rank nationalization of our politics.

In 1977, New York City was two years removed from near-bankruptcy. Violent crime was skyrocketing, the subway was malfunctioning, and the streets and rivers were filled with filth. Vacant buildings were torched for the insurance money. The fiscal crisis had imposed brutal austerity on the city’s government, leading to the closing of hospitals, firehouses, and community centers, as well as the mass layoffs of public employees. The city, a beacon of strength in the postwar period, was in the midst of a terrifying contraction, shedding residents as a vast middle class was lured to the suburbs. New emergency powers had granted the state government in Albany unprecedented control over city affairs. Many commentators believed New York City was representative of terminal urban decay.

There was, of course, much beauty and glory in this New York. The arts flourished, rent was cheap, and some of the greatest books, cinema, and music came out of this era. The shaggy, combative New York Yankees won back-to-back World Series, with men like Reggie Jackson and Thurman Munson embodying the swagger of a town that could still win, even when naysayers declared the whole metropolitan project passé. It was not the Fun City of John Lindsay’s hopes and dreams but it was, in many ways, a fun city, a place to be heedless and creative and not go broke, maybe smoke a joint with friends in the upper deck of an empty Shea Stadium while thumbing through a thick copy of the Village Voice.

Still, who would really want to be mayor of this city? The challenges were endemic, systemic, and manifold. Crime, racism, and grinding, soul-sapping poverty were ever-present realities. Unlike the days of yore, there would be no generous federal government to rain blank checks down upon New York, as Franklin Roosevelt did for Fiorello LaGuardia. A new ideology, neoliberalism, had taken hold in Washington, stating that these profligate, left-wing big cities needed to slash and burn their social services. Meanwhile, an Emergency Financial Control Board had handed budgetary powers to the governor and financiers, who demanded even more austerity. A mayor would not have the helping hand of Washington or Albany. Instead, he was little more than a glorified vassal tilling the land for a much more powerful and distant monarch. It was, in many senses, a rotten gig with many downsides and far fewer thrills.

Abe Beame, the mayor of New York City at the start of 1977, certainly didn’t add any prestige to the job. One could argue he only further diminished it: elderly, uncharismatic, and a mere 5’2’’, Beame was a machine Democrat straining to hold the city together, trying and failing to stave off devastating budget cuts. In a city of bold characters, he was a former city comptroller who belonged in backrooms, tabulating numbers out of view. Beame faced re-election that year and he was, like his predecessor Lindsay, deeply vulnerable. Ambitious politicians smelled blood. It could be hard to imagine why, with the city so beleaguered, they wanted to bother.

But they did. A former reform liberal named Ed Koch couldn’t wait to get the hell out of Congress—what a backwater!—and leap into City Hall. Mario Cuomo, a successful and captivating lawyer who wasn’t going to keep spending his days as New York’s Secretary of State, announced his campaign. The first Puerto Rican to serve in the House, Herman Badillo, was ready to make history as the first mayor who was not a white man. The same would be true for Percy Sutton, the Black Manhattan Borough president. Rounding out the field—headlining it, really—was former Congresswoman Bella Abzug, a feminist icon who had narrowly lost a Senate primary to Daniel Patrick Moynihan the year before. Abzug, like Sutton and Badillo, would try to make some history too.

I am thinking of 1977 as I look forward to 2021, a year that will undoubtedly be shadowed by the fallout from COVID-19. Again, we encounter a fiscal crisis, with many questioning New York’s future as America’s capital of commerce and culture. Small businesses are dying. The hospitality, tourism, restaurant, and commercial real estate industries are in freefall, and without a massive federal bailout and tax hikes, there will not be revenue to keep the city’s social safety net from fraying. We are in a dark moment. Forty-three years ago, the leading politicians and public figures in New York—the city’s most famous and well-regarded Democrats—charged straight ahead to dethrone Beame and take the job for themselves.

This time around, few seem to want it.

City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, citing struggles with depression and a horror year negotiating a city budget that made no one happy, bowed out of the mayor’s race last week. He joined Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. as another candidate, once viewed with much promise, not seeking the mayoral perch in 2021. As September turns to October, the Democratic primary for mayor will be the thinnest in modern memory. I don’t say this to denigrate the candidates who are running. There are many talented former city officials and leaders who would probably make fine mayors. I say this to mean few New Yorkers have heard of any of them. They are not sitting elected officials. They have not led large political organizations or seized many headlines or entered the consciousness of the city in any meaningful way.

Consider, for a moment, that there are not sitting members of Congress running for mayor. Koch and Lindsay were both eager to leave the House for a far more powerful role. Anthony Weiner, before his many scandals, had cultivated his congressional career mostly as a pretext for a mayoral run, which would have been successful if not for his many scandals. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the Abzug of today, is not running for mayor of New York City. Not now, anyway, and maybe not ever. Congressman Hakeem Jeffries, a Brooklyn lawmaker with gravitas and a growing national following, would rather wait and try to be speaker of the House. Adriano Espaillat has not expressed desire to be the city’s first Latino mayor. Gale Brewer will be the first Manhattan borough president since Constance Baker Motley to not attempt to run for mayor. Melissa Mark-Viverito, the first Latina council speaker, ran for public advocate and Congress rather than mayor. Grace Meng has not put herself in the running to be the city’s first Asian mayor. The current public advocate, Jumaane Williams, would be a front-runner, if not for the fact he was elected in 2019 and seems to be eyeing a free shot at Governor Andrew Cuomo in 2022, though it’s unclear he will ever raise the cash to make that viable. Andrew Yang, the tech entrepreneur who ran for president, seemed to flirt with a mayoral bid in February before COVID-19 struck. He is probably not bothering now.

The front-runner, ironically, is someone of Beame’s profile: Scott Stringer, a clubhouse Democrat and city comptroller. Stringer, to his credit, has dominated the invisible primary, scooping up endorsements from the young progressive elected officials of the city with their own budding followings, who may run for mayor one day or never. Stringer, though less of a movement Democrat than even Bill de Blasio was in 2013, has placed himself at the left vanguard of this race—at least for now. If Stringer talks all the large labor unions in the city into supporting him, as they did in 2013 when he ran for comptroller against Eliot Spitzer, this race may be put to bed. Mayor Scott Stringer, see you in 2022.

There are other candidates, and they do have a shot. Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams is the most prominent Black politician in the race. Elected officials and advocacy organizations seem warier of him. Maya Wiley, de Blasio’s former counsel, looms as the New York Times candidate, a prestigious attorney who makes frequent cable TV appearances. Many former de Blasio staffers are coalescing around her, hoping to recreate the coalition—liberal, upwardly mobile whites and central Brooklyn Blacks—that won de Blasio the mayor’s race in 2013. Wiley has never held elected office and isn’t known broadly to the electorate. If she’s frozen out of labor endorsements and most elected officials endorse Stringer or remain neutral, her chances will diminish. And there are a slew of other former city officials running. Loree Sutton and Kathryn Garcia both served ably in de Blasio’s City Hall. Shaun Donovan oversaw the Department of Housing and Urban Development under Barack Obama and was a Mike Bloomberg commissioner. Dianne Morales is an unabashedly progressive nonprofit executive. All of these people have strong executive experience and may well make effective mayors, but they are virtual unknowns to the general public, and will only have a matter of months before the June primary to seize the attention of the electorate.

The current Democratic field, in name recognition and star power, doesn’t just pale in comparison to 1977’s. It is a shadow of the 2013 Democratic primary, in which five Democrats with large boroughwide or citywide followings entered the fray to replace Michael Bloomberg. Christine Quinn, the early front-runner, was the City Council speaker, seeking to become both the first female and first openly gay mayor of New York. She was famous enough, politically-speaking, to have her own New York Magazine cover. John Liu, the city comptroller, was the first and still only Asian-American elected to citywide office; an Obama-like figure for Chinese immigrants, his 2013 mayoral kickoff was still the most raucous I have ever attended. Bill de Blasio was the public advocate, with a growing citywide profile as an aggressive Bloomberg antagonist. Bill Thompson, the former city comptroller, was not a captivating candidate, but he had nearly defeated Bloomberg in 2009. Democratic voters knew him fairly well. And there was, unforgettably, Anthony Weiner, the former congressman attempting a comeback after his first sexting scandal in 2011. Before his downfall, Weiner was a master retail politician and triangulator extraordinaire, one of the more gifted campaigners in modern city history. Weiner had run competitively for mayor as an underdog in 2005 and burnished a national reputation as a liberal fighting for universal healthcare while appeasing his conservative constituents back home as an Israel hawk and Iraq War supporter.

These five Democrats all had fairly significant followings and bases to draw from. They all, at different given points in the primary, were viable candidates for the Democratic nomination. The 2021 field is not dynamic in the same way. It felt, in 2013, like the most talented politicians in New York City all wanted to be mayor. The same can’t be said today. Why? The most obvious answer is the pandemic. Seven years ago, New York City, though a deeply unequal place with a growing homelessness crisis—the seeds having been sown through Bloomberg’s housing policies and Cuomo’s decision to revoke support for a subsidy program for homeless families known as Advantage—was still a city flush with cash. Without tremendous assistance from the federal government and Albany, a new mayor may be forced to implement austerity. Couple that with long-term structural challenges facing the city, like the rise of remote work and the persistence of homelessness, and the job certainly isn’t as alluring as it was in 2013.

There is one obvious point, which has been true for decades: no mayor of New York City ever goes on to a higher office. The job brings far too much media scrutiny. A mayor is blamed for every malady in a city of eight million people. It is a relentlessly challenging executive position that inevitably attracts scandal, failure, and tragedy. Michael Bloomberg’s 12 years as mayor were ultimately a liability as he sought the presidency. De Blasio’s two terms didn’t help, either. As mayor, there is no ducking the spotlight, no foisting responsibilities onto others. If a cop is shot, the mayor must visit at bedside and comfort the family. If a gas explosion eviscerates a neighborhood, the mayor must be on-scene. Inhibited by Albany, the mayor nevertheless must operate under an illusion he is all powerful, able to solve any and all municipal ills with a wave of a hand. There are too many interest groups to placate and too many thorny societal dilemmas that must somehow be solved in eight years.

But does that explain 2021? All of what I just wrote was true in 1977 and 2013. Another explanation presents itself: the nationalization of our politics. For the ambitious Democrat of yesteryear, mayor of New York may have been a terminal position, but it brought a level of fame, prestige, and power that still surpassed almost every other elected office in America. The governor of New York is more powerful than the mayor of New York but who was more relevant in the daily lives of New Yorkers: Rudy Giuliani or George Pataki? Michael Bloomberg or George Pataki? Before his undeserved star-turn during coronavirus, Cuomo himself struggled to attract any kind of national following. Even after Hugh Carey, the governor of New York in the late 1970s, assumed vast new powers over city affairs, it was Koch sucking up media coverage. Mayors, inevitably, became national figures. Koch, Giuliani, and Bloomberg were known to Americans in far-flung states. David Dinkins wasn’t, but that may have changed if he won a second term. Before the transit and garbage strikes, John Lindsay was a glamorous politician briefly on par with the Kennedys, appearing on the covers of Time and Life and Newsweek when these magazines were read by millions of ordinary people weekly.

The nationalization and polarization of our politics, supercharged by social media and cable TV, have lent a new dimension to this dynamic that did not exist to such a degree even a decade ago. Koch wanted to escape Congress. Ocasio-Cortez is a superstar in Congress, with more followers on Twitter and Facebook—and more ability to derive engagements—than any mayor of New York City, now or ever. In the Trump era, Congress is the new battleground, with lawmakers like Adam Schiff transformed into MSNBC heroes, with devoted followings online. In New York, the profile of Hakeem Jeffries has risen considerably this way, especially since Ocasio-Cortez defeated the man ahead of him in line for the speakership, Joe Crowley. There is nonstop high drama, from impeachment to contentious Supreme Court nominations, and members of the city congressional delegation are at the center of it all.

The hollowing out of local media has meant that those who do pay attention to politics increasingly don’t know what is happening in their towns or cities but, through daily consumption of CNN or MSNBC or Fox, they become closely acquainted with the members of Congress, especially those who master soundbites and are able to frame themselves as worthy Trump opponents or bombastic sycophants. Just as Russiagate made Schiff a household name and boosted the profile of Jeffries, the most ludicrous Trump defenders, like Florida’s Matt Gaetz, have grown increasingly famous. Local executives, less tethered to Trump’s galaxy, can’t quite compete. Gavin Newsom seems to have won the booby prize by becoming California’s governor. While he must wrangle with historic wildfires and coronavirus outbreaks, not to mention more ordinary concerns like mass homelessness, his old friend and rival, Kamala Harris, took the open Senate seat and is now on track to become vice president, despite a failed presidential campaign. Harris need not trek to a town covered in ash or give daily briefings about the number of people infected with COVID-19. She’s a U.S. senator. The icky muck of California doesn’t need to concern her much. She could choose to leave the state for weeks at a time and the media wouldn’t care.

Not true for the mayors and governors. Certainly not true for Bill de Blasio in New York City, who was mocked ceaselessly for having the gall to run for president while holding one of the most prominent and challenging executive positions in America. Strange that few in the media snarked as Kirsten Gillibrand undertook an equally hopeless quest for the White House. Neither Democrat attracted support or much in the way of endorsements. Both were gone from the race so quickly it’s hard to remember they ran at all. But Gillibrand, as a senator, isn’t expected to answer to millions of people each day. The reopening of schools during a pandemic, the savagery of the police, and the uncollected garbage just aren’t her problems. She is allowed to pontificate in D.C., vote on bills, give speeches in the hope they will go viral, and head on home.

The funny thing about Congress is the individual lawmaker has so little tangible power. Leadership controls the flow of legislation and the funds funneled to districts. AOC’s Green New Deal isn’t happening right now because Nancy Pelosi isn’t interested. For someone like Robert Moses, who controlled the destinies of millions, the idea of becoming a congressman would have been laughable. In New York City, the House delegation, for all their new star power—welcome Jamaal Bowman and Ritchie Torres, hello again AOC—has little to do with how we eight million city residents live our lives. They have barely any control over the public schools, public transit, our taxes, our tenant laws, the police, or the hospitals. If Andrew Cuomo does something they don’t like, they can meekly write him a letter or put out a statement, as Ocasio-Cortez recently did over cuts to the city’s Department of Education budget. They can get together, though, and tweet. If Democrats take control of the Senate, they will have the power to shovel us some more federal money. But it will be Cuomo, looming over us all, who will probably decide how it all gets divvied up.

Why run for mayor? You get all the blame when the apple goes rotten and little of the credit when it’s fresh and shiny. As a member of Congress, you can pick and choose your issues buffet-style, and never be accused of letting crime spike in your district or the schools fail their children. Congress—and all legislatures, generally—can be fairly easy ways out. And I say this as someone who literally ran for a legislative position. Ultimately, mayor of New York City should be a prize, because for all the ways Albany hamstrings the office, the mayor is in charge of budget north of $80 billion. The mayor oversees hundreds of thousands of city employees. It is not a ceremonial office nor is it one that can be easily performed through TV hits. Public schools and police are very real and grave responsibilities. The mayor can be an American policy leader; progressives deserve their own versions of Giuliani or Koch, whose incendiary law-and-order legacies have, for too long, defined the narrative of this city. If done right, mayor is a heroic gig. Everyone should want it.