Mayors see historic opportunity in presidential race

Bloomberg, Buttigieg make presidential pitches to mayors conference

Former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a Democratic presidential candidate, touted a $1 trillion infrastructure plan at the U.S Conference of Mayors meeting at the Capital Hilton on Wednesday. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a Democratic presidential candidate, touted a $1 trillion infrastructure plan at the U.S Conference of Mayors meeting at the Capital Hilton on Wednesday. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Posted January 23, 2020 at 5:55pm

A promise to repair potholes won’t get a laugh at most presidential campaign events. 

But Michael Bloomberg knew his audience.

Speaking at a national convention of mayors three blocks from the White House, the former New York mayor seeking the Democratic presidential nomination made a rousing pronouncement that he would invest in road and bridge maintenance.

“I call it the pothole fund,” he said. The crowd guffawed.

Nationally, Bloomberg and former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg have been met with some skepticism as they argue that managing a city is a good dress rehearsal for the Oval Office.

That wasn’t a problem when they spoke Wednesday and Thursday, respectively, to the winter meeting of the U.S. Conference of Mayors.

“This is a time to bring to the highest office in the land the perspective that only a mayor, only my fellow mayors, can offer,” Buttigieg said.

Bloomberg and Buttigieg come from vastly different communities — New York is the biggest city in the country; South Bend, with a population of just over 100,000, isn’t even the biggest in Indiana.

Similar pitches

But both candidates used the opportunity to to flesh out similar pitches that their hands-on experiences balancing budgets and answering to constituents gave them unique insights into the country’s needs.

Bloomberg focused on the rollout of a $1 trillion infrastructure plan, which he said would funnel money to local leaders who would be empowered to make their own decisions about what is best for their communities. He also highlighted mayors serving in senior positions on his campaign.

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Buttigieg also touched on infrastructure and summarized other policy proposals he said would “make Washington look more like America’s best-run cities and towns.” Those proposals include increased investment in Community Development Block Grants that local leaders could direct to their own priorities.

The message was well-received by a group that has traditionally gotten short shrift in presidential contests. A sitting mayor has never been elected to the presidency, and the last of the three former mayors to get the job was Calvin Coolidge — who had served as a governor and vice president.

The other former mayor in the still-crowded presidential field is Sen. Bernie Sanders, who ran Burlington, Vt., for eight years in the 1980s before he came to Congress in 1991.

Conventional wisdom states that governors make the best presidential candidates, with executive experience that is often contrasted to senators’ speechifying to empty chambers.

But with only one governor remaining in this year’s contest — former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick — the mayors have an unprecedented opportunity to make their case.

Receptive audience

And if you ask other mayors, it’s a good one.

“Mayors get things done,” said Newport News, Va., Mayor McKinley L. Price. “Having a mayor as a president would be a good thing. No doubt about it.”

That’s not to say that either candidate is on a glide path, even with the friendly audience in Washington.

The event came as Buttigieg struggles to find a breakout moment in Iowa, where he has maintained a feverish campaign schedule in recent weeks as he has dipped in the polls.

Bloomberg, who entered the race late and is skipping the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primaries, has meanwhile surged into the top tier of candidates, thanks in part to the $248 million he has already spent on television advertising.

Several of the mayors in attendance said they had not been paying much attention to the crowded primary — they have their own cities to run.

“I try to keep the politics local,” Anaheim, Calif., Mayor Harry Sidhu said.

Others said that they likely had more nuanced views than most voters about controversies in both candidates’ mayoral records.

“A mayor’s going to take more criticism because you’re so close to the residents and you are in the weeds on a lot of different issues that inevitably, criticism surfaces that is different from a senator or a governor,” said Jersey City, N.J., Mayor Steven Fulop. He added that he had not endorsed a candidate yet but he was, “inclined to go with someone who has mayoral experience.”

But that doesn’t mean they were prepared to overlook those issues, including Bloomberg’s use of stop-and-frisk policing in New York City and Buttigieg’s record of strained relations with minority groups in South Bend. Some also questioned whether either candidate was prepared.

“The experience that a mayor can bring to the race, I think it’s significant and important,” said San Bernardino, Calif., Mayor John Valdivia. “But do I think they have the firepower, especially Mayor Pete? I wish him a lot of luck.”