Why So Few Progressive Mayors?

Clockwise from top: John Lindsay, Harold Washington, Art Agnos & Antonio Villaraigosa.

I recently watched WNBC’s Fun City documentary on John Lindsay’s tenure as Mayor of New York City (1966-73). It got me thinking why, with all the progressive urban activists and heavy Democratic concentration in cities, so few progressive mayors have been elected in high-profile urban America since the late 1960s. And why the few elected have not maintained popularity.

Lindsay and David Dinkins (1989-93) are New York’s only ostensibly progressive mayors in the past 45 years. Chicago’s only progressive mayor was Harold Washington (1983-87), who died after serving five years. Los Angeles elected progressives Tom Bradley in 1973 and Antonio Villaraigosa in 2005, but Bradley moved to the center after his first (or second) term, and Villaraigosa has greatly disappointed the left. San Francisco’s last progressive Mayor, Art Agnos (1987-1991), lost re-election.

Here’s what I think is the problem.

The Feds Abandonment of Cities
The federal government’s failure to provide sufficient resources to major urban centers has created major obstacles to progressive mayoral candidates and mayors. Here’s why.

First, progressive candidates develop a laundry list of public programs that energize the progressive base. But this agenda is seen as economically unrealistic by the business community and more moderate voters, who are then easily persuaded that the progressive mayoral candidate will increase their taxes to achieve their goals.

Second, the lack of federal funding reframes major city mayoral races into contests over which a candidate can best get the private sector to do what the government will not. In a campaign over which candidate can best effectuate “private-public partnerships,” the business and corporate-backed candidate is best positioned to prevail.

Third, as Agnos learned in 1991 and Villaraigosa in his narrow-reelection win in 2009, when federal money is not available during economic downturns, city services take a terrible beating. And the person blamed is the progressive mayor who took office promising to enhance these services, but fails to do so due to the lack of funds.

True, non-progressive incumbents are also hurt by the lack of federal funding in touch times, as Agnos’ successor Frank Jordan learned when he lost to Willie Brown in 1995. But progressive candidates and mayors raise high hopes for change among their followers that political moderates do not, and then face a much greater backlash.

Absent federal funds, progressive mayors preside over public transit cuts, rising homelessness, angry city workers, rising joblessness, vacant storefronts, abandoned development projects, and the perception that the city is going backward. And due to the coalition that elected them, progressives cannot engage in the slashing of public services used by the conservative mayors (see Giuliani, Rudolph) that follow them.

Internal Conflicts in Progressive Coalitions
On Mayor Lindsay’s first day on the job, the New York City Transit Workers Union went out on strike, shutting down the city’s subway system. This was soon followed by a Sanitation Workers strike, which left trash stockpiling on city streets, and then a racially-divisive teachers strike.

Lindsay, a former Upper East Side Congressmember, had won election as a Republican in a three-way race and lacked much union backing. But he was a vocal critic of the Vietnam War, was strongly supported by the city’s African-American community, and was the most progressive major candidate in both his 1965 and 1969 campaigns.

Lindsay never won 50% of the vote, so he never had a “majority” base. But the attacks on the idealistic Lindsay from working-class groups that should have recognized that he was the best they were going to get is striking, particularly when we know what happened to city workers after New York City was forced to declare bankruptcy in 1975.

The progressive base also splintered under San Francisco’s Agnos. The Mayor bears much of the responsibility, but the Agnos years revealed a disappointing truth about the city’s progressive base: it includes many people whose evaluation of a mayor depends on how much power and influence he gives them.

Agnos’ insistence that government should not be run through progressive power brokers cost him dearly. The Board of Supervisors was still elected citywide in those years, and did not have enough independent progressive members to help keep Agnos’ progressive base from fracturing.

Future Prospects
San Francisco picks a new mayor next year, and New York City in 2013. One would think that both are well positioned for progressive victories, but many wrongly anticipated that San Franciscans would prefer an entirely new direction in 2003 after eight years of Willie Brown.

Progressive mayoral candidates in both cities will face massive spending against them by the real estate industry, which is another critical factor in why so few progressives become big-city mayors. San Francisco is small enough for a truly grassroots campaign like that waged by Matt Gonzalez in 2003 to prevail, but New York City is so big that major dollars are needed to compete.

randy shawRichard Daley is Chicago’s Mayor as long as he wants, and it will take a dramatic economic turnaround for a true progressive to win the 2013 Los Angeles Mayor’s election. Boston’s Thomas Menino is now in his fifth term as that city’s progressive mayor, and cities like Portland, Oregon have also elected progressives.

But since the War on Poverty was cutback in 1966, our most nationally recognized, high profile urban mayors have only rarely come from the progressive ranks.

Perhaps by acknowledging and understanding this political reality we can help change it.

Randy Shaw

Republished with permission from Beyond Chron


  1. says

    We need honest government with integrity.
    “Good leaders create a vision, articulate the vision, passionately own the vision, and relentlessly drive it to completion”

    Public confidence in the integrity of the Government is indispensable to faith in democracy; and when we lose faith in the system, we have lost faith in everything we fight and spend for.
    As citizens of this democracy, you are the rulers and the ruled, the law-givers and the law-abiding, the beginning and the end.

    Change is inevitable. Change for the better is a full-time job.

    Action speaks louder than words.

    Every age needs men who will redeem the time by living with a vision of the things that are to be.

    Freedom is not an ideal; it is not even a protection, if it means nothing more than the freedom to stagnate.

    Action speaks louder than words.

    An Independent is someone who wants to take the politics out of politics, a person with principles.

    “The benchmark of a civilized society is the quality of its justice”

    YJ Draiman for Mayor -2013

    Voting: In the United States, it is often said that those not voting in elections have no right to complain about the outcome. Voting is extolled as our primary civic duty, and the most legitimate means to express protest.

  2. says

    YJ Draiman officially running for mayor of Los Angeles – 2013
    I am motivated by the wish to serve the Los Angeles community and protect our quality of life. I have the skill, experience, long time community involvement and personal commitment to lead the city. I will work hard to preserve residents’ priorities and the city’s coffers, during the difficult financial times ahead. Some of my more specific goals are encouraging economic vitality, preserving and improving the City infrastructure, protecting the quality of our neighborhoods, supporting our open space and bicycle trails programs, working with the Neighborhood Councils and the Chamber to encourage local, innovative green businesses, and proper Urban Planning for Los Angeles, among others.
    I previously ran for City Council in District 12.
    I decided that to do the job right I must run for Mayor.
    I am an Energy/Utility Auditor/Consultant for over 20 years.
    I am planning on completing my PHD in Energy Conservation in 2011
    I am married to a darling wife, we have two grown children – my oldest son is David Draiman a famous Rock Star with a Band by the name Disturbed, my younger son is a Psychologist doing research.
    I am looking forward to being elected and serving the people of the City of Los Angeles.
    We must work together as a cohesive force to improve our city.

    “Transparency and accountability is my motto”

    YJ Draiman for Mayor – 2013

    WEB: http://www.draimanformayor.org

  3. says

    Linda, I’ll give Gavin Newsom credit for gay marriage — but that’s about it. In fact, it’s the only progressive thing he’s done for San Francisco.

    Healthy San Francisco is not single-payer, and even though it’s a good program Gavin had nothing to do with it. Tom Ammiano is the reason it happened, but Newsom has been shamelessly hogging credit for it ever since.

    Education? Gavin had nothing to do with the Rainy Day Fund. Again, it was Ammiano.

    Environmentalism? Sure, Newsom does a lot of gimmicky “green” stuff that warrants a nice photo op and press release. But look at his public transportation record, and it’s nothing short of abysmal. Newsom has stolen money from the MTA to go pay for his political aides, while bus fares go up and service goes down – making it harder for those who choose to ride Muni because it’s the right thing to do more difficult, while screwing poor people who have no alternatives waiting longer at a bus stop.

    As for tenants rights? Forget it. Newsom wants more mass condo conversions.

    Budget? We’ve seen the police budget explode under his watch, while he decimates Public Health and Human Service programs for people each and every year. And I’m sick of having to go down to City Hall each and every year to ask the Supervisors to restore programs the Mayor always cuts. He wants to privatize Jail Health too!!

    Gavin a progressive Mayor?? Please. He does the bidding for the Chamber of Commerce. And these days, as San Francisco needs more revenue, he sounds like a Republican with demands for “no new taxes.”

    Mayor Newsom, I grew up in Chicago. I knew Harold Washington. Harold Washington was a neighbor of mine – two blocks away. Mayor, you’re no Harold Washington.

  4. says

    GAVIN NEWSOM, the CURRENT MAYOR of SAN FRANCISCO and the DEMOCRATIC CANDIDATE for LT GOVERNOR, has the most impressive PROGRESSIVE record of any mayor so far (but has been totally omitted from Randy’s article).

    Within the first month of his election, Gavin had the SPINE to extend FULL civil rights to gays by issuing marriage licenses. He took a major hit within the Democratic Party for doing so and stood ALONE on this issue for quite some time. Now, it’s ON THE TABLE and being dealt with just about everywhere. Nearly all of the states in the Northeast have made gay marriage legal. And people who oppose it are finally being challenged and are fewer and fewer in numbers as the younger generation takes over and wants to know why this is even an issue.

    In addition, he brought SINGLE PAYER healthcare to the city with his “Healthy San Francisco” program, the only one like it in the state. It’s been so successful that even Kaiser has joined it!

    GREEN MAYOR. Mandatory recycling and composting, and many more programs to promote a newer green economy.

    EDUCATION. Pre-school for all and putting money INTO SAVING TEACHERS when other cities were cutting.


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