If American liberalism has a geographic home, it’s in the big city. It’s a tendency that predates the New Deal. And as far as national politics go, it has become even more pronounced. In 1976, Gerald Ford won a respectable 34 percent in Philadelphia and 31 percent in Baltimore while losing nationally. Last year, Mitt Romney pulled in only 14 and 11 percent, respectively, in those cities. Ford nearly won Los Angeles County, grabbing 48 percent of its votes; Romney took a puny 28 percent. Demographics—not to mention the GOP posture on social issues—almost ensure that Republican presidential hopefuls won’t compete in urban centers any time soon.
But even as they ran up the score on behalf of national Democratic candidates—and continued to supply some of Congress’s most liberal members—cities did something surprising at the local level: They moved right, in some cases dramatically so. New York hasn’t elected a Democratic mayor in 20 years. Chicago handed the job to Rahm Emanuel, a member in good standing of the centrist, New-Democrat establishment. Even Newark, in electing Cory Booker, embraced a Wall Street ally. Along with colleagues in Philadelphia, Los Angeles, and elsewhere, they ushered in the imperial mayoralty, snatching new powers to pink-slip employees, defy NIMBYs, and otherwise dominate towns that were once called ungovernable.
Now, though, the age of the imperial mayor appears to be drawing to a close. Superstar mayors like Philadelphia’s Ed Rendell and Baltimore’s Martin O’Malley moved on to higher office, as Booker almost certainly will when New Jersey picks a new senator this week. Others have been rejected. Washington’s Adrian Fenty, the country’s highest-profile mayoral supporter of education reform, was trounced in his bid for reelection. Michael Bloomberg’s heir apparent was routed by Bill de Blasio, a full-throated liberal. The results, in fact, represent specific repudiations of the style and ideology of the imperial mayors: Fenty had alienated constituents with a domineering affect that conveyed disrespect for workers, community groups, and colleagues; de Blasio appealed to a public fed up with the income gap that defined Bloomberg’s glittering metropolis.
But as emotionally satisfying as it was to see voters turn— at last—against these least attractive aspects of the centrist track record, the truth is that the imperial mayors were stealth allies of liberalism. Sure, they failed to counter the broader national trends that abetted the rise of the finance industry and decimated the poorest workers. All the same, they took control of cities by making government work. The people who care most about things like income inequality are going to miss them when they’re gone.
The imperial mayors came on the scene at a time when urban life and city governance was discussed mainly in terms of pathology and dysfunction: high crime, empty coffers, dwindling populations, racial animus. You had to drive to the suburbs to shop at Target. Public employees got Flag Day off. No one ever seemed to get fired, no matter how badly they performed.
It was fertile soil for the legend of the great city hall superhero. Rendell helped establish the archetype, battling unions, scrubbing city hall toilets, and getting dubbed “America’s Mayor.” He eventually rode his legend to become governor of Pennsylvania—a job once off- limits to Philadelphia mayors, who the public generally saw as either hacks or crooks. Two decades later, mayors remain the subject of glowing books like Benjamin R. Barber’s forthcoming If Mayors Ruled the World, which celebrate the can-do spirit of urban government, contrasting it with the dysfunction of national politics. And pols like Booker, who burnished his reputation by responding to constituent calls via Twitter and once by rescuing a neighbor from a burning building, continue to capitalize on it.
While the media—particularly that portion of the media scarred by memories of 1970s-era cities—mythologized the new crop, their great strength was rather boring: their competence. While there were occasional dust-ups with unions, the age of the imperial mayor was actually defined by simple little innovations (building a 311 system so you don’t have to call your city council member to help fill a pothole) and productivity tools (programs like Baltimore’s CitiStat , which let the government track basic services).
It’s hard to remember how exciting this once seemed. When I first covered a city government—in Washington during Marion Barry’s final term—my boss used to say that our job was to restore consequence. Nincompoops might be able to stay on the public payroll no matter what job they botched; reporters could, at the very least, remind them that someone was watching. It was a target-rich environment. The race to succeed Barry, in turn, focused on the sorts of things voters in many suburban jurisdictions took for granted. The new mayor, a number-cruncher named Anthony Williams, would throw around terms like “short-term tool kit” and “scorecard.” What he really meant was that he wanted to be the person who would bring the consequences himself.
Bad government, of course, had serious real-world implications: When agencies in charge of protecting vulnerable people don’t do their jobs, people die. But ineptitude at the local level also had a separate, corrosive political effect, one that damaged the left much more than the right. Politicians may love the great cliché of Fiorello LaGuardia’s—“There is no Democratic or Republican way of cleaning the streets”—but the reality is that there are distinctly ideological ways of reacting to uncleaned streets. People inclined to believe in basic government services may gnash their teeth and demand a new sanitation commissioner. People who aren’t so sure about the public sector, on the other hand, see it as a data point against the idea that any government can do anything, from running a health-insurance exchange to providing job-training.
In fact, the imperial mayors actually distinguished themselves not by reimagining their cities, but by accepting them. When deindustrialization first ravaged urban areas, the political narrative was about how to bring back the boarded-up factories and decaying commercial strips: Show me an old city hall reporter, and I’ll show you someone who has been to a ribbon-cutting for an enterprise zone. By the 1990s, though, city bosses like Chicago’s Richard M. Daley had accepted that many of their towns were all about service and spectacle. They wooed financial-services titans and celebrated the arrival of up-market locavore restaurants or national chain stores.
Populations, in many cities, started to grow again. Central cities blossomed. But the force reviving blah neighborhoods would be the arrival of affluent new residents, not any increased income for old ones. Parks and skylines were transformed, but not the underlying economy. It wasn’t the work of superheroes. But it was decent government. Which beat the alternative.
In a time of grotesque income inequality—the gap between Manhattan’s richest 20 percent and its poorest 20 percent is now on par with Sierra Leone—there is good reason to celebrate de Blasio’s win. And even if he loses the general election, it’s likely that his playbook will get used by challengers to Chicago’s Emanuel, among other imperial mayors: Turn the election into a referendum on the stratified, gentrified, modern metropolis. Channel the process-oriented resentments of people who’ve felt brushed aside by the incumbent’s power grabs. And instead of just promising a city that’s better policed, better regulated, or better snowplowed, promise a city that’s fairer, too.
The mythology of the superhero mayor would suggest that this, too, is a snap: If only Bloomberg had used his powers for good! The reality suggests otherwise: Imperial mayors succeeded because they picked battles that were winnable. And the earlier model of city governance showed that it’s much harder to fix the big, historic issues—discrimination, deindustrialization, and now income inequality—at the local level.
Bloomberg helped make New York mainstream enough that a mayoral election there, rather than being viewed as a quirk, can be heralded a sign of a changing national narrative about how Democrats should or shouldn’t cultivate the super-rich. I hope it is. But de Blasio is probably enough of a student of history to know that one botched snowstorm can upend your whole agenda. And he’s surely realistic enough to know that the press will open up on him at the first sign that the end of stop-and-frisk has made crime go up.
He’d better be. The centrists may have opened the door to populists by giving the impression that they cared more about bike lanes than people. But they also raised expectations when it comes to getting the job done—creating a situation where no mayor can afford to be anything short of monomaniacal about day-to-day competence. Liberals ought to thank them for that.
Michael Schaffer is the editorial director of The New Republic.