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||Very few mayors rise to top
positions in US government
By Tony Favro, USA Editor
21 September 2008: Sarah Palin, the running mate of Republican presidential candidate John McCain, is a former mayor of Wasilla (population 7,000), Alaska. Ms. Palin is trying to become the second mayor ever to ascend to the vice-presidency of the United States. To a large degree, Palin’s candidacy reflects Americans’ ambivalence towards cities.
Mayors in the White House
Calvin Coolidge is the only American mayor to be vice-president. His political career took him from the Mayor’s Office of Northampton, Massachusetts to the White House. After serving as vice-president for two years, Coolidge assumed the presidency in 1923 when President Warren Harding died in office. Coolidge remains only the second mayor to become president. The first was Grover Cleveland, former mayor of Buffalo, New York, in 1886.
No mayor of a major American city has become president.
Given that about 80 percent of Americans live in urban areas, why have so few mayors been elected to the top political posts in the United States?
The answer can be found, perhaps, in the ideals of the men who drafted the American constitution 300 years ago and administered the country’s earliest federal governments.
"I view great cities as pestilential to the morals, the health and the liberties of man,” Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1800 while he was vice-president and one year before being elected president. As president, Jefferson despised his political opponents because, in his words, "They all live in cities."
With few exceptions, Jefferson had little sympathy for the people who lived in cities. "The mobs of great cities add just so much to support of pure government as sores do to the strength of the human body," he wrote. Jefferson idealized the “virtuous” farmer and small artisan of rural America: “I think our governments will remain virtuous for many centuries as long as they are chiefly agricultural… When [people] get plied upon one another in large cities… they will become corrupt."
Jefferson and his contemporaries marked the ideological lines that still outline the lives and politics of Americans. The Republican Party in America has evolved into the anti-urban political party, cutting funding for cities and supporting polices detrimental to urban residents on key issues such as immigration, gun control, and tax cuts. Democrats, on the other hand, are seen as the champions of cities and the urban poor.
Cities, in other words, are central to the American worldview. They are not mere geographic locations, but potent symbols of the division in American society and the partisanship in American politics. Cities represent a certain positive level of culture, progress, dynamism and community, but also a value system that often contrasts with deeply-ingrained ideals of individual and civic virtue.
Americans, not surprisingly, have come to respect big-city mayors as managers, but not necessarily as custodians of important values.
Selling Sarah Palin
Sarah Palin was unknown on the national scene until she was introduced as John McCain’s running mate at the Republican National Convention. As a former mayor, she was a potential lightening rod for positive and negative feelings.
Republicans tried to have the best of both ideological worlds.
Former Mayor Rudolf Giuliani of New York City asserted to Convention goers that Palin is qualified to be vice-president of a nation of 300 million people because “she’s been mayor of a city.” It didn’t matter that Wasilla has 7000 residents; experience as a mayor resonates as executive experience to the American ear.
Other speakers used Palin’s background to tap into the Jeffersonian value system.
Senator Fred Thomson told convention delegates that, “She is from a small town, with small-town values.” Palin elaborated in her acceptance speech: “We grow good people in our small towns, with honesty, sincerity, and dignity… I grew up with those people. They are the ones who do some of the hardest work in America… who grow our food, run our factories, and fight our wars.”
Interestingly, John McCain spent considerable time discussing the virtues and experience of Sarah Palin in his speech accepting the Republican nomination for president but never once mentioned her eight years as mayor.
Lesson of history
History has shown that the vice-presidential candidate has little effect on voter behavior. Americans ultimately vote for a president, not a vice-president. American presidential elections are rarely about issues. They about candidates or, rather, the perception of themselves that candidates manage to sell to voters.
In this election, Americans’ love-hate relationship with cities has become a powerful undercurrent, a deep-well of emotion that the Republican candidates are tapping to define themselves and their opponents.
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