Stephen Grover Cleveland, elected mayor of Buffalo (NY) in 1881 and US president from 1885–1889 and 1893–1897

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Time has come for city mayors
to challenge for US presidency

By Thomas Bender*

3 August, 2007: A former mayor of New York City, Rudolph Guiliani, was a leading Republican candidate for president. The city's current mayor, Michael Bloomberg, was the subject of much speculation since he was said to be considering a run. However until the 2008 presidentail campaign, few mayors have had the national standing to aspire to the presidency.

In the 19th century, the political job of choice for successful presidential candidates was usually senator or governor. For the 20th, however, governors held sway. Only four senators were elected - Warren G Harding, Harry Truman, John F Kennedy, and Richard Nixon - while governors dominated the White House. Both Roosevelts had been governors, and together served for almost a quarter-century. Other governors were Woodrow Wilson, Calvin Coolidge, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush. No mayors have really gotten a campaign off the ground.

Governors, after all, can be seen as apprentice presidents in a miniature of the federal government. Governors also benefit from our peculiar 18th century election rules. The electoral college organizes votes by states, and governors, who have already won statewide election, are assumed likely to carry the state - all the better if a large or ‘swing’ state.

So, what's the appeal of mayors today? Is there some historical explanation for this rise of city leaders as viable presidential candidates?

There was one mayor who became president in the 19th century, and his case helps us understand what makes mayors viable. Grover Cleveland's political career took off because of his outstanding service as mayor of Buffalo, then one of the nation's major cities.

Before his election as mayor in 1881, Cleveland had held minor local offices and practiced law in one of the state's most highly regarded law firms. In quick succession he went on to be elected governor in 1882, and then, in 1884, just three years after being elected mayor of Buffalo, he was elected president of the United States.

Cleveland's political profile was established during his short service as mayor. Considered a reformer, though hardly an ardent one, he pursued policies that helped modernize the rapidly growing industrial city. As governor, he continued a reform agenda, ranging from the establishment of a civil service commission to pure milk legislation. But his major political asset was his rugged honesty, fiduciary responsibility, and a commitment to competence over partisanship, or cronyism, in his appointments.

In Gilded Age America, marked by widespread corruption in business and politics, he stood out and was admired by those seeking a reform of civic morality. He rode that reputation all the way to the White House, with important support from the "Mugwumps," leading Republicans who supported the Democrat Cleveland out of disgust with the corruption of politics as usual.

This scenario seems to point toward a happy ending for Michael Bloomberg, something of a non-partisan ‘problem-solver’. But being identified with the big city - and especially New York - is a complicated matter.

Since 1789, when George Washington was inaugurated in New York, the relation of cities to national politics has been vexed. The city then-as now -both entices and repels many Americans. Thomas Jefferson's feelings about cities are famous: the populations of great cities, he declared "add just so much to the support of pure government, as sores do to the strength of the human body." The price of his support for the new nation's Hamiltonian financial program was a promise to move the capital away from cities to a swamp along the Potomac River.

Jefferson and his contemporaries believed that if cities ever exerted a controlling influence on American life, political morality would decline and the republican experiment would be doomed. Certainly, some decades later, Boss Tweed did his best to prove that true. Fortunately, according to Jefferson, while cities, "by the command of the newspapers, they make a great deal of noise, have little effect in the direction of the government."

Benjamin Franklin, one of the most urbane men on either side of the Atlantic, agreed. Do not judge the nation by its cities, he advised, "They are hardly considered an essential Part of the States." That was long ago, of course. But consider the famous Daily News headline in 1975: "Ford to City: Drop Dead."

Yet there is another side to the city's reputation. The 18th century nation that lived in the country moved to the city in the 19th century, at a rate unmatched by any contemporary society. The city represented possibility, whether in economic opportunity, its cultural resources, or simply the glamour of it all.

In the 1970s. this positive side of the city atrophied. Cities were marked by violence and hopelessness. A presidential commission on cities echoed Horace Greeley's advice to "Go West Young Man." It urged residents of "rustbelt" cities to migrate to the sunbelt.

By the 1990s, however, wholly unexpectedly, cities across the nation revived and they are now flourishing. Whether everyone in the city is actually thriving and whether or not mayors deserve credit, former NYC mayor Guiliani claimed it - and many buy his claim and believe that his ‘tough guy’ and highly ideological (and divisive) politics worked.

Bloomberg cannot claim to have saved the city, though Guiliani bequeathed him a budget crisis that he solved quickly and without ideological rhetoric. He has pressed modernizing reform, and he has provided non-partisan and effective management much like Mayor Cleveland.

Management may be the key to the appeal of mayors. Mayors are closer to the services that touch the daily needs of citizens. Mayors, moreover, live in the environment they manage; Bloomberg rides the subways. Governors are far more isolated.

Guiliani and Bloomberg have radically different styles of governance, but both appointed highly competent commissioners to run city departments and agencies (with an exception for Bernard Kerik, who may haunt Guiliani through the campaign). At a time when incompetence is rife in the federal government, whether in Iraq, FEMA in New Orleans, or the Justice Department, leaders who live with the consequences of their appointments and their policies may have a special appeal.

Together Guiliani and Bloomberg are credited with bringing New York into a new golden age. For that reason, they, like Grover Cleveland, may indeed have political success beyond the city limits.

*Thomas Bender is University Professor of the Humanities and professor of history at New York University. He is the author of A Nation Among Nations: America's Place in World History (2006) and The Unfinished City: New York and the Metropolitan Idea.

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