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Why mayors and urban leaders will have a bigger impact in 2018 elections

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With records of real accomplishment in cities, mayors and city leaders are hoping to win over voters statewide.

Tallahassee Mayor and Gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum leads the Marjory Stoneman Douglass High School, Florida State University, Florida A&M University, Tallahassee Community College, and Tallahassee area high school students, along with citizens of Tallahassee, FL, in a march from Florida State University to the Florida Capitol for a rally to demand gun control on February 21, 2018.
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It’s not news that Democrats tend to win in urban parts of the country, or that they support programs that would help their urban constituents. But many candidates running in 2018—from both parties—have a significant amount of first-hand experience with modern city government and urbanism, suggesting there many be a fresh infusion of progressive urbanists in statehouses and the Capitol.

For instance, Beto O’Rourke, Andrew Gillum, and Karl Dean are all Democrats running for state or federal office in 2018 who feature in many Blue Wave narratives about the upcoming midterm elections.

They also also bring extensive city government experience to their potential jobs. O’Rourke, running for a senate seat in Texas, got his political start as a council member in El Paso, Texas, and helped push for a massive redevelopment project that improved walkability. Gillum, a progressive aiming to occupy the Governor’s mansion in Florida, previously served as Tallahassee’s mayor. Dean, who as mayor of Nashville from 2009 to 2015 oversaw explosive growth in the city, wants to become Tennessee’s governor

Beto O’Rourke (D-Tex.) stands for a portrait in the middle of the international bridge between the U.S. and Mexico, Friday, February 10, 2017, in El Paso, Texas.
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City leaders can run on real change and economic growth

This year, nearly 20 former mayors ran or are running for governor across the country. Governing magazine wrote that, “a decade ago, it was rare for a mayor to run for governor,” but it’s becoming more and more popular, in large part because cities are, too.

Part of this shift reflects a growing sense among many that local government—where leaders are more directly and immediately accountable to constituents, and leaders aren’t as prone to the partisan bickering that infects state and federal politics—is where the action is for politicians wanting to make a difference and build a record to later run for higher office. Call it the Our Towns affect, a reference to the recent book by James and Deborah Fallows arguing that despite federal gridlock, there’s still change, dynamism, and development at the local level.

The upswing in millennials running for local and municipal office this cycle comes in part from the belief that it’s one area of politics where leaders can make a difference, and do it relatively quickly.

“Young people are running to solve particular problems in their community,” Ross Morales Rocketto, co-founder of Run for Something, a group fielding progressive candidates under 40 years of age in down-ballot state and local elections, told Curbed. “They got mad about an injustice they saw and see municipal positions are the ways to solve the problem.”

In addition, as Governing noted, today’s mayors have a better story to tell voters outside of big cities. In the past, mayors running for statewide or national were hamstrung by the urban/rural divide and were forced to defend political positions on sticky issues such as gun control or their work stewarding a crime-ridden city.

Those policy difference still present a challenge. But as urban crime has plummeted compared to rates a decade ago, city centers have been revitalized, and downtowns have become bigger and bigger economic engines, mayors can runs as technocrats with a record of job creation and economic growth. In addition, the urban and suburban divide is less pronounced, as growing suburbs begin looking more like cities, facing some of the same problems with poverty and become demographically more diverse. As Kriston Capps notes, mayors can run on accomplishments such as increased minimum wage, infrastructure and transit investments, and social programs such as pre-K or parental leave.

(From left to right) New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors; Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown visit during the conference’s 86th annual Winter Meeting at the Capitol Hilton January 25, 2018 in Washington, DC.
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Can a mayor make it to the White House?

These shifts in the nation’s perceptions of cities have fueled talk of ex-mayors looking at a run for the White House, including Eric Garcetti of Los Angeles and Mitch Landrieu of New Orleans; urbanist Richard Florida has spoken of a “mayor’s ticket.” It’s also meant many younger mayors, including Pete Buttigeig of South Bend, Indiana, Erin Stewart of New Britain, Connecticut, and Stockton, California mayor Michael Tubbs, known in part for his universal basic income experiment, have been labeled rising stars in their respective parties.

”The mayors of some American cities are running cities that are bigger than some countries,” Landrieu told the AP. “We run police departments and deal with public safety. We deal with a plethora of issues, and we’re on the ground. We’re very accountable.”

Right now, there’s a significant disconnect between the Trump administration and cities on a number of policy fronts. Between proposals to cut funding for HUD and housing assistance, punish so-called sanctuary cities for disagreements on immigration enforcement, and cut of transportation funding—not to mention environmental laws—there are plenty of changes urban leaders would like to see in D.C. While many of the big ones won’t be possible without a new president, a more friendly Congress could make a big difference.

There are real consequences to these disagreements beyond red-blue bickering. More than 80 percent of Americans live in cities now, according to the Census Bureau, with some estimates suggesting that share will increase to 90 percent by 2045. All Americans, whether they live on a rural farm or a downtown high-rise, deserve the same attention and understanding from Washington. But with so many living in urban regions, the federal government needs representation that’s at the very least more understanding and reflective of where the majority lives today. It may be time for more city leaders to start looking toward the Capitol.