Road to presidency seldom runs through mayor's office

Coolidge was last to ascend with this conflicted credential

September 09, 2007|By Theo Lippman Jr. | Theo Lippman Jr.,Special to The Sun

It is possible, some say probable, that a former New York City mayor will be running for president in November 2008, as the nominee of the Republican Party. And it is not impossible, some say, that the present New York mayor will be the presidential nominee for a serious and well-financed independent bid.

The "possible" is Republican Rudolph W. Giuliani. The "not impossible" is ex-Democrat, ex-Republican independent Michael R. Bloomberg. Six leading national pollsters in August put Giuliani well ahead of John McCain, Fred Thompson and Mitt Romney. His worst showing was 30 percent to Thompson's 22.

(Ex-mayor of Cleveland Rep. Dennis Kucinich is running for president on the Democratic side. Pollsters routinely give him 1 or 2 percent support. Ex-mayor Martin O'Malley could probably beat that.) Even one ex-mayor nominated for the presidency is rare. There hasn't been one for a major party since 1968, Hubert H. Humphrey. He was mayor of Minneapolis before he became Minnesota senator, vice president, presidential nominee.

Before him there hadn't been an ex-mayor presidential nominee since Republican Calvin Coolidge in 1924. Coolidge was mayor of Northampton, Mass., before he was elected vice president in 1920, elevated when President Warren G. Harding died in 1923, and elected president in 1924.

Before that you have to go back to Grover Cleveland, who was elected president in 1884 and, after losing in 1888, won again in 1892. A Democrat, he had been mayor of Buffalo.

Why so few mayors-to-presidents? As a journalist I visited several cities and studied to one degree or another mayors in Atlanta, Baltimore, New York, Newark, Cleveland, Detroit, Minneapolis, Indianapolis, Charlotte, St. Louis, Denver, San Antonio and San Francisco. I think several were as capable to be president as some politicians who never set foot in a city hall but who have been nominated to live in the White House.

I often asked myself why, but never sought an answer.

Recently I asked Matthew Crenson, a political scientist at the Johns Hopkins University. He has studied and written about urban politics for years and also more recently about presidential performance. Here's part of his answer: "Governing cities is such a messy and fruitless task that most mayors leave the job seriously wounded. ... The political interests of cities usually compel mayors to [oppose] state legislators. ... Urban electorates tend to be much more liberal than [statewide and national] electorates. ... American politics [some say] has harbored a persistent anti-urban temperament. ... Cities are seen as centers of vice, corruption, alienation and foreigners. ..."

Cities are "un-American," statistically. Thus they are unlikely training grounds for national office. Take Baltimore. According to the 2000 Census it is 64 percent African-American; the nation is 12 percent black. Baltimore has 50 percent owner-occupied homes; the nation, 66 percent. Female householders with no husband are 25 percent here; nationally the number is 12.

You can go on and on: unemployment, income, educational level.

Sometimes metaphor is more meaningful than statistics. A favorite quote of mine is from David Rusk, a former mayor of Albuquerque, and a leading scholar of metropolitan affairs. Among his books is Baltimore Unbound.

Rusk has said Baltimore is like an ocean liner that has hit an iceberg. Its white captain has turned over the ship to a black first mate and abandoned ship. (Sound familiar?) It is "an empty promotion" and "the poor, mostly black, passengers in steerage cannot get off the sinking ship."

True, but many Baltimore blacks (and low-income whites) have managed to flee to safe harbors like Baltimore County, and will continue to, changing metropolitan profiles.

Which brings us to Harry S. Truman. He was the judge of the Eastern District of Jackson County, Mo., an administrative, not a judicial, office, "like a county commissioner," said one biographer, and then he was elected presiding judge of the county, "a post tantamount to county executive."

Some say county executives are becoming today's mayors.

But while suburbia is more politically strong nationally today than ever, ex-county executives haven't been more successful climbing all the way up the political ladder than ex-mayors have. The only successful one that comes to mind is Spiro T. Agnew.

He went from Baltimore County executive to governor of Maryland to getting elected to be Richard Nixon's vice president in 1968 and 1972. He was preparing for the race for the Republican presidential nomination in 1976.

Then, uh-oh. The Justice Department accused him of taking bribes and kickbacks as county executive and governor. He was forced to resign, in return for accepting being found guilty for only one charge of tax evasion and no prison time.

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