GOP big-city mayors vanish
By: Alexander Burns
October 20, 2013 06:59 AM EDT
The Republican Party’s image is in a ruinous condition, as polls show wide public disapproval of the GOP that has only deepened in the wake of the government shutdown, and concern over whether Republicans are too ideologically hardline to govern.
For Republican politicians in America’s big cities, that grim state of affairs might be called “the usual.”
Largely unnoticed in Washington, urban Republican politicians have emerged over the last year as perhaps the nation’s most severely endangered political species, as the party has either failed to compete for high-profile mayor’s offices or has been soundly rebuffed by voters. It’s a significant setback that some Republicans view as an ominous sign for the GOP in a country growing steadily more urban and diverse.
The starkest examples of GOP rollback come from New York, where frankly liberal Democrat Bill de Blasio currently leads Republican Joe Lhota, a former top Rudy Giuliani adviser, by more than 40 points; and Los Angeles, where the lone Republican candidate took just 16 percent in an open primary and failed even to qualify for the general election.
But the Republicans’ big-city drought is a setback that goes far beyond the country’s top two cities. In the year 2000, Republican mayors governed half of the country’s dozen largest cities by population. Some of the party’s most provocative leaders had come out of city hall, including New York’s Giuliani, Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan and Indianapolis Mayor Stephen Goldsmith, the celebrated policy wonk and George W. Bush adviser.
Today, you have to go all the way down to Indianapolis – the country’s 13th-largest city – to find just one Republican mayor. Even cities that have historically preferred center-right mayors, such as Jacksonville and Phoenix, have turned away from the GOP. (New York’s mayor, billionaire Michael Bloomberg, has appropriated the Republican ballot line for his campaigns, but calls himself an independent and endorsed President Barack Obama for reelection last year.)
City leaders in both parties chalk up the withering of the urban GOP to an array of forces: dropping crime rates that have made voters indifferent to law-and-order politics; Democrats’ increasing willingness to confront public employee unions and a radioactive national Republican brand that’s utterly lethal among many nonwhite voters.
To the few Republicans still in charge of major American cities, the most frustrating problem of all may be the GOP’s apparent lack of concern for the party’s city hall shutout.
“The Democratic Party uses mayors as spokespeople and as examples of success. The Republican Party seems to not want to allow Republican mayors to be part of the story,” said Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett, the lone mayor of a significant city to address the 2012 GOP convention in Tampa. In exceedingly sharp contrast, San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro was the 2012 Democratic convention keynoter and a long list of his fellow city executives took the stage in Charlotte.
Cornett said the typical mayor’s perspective – even for a Republican – is simply more technocratic, more focused on public services and business development, than the message currently coming out of the national GOP.
“When the Republican Party starts speaking nationally, they’re not speaking typically from a centrist point of view,” Cornett said. “There aren’t many mayors who are successful who can come at it from the far right.”
U.S. Conference of Mayors President Scott Smith, the GOP mayor of Mesa, Ariz., said his party has “completely ignored mayors” and overlooked appealing stories of fiscal stewardship. It’s not an accident, he said, that the national party has a hard time convincing voters to trust it with the responsibility of governing.
“Republicans are like the Democrats in the early ‘70s. They put ideology above all,” Smith said. “And just like George McGovern would have had a hard time really governing based on his ideology, I think most far-right ideology – any ideology, far-left, far-right – would have a hard time governing.”
The Republicans’ inability to gain ground in urban areas could have both short- and long-term consequences for the party, GOP city leaders warn. In the immediate term, Republicans have lost a critical arena for showcasing policy ideas: as much as center-right policy thinkers care about charter schools and school choice, for example, they have few natural allies in city halls to put those ideas to the test.
In the bigger picture, Republican losses on the city level have had consequences in other elections – presidential races in states like Ohio and Florida, for instance. In 2004, President Bush won 39 percent of big-city voters to John Kerry’s 60 percent. Last year, Obama won 69 percent of big-city voters on his way to reelection, versus 29 percent for Republican challenger Mitt Romney.
That shift is no accident, Democrats and Republicans agreed, given the Obama campaign’s relentless outreach to the young and nonwhite voters who make up a growing percentage of the urban electorate. Nor is it a surprise that cities would deliver for Democrats in a year when the Democratic mayors of San Antonio, Philadelphia, Chicago, Los Angeles, Minneapolis and a host of other metropolises became major surrogates for the president’s reelection.
And while the big-city electorate didn’t grow between 2004 and 2012, according to exit polls, the most recent census data shows that’s likely to change. A Brookings Institution study published in May detailed how large cities are not only growing faster than at any time since 1990, but are also outgrowing the suburbs surrounding them.
Former vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan told a Wisconsin TV station last November that the GOP ticket lost in 2012 in part because of “turnout especially in urban areas” – a comment widely perceived as having a racial subtext. But it also happens to be true that if Republicans are going to compete in national elections five or 10 years from now, they’ll have to find a way to snap their losing streak in the cities.
Marist College pollster Lee Miringoff – whose most recent survey showed Republicans losing the New York mayoral race by 44 percentage points – said the GOP dilemma should be all the more alarming because the issues driving urban politics have increasingly spilled over into surrounding metropolitan areas.
“The suburbs are not this homogeneous, anti-tax, anti-crime rim around the cities that they might have been 20 years ago,” Miringoff said. “The cities have become incredibly diverse and the problems that connect with a Democratic agenda, from daycare and job issues and education issues, beyond just taxes and crime, are issues for that area as well.”
The latest Marist poll in New York City showed just how tattered the GOP’s former urban coalition has become. The party captured that mayor’s office throughout the ‘90s in large part by winning over white votes around issues of crime and managerial discipline. In Marist’s polling, white voters preferred Lhota by 6 points on the issue of crime and 8 points on fiscal management – but de Blasio was white voters’ preference for mayor, 57 percent to 33 percent.
Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak, the vice chairman of the Democratic National Committee, argued that at this point there’s relatively little room for Republican candidates in the cities, in part because Democrats have co-opted traditional GOP areas of strength like fiscal discipline and crime prevention.
It’s awfully hard, in other words, for Republicans to lampoon modern-day Democrats as the tools of unions and the enemies of police – like their counterparts in the 1980s – when they’re backing pension reform and aggressive policing.
“When cities faced serious financial issues, a new, urban Democratic politics was invented, where we finally had people exercising the social liberalism [and] fiscal conservatism that everybody says they’re for,” Rybak said. “Republicans had a chance to own that brand, but their extreme positions on social issues have just alienated too many people.”
Rybak added: “It would be impossible to lead with what would be considered a pure, Washington-style Democratic liberalism. It would have been almost impossible while steering cities through these times.”
Republicans may have a shot at picking up at least one major city hall office this year, if only thanks to a bizarre confluence of circumstances. In traditionally Republican San Diego, a special election is underway to replace former Democratic Mayor Bob Filner, who resigned from office in a sexual harassment scandal and pleaded guilty this week to felony charges of battery and false imprisonment.
Filner’s election in 2012 was viewed in California and nationally as a sign of grievous Republican weakness in a city that once voted reliably for the GOP, and vaulted Pete Wilson from the mayor’s office to the U.S. Senate and the governorship of California.
A poll this week found Republican City Councilman Kevin Faulconer running a close second place in the special election to party-switcher Nathan Fletcher, a former Republican legislator now seeking office as a Democrat. Faulconer said he hopes his record of helping address San Diego’s legendarily bad pension problems, along with his background on environmental issues, will help him fare better than a standard-issue Republican.
“You have to have a message and results that are neighborhood-focused, environmental-focused and also about fiscal accountability,” Faulconer said. “I’m known here as a very moderate, problem-solving individual. That’s what we need in San Diego right now and in my view that’s what we need in most big cities around the country.”
Former Jersey City, N.J., Mayor Bret Schundler, a star conservative mayor of the 1990s whom William F. Buckley once floated for the presidency, said Republican mayoral candidates were right to run from the party label.
“If I were a candidate, I wouldn’t be saying, ‘Vote for me, I’m a Republican, the Democrats have bad policies.’ I would be saying, ‘My opponent has bad policies,’” said Schundler, who bemoaned urban voters’ embrace of “left-wing” politics many rejected in the 1990s.
“They almost think things are so good that they can’t get bad again,” he said. “That’s a crock.”