The Mayoralty: A Political Dead End?

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If you have read any of the American urban politics literature, you have probably come across studies about the career paths of local politicians. Indeed, there seems to be a small obsession with analyzing the political careers of the people who hold elected office. One of the reasons these studies are so common1 is because they can offer important insights about politics and political institutions. In the words of one American author, “the careers of local politicians can be seen as a barometer of the political health of our cities.”2

Unfortunately, this literature doesn’t have many nice things to say about the political career prospects of mayors. In fact, the conventional view has been that the mayoralty is a “political dead end.”3

One of the earliest studies on the topic was conducted in 1963 by Marily Gittell, who examined political careers over a 20 year period. She found that only 10.4% of mayors  “moved up the political ladder”4 and argued that the most skilled potential leaders should seek elected office elsewhere.

“The lack of political future in being a mayor has made the office most unattractive. Although the task of the mayor often matches or supersedes that of governor, the stakes are considerably lessened by the various political limitations. The more astute politician will guide his career around, not into, the mayor’s office.”5

Now, not every study has shared this view.6 But, there is consensus even in the more recent literature that seeking “local office is not a good political stepping stone in the United States.”7

Of course, there are exceptions. Two American presidents were former mayors, and there are many examples of politicians migrating between levels of government. But, the data is pretty clear: if you want to become president or governor someday, running for mayor is not a good place to start.

The thing I find quite irritating (and maybe even offensive) about these studies is the underlying assumption which views levels of government as a hierarchy of importance; that somehow we can organize elected offices into rungs on a career ladder, with local offices at the bottom and various ‘senior level of government’ posts near the top. I just don’t buy it. Local government isn’t the ‘farm league’ of politics; it’s a league of its own.

I also don’t like the assumptions made in these studies about the people who are mayors. It assumes them to be careerists driven primarily by personal ambition, seeking something ‘bigger and better’ than what local government has to offer. Maybe the reason so few mayors end up in ‘higher office’ is because they didn’t want it in the first place.

Now, there may be important differences between Canada and the United States when it comes to the careers of mayors. Even in my study, four of the ten mayors included have federal or provincial political experience before becoming a mayor, and there are several prominent examples of politicians who have successfully migrated between levels of government. Perhaps there is more intergovernmental career mobility in Canada than in the United States. Unfortunately, there hasn’t been nearly as much study on this topic in Canada, so we don’t really know.

The point is: by describing the mayoralty as a “political dead end” or “not a good stepping stone”, we are missing the point. The position isn’t a rung on a ladder. It’s a role unlike any other political post in the country. For people who care about communities and local issues, being a mayor isn’t a means to an end; it can be the crowing achievement of a career. In an article about big city mayors this week, one Canadian mayor (who happens to also be a former MP) says it this way: “I think that being the mayor of a city is in many ways the pinnacle of public service.”

To me, this topic is yet another example about why we need more research about mayors that is specific to Canada’s unique context. We can’t continue to borrow language and rely on findings from studies in other jurisdictions. We need to recognize the uniqueness of the position of mayor in Canada, and strive to understand it in its own right.

Endnotes

  1. For the real keeners, you may be interested in checking out Barber’s The Lawmakers (1965), Schlesinger’s Ambition and Politics (1966), Prewitt’s The Recruitment of Political Leaders (1970), or Ehrenhalt’s The United States of Ambition (1991), to name a few.
  2. Timothy Bledoe, Careers in City Politics: The Case for Urban Democracy (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1993), 35.
  3. Marilyn Gittell, “Metropolitan Mayor: Dead End”, Public Administration Review (March 1963), 20.
  4. Ibid, 22.
  5. Ibid, 22.
  6. See: Russel D. Murphy, “Whither the Mayors? A Note on Mayoral Careers”, The Journal of Politics (February 1980).
  7. Timothy Bledoe, Careers in City Politics, 11.