Back To Top

[Robert J. Fouser] Looking at mayors for future leaders

The race for Democratic nomination for president in 2020 is almost full. Only the front runner, former Vice President Joe Biden, has yet to declare his candidacy. The race has more women and African-Americans than any in history. The candidates range from age 37 to 77, and they are diverse in ethnic and religious background. The race is the first time since 2004 that the Democrats do not have a dominant front-runner or an incumbent president running.

For all its diversity, the race has plentiful supply of senators and representatives, both current and former. It has one incumbent governor and a former governor. One candidate is a mayor, another is a former cabinet officer, and one has never held public office. Any of the candidates who hold or have held public office brings more political experience to the race than Donald Trump had when he began his quest for the presidency in 2015.

The paucity of governors in the race is a bad sign for democrats because the US elected a series of governors or former governors to the White House from 1976 to 2004: Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. Each these governors defeated an incumbent president or vice president, underscoring the strength of their campaigns. By contrast, Barack Obama was the first person since John F. Kennedy to move from the Senate to the White House. Vice presidents and former vice presidents have a mixed record because there is usually a desire for change after an eight-year presidency.

An interesting characteristic of this cycle’s candidates is abundance of mayoral experience. Sen. Bernie Sanders, a firebrand democratic socialist, ran a spirited race against Hillary Clinton in 2016. He began his political career as mayor of Burlington, Vermont, from 1981 to 1989. Sen. Cory Booker was mayor of Newark, New Jersey from 2006 to 2013. Julian Castro, secretary of Housing and Urban Development under President Obama, was mayor of San Antonio, Texas, from 2009 to 2014. John Hickenlooper, a former governor of Colorado, was mayor of Denver, Colorado, from 2003 to 2011. And Pete Buttigieg, who is only 37, has been mayor of South Bend, Indiana, since 2012.

No race in recent memory has seen more candidates with mayoral experience. This has usually been overlooked, but times have changed since Trump’s improbable win in 2016. Candidates now need to be social media savvy and good at branding. A record of experience in state or national government may no longer inspire confidence among voters.

Mayoral experience may help candidates adapt to the post-Trump era. City charters vary, so mayors have different powers. Some are chief executives, whereas others lead the city council, leaving administrative duties to a city manager. All mayors, however, are the symbol of the city, the elected parent of the city. Mayors appear at civic events and represent the city on the state and national stages. They are the city’s biggest booster and its top brander.

Because mayors are busy with official duties, they come in contact with a wide range of citizens. They have to listen to complaining citizens that politicians at higher levels can filter out. They also have to concern themselves with issues, such as garbage pickup and street maintenance, that force them to focus on practical solutions and that help them develop a keen understanding of the community.

Mayors also understand that politics is about tones of gray, not black or white. Many cities have lopsided majorities in favor of one party, or, as it often the case, no parties at all because elections are non-partisan. Instead of parties, various interest groups compete for advantage in pushing their agendas, and mayors play a key role in coalition building.

It may turn out that none of candidates with mayoral experience gets the Democratic nomination, but the experience may help them make it a good fight. Sanders is already running a close second to Biden. Booker is considered a top-tier candidate, and Buttigieg has recently stirred interest after positive media appearances.

For Koreans, the main interest in the US election in 2020 is where the various candidates stand on foreign policy matters related to the Korean Peninsula. The abundance of Democratic candidates with mayoral experience in the era of social media, however, suggests that future leaders in South Korea may one day come from the ranks of mayors who connect with voters better than remote politicians in higher-level positions.

Robert J. Fouser
Robert J. Fouser, a former associate professor of Korean language education at Seoul National University, writes on Korea from Pawtucket, Rhode Island. He can be reached at -- Ed.