Any unbiased observer of our cities can see that mediocrity is the salient characteristic of the typical local American politician. Another important problem in small and mid-sized cities is that they are poor and in need of revitalization, especially in Rust Belt areas. A natural conclusion to draw from the coincidence of inept leadership and socioeconomic decay is that better leaders are needed. But in the poorest, most troubled cities, talented leadership is not much of an asset, and it can be a liability. Talent does real harm by raising false expectations of a revival—distracting from mundane yet essential operational matters, and forestalling state intervention at critical junctures.
To assess the value of talented urban leadership, it’s best to start by looking at exceptions to the rule: places where it does exist. Hartford, Connecticut’s capital and home to 123,000 people, is one such exception. Mayor Luke Bronin is a former Rhodes Scholar and intelligence officer in the Naval Reserve. He investigated terrorist financing at the Obama Treasury Department, and served as the state of Connecticut’s general counsel before being elected mayor in 2015. An amateur musician, he wrote a song that was featured on Dawson’s Creek. He is 38. This is not a typical resume for a mayor of a small, deeply impoverished city. Decades of economic decline and imprudent budgeting have brought Hartford to the brink of bankruptcy.
Yet it remains unclear if Bronin’s talents will do anything to stabilize Hartford’s budget, and they may even constitute an impediment. Hartford can only regain solvency through the involvement of the state government. The most sensible solution would be a financial assistance package accompanied by a state takeover. Were Hartford now led by a long-serving mayor under indictment for corruption, a state takeover would be a foregone conclusion. But since it is being led by a brilliant up-and-comer, the case for state oversight is weaker—as helpful as that option may be for the city.
When public-spirited reformers call for better leadership for cities, they typically have in mind a collection of qualities that are more likely to be possessed by an outsider. They are not sounding the call for everyone to get behind this or that city councilmember, someone who got his start as a campaign worker to some local hack and has patiently waited his turn. Instead, they want someone with experience and/or education that most of the local crowd does not have, derived perhaps from service in the private sector or government at the federal or state level. This is likely to be someone who did not come up through the ranks and can thus apply a novel approach to longstanding challenges; who admires innovation; who can envision a solution to every problem, instead of a problem with every solution.
That was how many once viewed former New York City mayor John Lindsay. When Lindsay, a Republican congressman from the Upper East Side, first ran in 1965, New York Post columnist Murray Kempton famously opined “He is fresh and everyone else is tired.” Handsome, standing 6’4’’, and articulate, Lindsay was celebrated by the city’s elites. He emphasized youth and intelligence over government experience in his staffing decisions, and used the phrase “Fun City” to describe his vision for a revitalized New York. Now, however, historians mostly use “Fun City” in an ironic way, with reference to how lousy things got under Lindsay. Crime skyrocketed. Jobs and residents exited at a galloping rate. Though Lindsay was not mayor when New York almost went bankrupt in 1975, he was arguably more responsible than any other figure for the fiscal crisis because of his tolerance for budget gimmicks that papered over the widening gap between revenues and spending. Lindsay’s responsibility for the “bad old days” has caused many to forget what a dashing figure he first cut on the scene when he arrived.
The Progressive Turn to Experts
One of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s major legacies was to make the public feel entitled to hold politicians directly responsible for the health of the economy. As a result, elected officials at all levels of government are now held to totally unrealistic standards. This is nowhere more clearly so than in the case of struggling cities.
Here’s how Edward McClelland, in his 2013 book Nothin’ But Blue Skies: The Heyday, Hard Times, and Hopes of America’s Industrial Heartland puts it: “Running Flint [Mich.] requires the financial acumen of William Pitt the Younger, the law-and-order bullying to Benito Mussolini, the city-building vision of Romulus, the labor negotiating skills of Franklin D. Roosevelt, and the industrial efficiency of Otto von Bismarck. Obviously, no politician has all these qualities. Any politician who had even one probably wouldn’t settle for mayor of a bankrupt city of one hundred thousand and counting backward. Flint is ungovernable, yet Flintstones continually punish mayors who can’t govern it.”
In order to compete in a mayoral election, all candidates must promise better days are ahead. But not every city has mayoral elections, or not consequential ones. So called “council-manager” cities do not. Under the council-manager form of government, the head of the city administration is an unelected appointee of the city council. The mayor is a ceremonial figurehead. Also known as the “weak mayor” model, the council-manager system was a Progressive-era innovation whose premise was that, by separating politics and administration, the former will become less corrupt and the latter more effective. Slightly more than half of all small and mid-sized cities have council-manager, according to the International City/County Management Association .
The council-manager system has not achieved its ideal. A century of experience with the form of government—Dayton, Ohio was the first major city to adopt council-manager, in 1913—has produced numerous examples of waste and corruption. It appears that politicians will always want to meddle in administrative matters, and top city administrators, if they want to survive in their position, must cultivate and use political skills to some degree. But you can say this for council-manager: At least it has the right ideal, and everyone has a right to expect competent delivery of basic municipal services.
But there’s no such thing as a right to revitalization. City reformers call for inspired leadership because they see it as a condition of revitalization, but what if that’s impossible? Our conception of urban renaissance is unduly influenced by the experience of a small handful of large cities. If you look past New York, San Francisco and Boston, and survey their dozens of small and mid-sized Rust Belt peers, it is very difficult to find an example of true revitalization. In a forthcoming research report, I survey 96 major poor cities in the Rust Belt and find that every single one has seen its poverty rate increase since 1970.
The Problem With Public-Sector Unions
The best argument for the benefits of talented urban leadership its ability to question the power of public-sector unions. Someone from outside city politics is more likely to grasp the many bizarre pathologies that result from having allowed teachers, police officers, and other public servants to assert formal influence over their own compensation and terms of employment, regardless of what’s in the public interest. Government unions are able to do this via their sway over the electoral process, selecting the “management” with whom they will be negotiating their contracts.
In the contemporary urban era, the threat of municipal bankruptcy looms large. Due to the steady corrosion of their tax bases, and the escalating costs of bonded debt and retirement-benefit liabilities, poor cities have a thin margin of error, fiscally speaking. Cities that have seen no substantive economic growth for decades should not be making retirement-benefit promises that stretch sixty years out into the future. And yet this practice is routine for all cities that still compensate their workforces through defined-benefit pensions.
If fiscal policy is one of the most important issues in urban politics today, and government unions are the greatest barrier to a more responsible fiscal policy, then bringing in more talented outsiders to mayor’s offices across the nation may be one of most important things we could do to help cities. But those who came up through a city’s political system are likely to view government unions’ stranglehold on city finances and operations with a “twas always thus” attitude. Examples of outsiders who grasped the lunacy of municipal compensation structures are Hartford’s Bronin and New York’s Michael Bloomberg .
But there’s a limit to how much any American mayor wants to be identified as a union-buster. Republicans revere Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin as a happy warrior who “sit[s] upon a throne made out of the skulls of his enemies .” But Democrats must take pains to avoid the Scott Walker tag. And only a Democrat can get elected in most cities. Long ago, it was possible for an American politician to be against public-sector unions while supporting private unions—FDR is the obvious example . But such a political brand is not possible now because the decline of unionization in the private sector is so far advanced. Local Democrats who go too far in their battles with teachers unions risk being seen as anti-worker, even though going “too far” is what needs to be done to stabilize municipal budgets. So they have to counterbalance their union fighting with all manner of very liberal policies, some of which are will mean more spending.
A 2016 analysis by the Citizens Budget Commission  found that Bloomberg, the centrist who frequently tussled with the unions, increased spending in New York City during times of economic growth at an even greater rate than his openly labor-friendly successor Bill de Blasio has. In the end, it is almost impossible not to succumb to the lure of “labor harmony.” No Democratic mayor relishes the thought of fighting government unions across two or three terms in office, even though that may be how long it takes to effect genuine fiscal reform.
Big Ideas or Sound Management?
Perhaps the biggest problem with the talented-outsider mayor is that he is apt to get ideas. He may be more educated than the local doofuses, but that does not mean he is fully enlightened. It’s a case where a little knowledge can become a dangerous thing. State and local politicians who are known as big thinkers will always be strong candidates for a “public official of the year” award from Governing magazine or singled out as one of “America’s 11 Most Interesting Mayors ” by Politico. New York and DC-based reporters from national publications are naturally attracted to mayors who can speak the language of urbanism.
But too much of urbanists’ advice for small and mid-sized cities consists of trying to impose lessons from successful top tier cities such as New York, Washington, San Francisco and Boston. Poor small and mid-sized cities should spend more time comparing themselves to other poor, small, and mid-sized cities. If you’ve lost half your population since 1950, you probably don’t have an affordable housing crisis; you’re not grappling with the challenges of density but rather a lack of density. If you have no wealth to redistribute in the first place, then Bill de Blasio can teach you little about the joys of redistribution.
In public budgeting, which is the area of greatest concern for many cities today, getting ideas is especially dangerous. John Lindsay’s innovative fiscal maneuvers were noted earlier. Detroit lit the fuse for its 2013-14 bankruptcy with a complicated $1.4 billion debt issuance that former Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick and his advisers dreamed up in 2005 in order to evade both the city’s legally-imposed debt limit and a pension contribution it could not afford. The Bond Buyer, the preeminent trade publication for state and local finance, gave Kilpatrick—now in federal prison for convictions on separate corruption charges—its 2005 “Midwest Regional Deal of the Year” award for so cleverly arranging “future flexibility” for his city’s budget. But all Kilpatrick’s deal really did was pile on more debt and make a bad fiscal situation worse.
“Flexibility,” like “innovation,” may be a core value in Silicon Valley, but it’s frequently a bad thing in the world of municipal finance. Remember all the encomiums to “boring banking” in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis? Often enough, the same principle applies for how to run a city.
Stephen Eide is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute