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Can a Mayor Become Major? PDF Print E-mail
Written by Jay Beskin, BT Contributor   
January 2020

It’s not always the job description, but the experience

APix_B_JayBeskin_1-20ny defense attorney in any state in these United States will confirm the following observation: No matter how uneducated the client is, even if his or her vocabulary is generally limited to words of four letters or less, there’s one ten-dollar word that will emerge at some point in the conversation. That word is “incarcerated.” It used to surprise me every time I heard it pop out from an unlikely source -- until I finally figured it out.

The synonyms of “incarcerated” are “jailed” and “imprisoned,” but those words are rendered distasteful by virtue of the nouns they contain: “jail” and “prison.” The only way to describe the experience of going to jail or prison without having to hear one of those ugly nouns echoing in the background is to use “incarcerated,” a word whose sound says little of its meaning. It could just as easily mean any other human activity -- say, eating cotton candy at the carnival or searching for uranium on the beach with a Geiger counter.

The flip side of this turns up in the political world, where people are more comfortable running for commissioner or governor than for mayor. A commissioner (I was one of those back in the day) commissions things (like art in the city hall, maybe) or commits things (like crazies into the loony bin) or collects commission or something, but at least his job is in there in his title somewhere. A governor of course governs, and that has to mean that he is the boss of something or somebody, so that can’t be all bad.

But a mayor may? Or he may not? There’s not the slightest hint in his title of what it is that he does in office. If anything, it sounds like he has no authority at all; he has to say “May I?” to the governor if he wants to accomplish anything in the state’s jurisdiction, and he has to say “May I?” to the president if he wants to accomplish anything in the federal jurisdiction. And we all know what a president does, don’t we? He presides.

These ruminations have become relevant in recent months because there is a mayor who has been running in the Democratic presidential primaries, and he is now being joined in those sweepstakes by yet another mayor, who apparently was much taken by the idea. The first mayor does his may-ing in South Bend, Indiana, a city noted for housing Notre Dame University (his quasi motto: “I had a hunch back then that I could win”). The second mayor drawn into the fray is a former three-term mayor in a city in the State of New York.

Pix_A_JayBeskin_1-20As a Democratically inclined voter myself, I can sympathize with the policies proffered by either or both of these candidates. But as a former officeholder, I bring a different sensibility to my decisions when voting for an executive position like president or governor. I have to look beyond ideology and consider the question of executive experience.

I liken this to the distinction between hiring a teacher and hiring a principal. I am fine with employing a teacher on the basis of her knowledge and ideas, if she has a modicum of stage presence, enough to keep a group of howling kids at bay. But the same woman will not get my vote for principal of the same school unless I have witnessed her leadership qualities in an administrative or executive capacity. Policy and policing are not sufficient in that role; it takes a polished leader to manage the polarities within the polity.

So the quandary in which I most often find myself, in this oddest of political seasons, is how to respond to folks who ask me, as a former city commissioner, if I think being a mayor qualifies someone to be a president. With both Buttigieg and Bloomberg maintaining just that, I find it uncomfortable to challenge their contention. But when asked (“The two B’s or not the two B’s, that is the question”) I have to admit that the mayoralty of a city of 100,000 hardy souls seems too many steps removed from the presidency of 325 million people. It equates to going from building Tinkertoys to building skyscrapers.

On the other hand, three terms as mayor of New York, the greatest metropolis in our country with eight million citizens, add up to a real recommendation for the highest office, even if Rudolph Giuliani, who was a great mayor in that same city for two terms, has mostly been making himself progressively more ridiculous in several capacities since leaving office. We all remember his doomed campaign for the Republican presidential nod against the late Sen. John McCain in 2008, which was launched in Florida and crashed there almost immediately.

Again, please let me make clear that I have nothing against either of these candidates in the policy realm, nor am I endorsing Michael Bloomberg as the Democratic candidate for president in 2020. Rather, I am examining the general principle of leapfrogging up the ladder from one political office to another. When is it reasonable to assume you have what it takes to lead offices bigger than the ones you have held in the past?

I would add another point in favor of a mayor from New York or Chicago or Los Angeles making the jump to presidential candidate. In addition to managing the living conditions for millions of people, they also find themselves directly involved with matters of federal concern, as it were. They deal with all kinds of national issues on the ground -- education, infrastructure, health, public safety, competing interest groups based on identity politics. They get an opportunity to solve some of the same issues while working with some of the same players.

The comedian Jackie Mason, now approaching 90, has long performed a caustic routine about politics. He asks what other positions with substantive skill sets rely so heavily on speaking ability? He doesn’t care if his pilot is a good orator, as long as he can fly a plane, and he doesn’t choose a dentist who can pontificate, but rather one who is handy with a drill. The larger point he makes is correct. Especially for executive positions like governor or president, we need people who have demonstrated they have executive abilities. Not ones who may…or may not.

I hope this important concern is addressed. (Perhaps there are plans already for this, which have not been publicized.) I would like to see this project bear fruit, not remain a virgin, so to speak. Yes, sir?

 

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