Two 2016 Candidates Shaped by Lessons Learned as Mayors

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By Sam Gringlas

The White House has been home to plenty of former governors, senators, cabinet officials and generals, but only two former mayors have assumed the highest office in the land – Grover Cleveland (who had been Buffalo’s mayor) and Calvin Coolidge (Northampton, Massachusetts).

But the current presidential contest features two former mayors: Martin O’Malley, the former Maryland governor and mayor of Baltimore, and Bernie Sanders, a U.S. senator from Vermont who led the city of Burlington early in his political career.

Amid partisan gridlock in Congress, political observers are increasingly pointing to cities, not Washington, as drivers of the most innovative and effective policymaking. But according to Benjamin Barber, author of “Why Mayors Should Rule the World,” the mindset behind successful municipal governance does not translate easily to a presidential election.

Running a city requires pragmatism, the ability to forge coalitions across the political spectrum and a willingness to move away from ideology -- all of which Barber says are “totally contrary” to running a modern presidential campaign.

“You might say that were a mayor to be able to bring the climate of problem solving to Washington, that would be a good thing. But the question would be: Is it actually possible in a highly divided, polarized national polity?” Barber said.

Though both candidates launched their bids near the waterfronts of the cities they once led, Barber said neither O’Malley nor Sanders are focusing their talking points on their time as mayors. However, in interviews with NBC News both campaigns stressed the strong suits of municipal governance --- and their candidates’ own successes in that arena.

“People actually feel a lot better, for the most part, about how their cities are managed and the ability of their cities to become much more personally responsive to the concerns of people and more performance measured,” O’Malley told NBC News in an interview back in July. “And that’s what I think they’re yearning for in their state governments and in their federal governments.”

Steve Kearney, the director of policy and communications in O’Malley mayoral office, said it’s difficult to overstate the challenges Baltimore faced when his former boss assumed office in 1999. Kearney said O’Malley helped restore a sense of optimism in the city, citing the mayor’s efforts to tackle crime and track the provision of city services with cutting edge data analytics, as well as expand development initiatives to struggling neighborhoods.

However, the former Baltimore mayor has recently faced criticism for the zero-tolerance crime policy he promoted during his tenure, particularly amid an increasingly prominent national discussion surrounding police brutality.

“He absolutely has to talk through his record, and the issues as they stand today, almost a decade since he left the mayor’s office,” Kearney said. “And I would say, given his background, he’s in a much better position to do so than the others who are in the race.”

O’Malley and his supporters say the strategy — which stepped up enforcement of minor infractions in an effort to curb overall crime — played a significant role in reducing violent crime. But in 2006, the ACLU and the NAACP sued the city, alleging that the Baltimore Police Department had arrested thousands of people without probable cause. The city eventually settled and agreed to reforms. Still, some critics say the anger that spurred unrest in Baltimore last spring after a black man died while in police custody, was rooted in the policing policies enacted under O’Malley.

Tom Cochran, executive director of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, says O’Malley’s policies were in line with national trends at the time around fighting crime — and said O’Malley should make sure to point that out.

“There’s certainly no question that during this period the national mood was to lock a lot of people up, to get them off the streets and reduce crime,” he said. “You look back 15 years ago and say, ‘What did we do wrong?’ Well, we got crime down. We also incarcerated a lot of people.”

A few hundred miles north of Baltimore is Burlington, Vermont, the city Sanders ran for much of the 1980s. Today, the Lake Champlain waterfront where Sanders announced his presidential run is one of the city’s most prominent public spaces -- complete with parkland, beaches and bike paths. But early in Sanders’ term, the city’s wealthiest resident was compiling plans to develop the then-neglected tract of land with condominiums, a hotel and other private facilities.

Sanders fought the plan and won, and then worked with the developer to integrate commercial space into a new, more public development plan. The developer, who didn’t vote for Sanders when he was first elected, supported him in Sanders’ next three re-election campaigns.

“[Sanders] was a very tough negotiator, but he was prepared to give to allow for private development and private initiatives, as long as the public had its needs taken care,” said Michael Monte, who worked in the Burlington Community and Economic Development Office Sanders launched as mayor.

Monte said this kind of willingness to work with typically adversarial interests -- without straying from progressive policy goals -- would serve Sanders well in the Oval Office. He also said Sanders’ early experiences in municipal development played an important role in forming the candidate’s broader views on in issues like income inequality.

“Bernie Sanders never stopped being a progressive in Burlington, but he took a progressive vision in the name of the whole city and everybody in it, and said to everybody in it: ‘Work with me and help make this work, because the whole strength of my progressive vision will make a stronger, better, more dynamic, more developed Burlington,’” Barber said.

Barber says that’s not the kind of presidential campaign Sanders is running, noting that he’s taking a much more ideological position to meet the realities of a national Democratic primary.

“Now he’s being pegged by both friends and enemies as the far left candidate, which is absurd because in Burlington he was a problem-solver and got things done,” he said. “What would have been interesting is a campaign where Bernie said, ‘I know I’m perceived as a socialist, but I’m here for all Americans and I think I can create a climate where American business does better, and not worse.’ But that’s not his language.”

Michael Briggs, communications director for the Sanders campaign, disagreed with that assessment, saying the former Burlington mayor strikes a balance between idealism and pragmatism — a skill he honed as mayor.

According to Briggs, Sanders brought together a coalition of groups that differed on some issues, but were bound by common interests. He says one of the proudest moments of Sanders’ political career was nearly doubling turnout in his first reelection over the previous cycle when he won by just 10 votes.

“By making people understand that their votes mattered — that they had elected somebody who delivered on what he said he would deliver on, that he helped with the nuts and bolts of making life better as far as city government is concerned — people responded to that and turned out in such large numbers the next time around. And that’s the kind of grassroots movement he’s been attempting to put together in his presidential campaign,” Briggs said.

That approach would also inform a Sanders White House, Briggs added, saying that President Barack Obama did not effectively translate the grassroots nature of his campaign efforts to enact his policy agenda. But he says if a million students join up on the Mall calling for change, that’s a different story.

No matter how enticing, Barber says such a candidate may not only have trouble getting elected, but struggle to get things done in the current political climate.

“In some ways, Obama tried to operate like a mayor when he got to Washington,” he said. “That is to say he was open to both sides, he was trying to minimize ideology, he was trying to work together to solve problems. But when you have a highly polarized Washington, as we often have, that approach begins to look inept.”

Cochran hopes, that at the very least, urban issues receive more attention during the campaign. He says his organization is pushing for a debate solely devoted to infrastructure.

“I don’t think we’ve had an urban agenda in this country probably since the 1970s. And I that a former big-city mayor would bring a level of expertise and leadership in that area that we haven’t seen in a very long time,” Kearney said.

In the meantime, Barber said the American people don’t want to wait around for Washington -- and are already counting on cities to solve some of the nation’s most difficult policy challenges.

“While I would say it’s very tough to do it, if we can find ways to transform national politics back into a politics of common ground, a politics of doing things together, that is a long-term solution,” Barber said. “And it may be that at some point, the right candidate will come along who can do that.”