The greatest mayors in the United States have always had the ability to appeal to people in their towns, influence their city councils, gain national attention and create true public policy that made a profound impact years after their reign.
Many of the nation’s historically great African-American mayors have been able to rise to this category during great adversity, oftentimes breaking strong color barriers and shifting their city’s focus in a different direction that went far beyond symbolism.
Although it took him almost to the end of his short time ruling to gain control of the City Council, what made Chicago’s first black mayor Harold Washington great was his overall inclusiveness and implementation of policies that set Chicago apart nationally, said Madeline Murphy Rabb, who served as Washington’s executive director of the then Fine Arts department for the city of Chicago from 1983 to 1991.
“[Washington] was very clear that he wanted to have an inclusive administration, and so he had a lot of women in his cabinet, diversity of races and ethnicities,” Rabb told theGrio. “He was not about the status quo. He wanted to see change. He created policies that nurtured and expanded opportunities for communities.”
According to University of Illinois—Chicago political scientist and former Chicago City Council member Dick Simpson, “Harold was primarily a visionary. He did manage to do some, and partly because he didn’t gain full power until after the 1986 election of aldermen.”
Throughout his rule, Washington, who was recently celebrated for the 30th anniversary of his historic inauguration, brought affirmative action policies and made strides to protect immigrants, inspire open information in the form of a local Freedom of Information Act, expand gay rights and increase access to Chicago’s finest resources for all residents. His time, however, was cut short when he met with an untimely death, just months after winning his second term and gaining democratic control over the Chicago City Council. But many of his policies live on in Chicago today.
Much like Washington, former mayor of San Francisco Willie Brown, Jr. had a relatively short reign, but was able to rise as an iconic figure and carry on some of the policies that predated him. After 30 years in the California State Assembly, 15 of them as speaker, Brown was elected as the city’s first black mayor in 1995. He saw the city through a significant real estate development boom, helped usher it into several technological advances and saw a budget increase in the city which lead to thousands of new jobs, something that got Brown national attention as he appeared on national talk shows.
“What he had managed to do was bring the Republicans on his side,” said Monroe Anderson, veteran Chicago journalist and former press secretary for former Chicago mayor Eugene Sawyer. That served him well when getting support in the City Council, but according to Simpson, although Brown had great impact locally on several policies, because San Francisco was smaller compared with larger nearby cities, “a lot of what he accomplished didn’t have the national impact that mayors of larger cities did, even though San Francisco’s an important city.”
Brown’s impact continues today in policy and with The Willie L. Brown, Jr. Institute on Politics and Public Service.
Since Atlanta citizens elected Maynard Jackson as their first black mayor in 1973, the city has consistently chosen African-American mayors. Preceding Washington, many of Jackson’s staff worked for Chicago’s mayor.
“Jackson was one of the first really progressive mayors,” Simpson said. Over his three non-consecutive terms, he helped improve race relations in and around the Atlanta area, initiated many major public works projects, and assisted in the fight of Atlanta’s then-rising murder rate that gained national attention.
Relating to creating policy, Simpson said Jackson brought a new power arrangement in Atlanta, “in which blacks gained from it, their power.”
Jackson was first elected mayor at the same time as Coleman Young, who had a rare longevity, serving 20 years as mayor of Detroit. He was instrumental in integrating the Detroit Police Department, which had previously ruled the nearly 50 percent black Detroit population with a disproportionately white police department. Young also advocated for city construction projects including hospitals, residential buildings and manufacturing plants.
His 20-year stint, however, also worked against him, as it could with other mayors, Anderson said.
“At some point the longevity becomes a double-edged sword, in that you’re [there] too long and corruption sets in.”
Years after these legendary black mayors have made their imprint on society, some former workers feel the concept of the great African-American mayor may have gotten a little lost.
“I don’t know if when you look at generations, now, they have the same understanding or the same involvement politically,” said Rabb. “I don’t know if they have the understanding, the passion and the willingness to step out there and be strong and assertive as these other men have been.”
“Nearly all mayors aspire to it…It’s still a common aspiration,” said Simpson.
However, as the cost of living rises and the nation continues to try to rebound from a global recession, Simpson noted that a large problem facing mayors is severely-cut federal and state funds.
Renita D. Young is a multimedia journalist based in Chicago. Follow her on Twitter @RenitaDYoung.