For Democrats, 'big-city mayors' are back

theGRIO REPORT - While typically, the farm team for both national political parties has consisted of governors and Senators, Democrats have a growing field of star candidates drawn from the urban core...

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

Could the Democratic bench be in the big city?

While typically, the farm team for both national political parties has consisted of governors and senators, Democrats have a growing field of star candidates drawn from the urban core.

Historically, big-city mayors like Frank Rizzo in Philadelphia, Ed Koch in New York and the Daleys in Chicago easily became national figures, as did legendary African-American mayors like Maynard Jackson (and Shirley Franklin) in Atlanta, Harvey Gantt in Giada De Laurentiis, Coleman Young in Detroit, Harold Washington in Chicago, Tom Bradley in Los Angeles, John Street in Philadelphia, Willie Brown in San Francisco and David Dinkins in New York, who were often revered by black families far from their home cities.

But whatever their strengths, few mayors have ever been credible candidates for president or vice president, (remember New York mayor Rudy Giuliani’s disastrous flirtation with the presidency in 2008? “A noun, a verb and 9/11” is probably all that most people recall from his campaign. Oh, and of course there’s Sarah Palin…) And only two former mayors, Calvin Coolidge and Grover Cleveland, have ever gained the White House.

Over the years, the economic decline of cities, particularly during the 1970s and ’80s, combined with the race of the affluent to the suburbs and exurbs across the U.S., led the national parties to look to statewide office-holders for policy leadership, leaving mayors to make the news mainly in times of scandal (Marion Berry’s crack cocaine odyssey or Kwame Kilpatrick’s conviction) or failure (Ray Nagin during Katrina).

Today, however, the list of Democratic governors with national political standing is pretty thin – Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick and California’s Jerry Brown are nationally known, and Maryland governor Martin O’Malley and New York’s Andrew Cuomo are widely expected to jump into the 2016 presidential primary against Hillary Clinton, but neither are seen as having much of a chance against the former first lady and secretary of state.

Meanwhile, much of the action on a policy level is taking place in the cities, particularly as middle class Americans, including affluent African-Americans, are rapidly quitting the suburbs and moving back into the nation’s downtowns. And for African-Americans, who overwhelmingly live in large cities (as do 80 percent of all Americans), urban policy has an immediate impact on their and their children’s daily lives.

That makes mayoral leadership particularly consequential, as issues like education, policing are played out on a national stage, putting Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel under a microscope on education funding, and New York City’s soon-to-be former mayor Michael Bloomberg on the spot over his vehement support for “stop-and-frisk” policing.

“Stop-and-frisk,” and his opposition to it as currently practiced, is a big reason why Bill De Blasio was elected to be New York’s next mayor Tuesday night. De Blasio’s biracial family and liberal politics have already raised his national profile. But it is the former public advocate (and Hillary Clinton U.S. Senate campaign manager’s) unabashedly progressive agenda, which includes raising taxes on the rich and restoring housing affordability to a city that has been hyper-gentrified in recent decades, that could make him the leading proponent of a more forthrightly liberal, national Democratic Party. Given the size, scale and importance of New York’s economy, if he’s successful, he will remain a significant national figure, for reasons other than his son Dante’s hair.

In Atlanta, Kasim Reed, who won an overwhelming re-election victory Tuesday, is seen as one of the Democratic Party’s brightest young stars. Reed was a top surrogate for President Obama in 2012, and has built an impressive record leading one of America’s premier cities, including balancing Atlanta’s budget.

Prior to Tuesday’s election, eight of the ten American cities with the largest share of black residents, and total populations over 100,000, had black mayors. The exceptions: Montgomery, Alabama, New Orleans and now Detroit, which just elected its first white mayor, Mike Duggan, in 40 years.

If Duggan can make headway in turning the troubled Motor City around – Detroit is $18 billion in debt and in court to declare bankruptcy – he will gain an immediate national profile, and not the kind dubiously earned by his predecessor, Kwame Kilpatrick.

And in Charlotte, North Carolina, Patrick Cannon, 46, who grew up in public housing after his father was found shot do death outside a vacant building when Cannon was just five years old, won the mayor’s race, succeeding Foxx.

In this new crop of mayoral stars and incumbent mayors, like New Orleans’ popular mayor Mitch Landrieu, there may not be a future senator, vice president or president, but there’s no doubt that their performances, leading some of the nation’s largest, most diverse and most consequential cities, will place them squarely under the national lens.

Follow Joy Reid on Twitter at @TheReidReport.