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New York Times Room for Debate


Not A Stepping Stone, But A Destination

December 30, 2013

By Michael Allegretti

Although mayor of New York City is not a stepping stone, it’s certainly not a dead-end job.

Being mayor of America’s largest city is a highly coveted final destination, which ranks among the top jobs in the country, with both political risk and reward. With a $70 billion budget and 325,000-person work force, New York mayors oversee ways and means that rank third after only the states of California and New York. While a U.S. president or senator oversees a larger federal budget and work force, their abilities are checked by up to 535 lawmakers.

New York mayors tend not to seek statewide office because there is little incentive to do so. The bully pulpit in New York City – the world’s media capital – is louder than Albany’s. Ask a resident of Madrid or Melbourne who is mayor of New York, and they will most likely give you the right answer. Ask that same person who is governor of New York, and you will get a blank stare. As demonstrated by the export of Giuliani-era “broken windows” policing and Bloomberg-era performance management and urban mobility projects, the city’s examples are spread around the world. I cannot think of such examples from Albany.

New York mayors tend not to seek national office because mayors tend not to seek national office. Of the 19 U.S. presidents sworn in since 1901, only Calvin Coolidge served as a mayor – from 1910-11, in tiny Northampton, Mass. Coolidge later became Massachusetts governor, which was the stepping stone for his move to 1600 Penn.

Additionally, the politics of being New York’s mayor do not position one well for the future. Those on the right must moderate their conservative stances so dramatically to get elected mayor that their views – particularly on social issues – make them unacceptable to national Republican primary voters. (New York City has seven Democrats for every one Republican.) By contrast, those on the left must develop overly progressive policies to woo public labor unions, who control a disproportionate share of the New York City Democratic primary vote, leaving them well-positioned to win the mayoral election, but hamstrung to lead the city effectively. This equally diminishes their national political prospects.

Finally, New York mayors are among the most directly accountable public officials in America. They are held accountable for snow that goes unplowed the day after Christmas (Bloomberg in 2010) or racial tensions that explode in Crown Heights (Dinkins in 1991). These are the issues that confront New York mayors, meaning that when they leave office, they tend to have more enemies than friends – a terrible position from which to seek higher office.

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