‘It was exhaustion, it was sadness, it was fatigue’: America’s mayors call it quits

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Before the pandemic, anti-vaxxers were mostly fringe groups. Now, Covid culture wars and red state laws to restrict vaccine mandates are reinvigorating the anti-vaccine movement nationwide.

“There’s no question that there’s a common thread of fatigue and frustration,” former Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, a past president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, said in an interview.

It’s a trend that’s poised to grow as the election cycle goes on. Some big names — Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, Washington Mayor Muriel Bowser — have yet to announce their intentions. And in cities all over the country, local leaders are mulling over their own futures.

“When you look at the general population and the numbers of people that say they’re looking to leave their jobs, we’ve never seen statistics so high on kind of the movement within the workforce,” said Brooks Rainwater, senior executive and director of the National League of Cities’ Center for City Solutions. “Certainly with mayors, being in one of the most high profile and stressful jobs you can imagine during a crisis that this has just been amplified.”

Nearly a fifth of the mayors in Massachusetts, for example, are on their way out of office or have already left, according to a recent analysis from CommonWealth Magazine. It’s not a wholly atypical number for the Bay State, Massachusetts Municipal Association Executive Director Geoffrey Beckwith said, but the pressures of the past year likely served as a “tipping point” for some.

It was certainly a contributing factor for Somerville, Mass., Mayor Joseph Curtatone, a Democrat who announced back in February he would end his nearly two-decade run as mayor while batting away speculation of a run for governor.

“I’m tired of Covid,” Curtatone said. “I’m not tired of the job.”

The pandemic has taken an emotional and physical toll on mayors who spent the better part of 15 months lurching between health and economic crises in near isolation, fielding call after dreaded call about deaths in the community — while being unable to offer the most basic comfort to their grieving constituents and friends.

“I was sitting in that office, which I went to every day during Covid, looking out the window of city hall, and everyone was gone. There was no one there,” Curtatone said. “And to get those calls about people’s struggles and the loss of life — you sit there and ask yourself, ‘Have I done enough?’”

Former Columbus, Ohio, mayor Michael B. Coleman steered his city through multiple financial crises during a 16-year tenure that spanned the Sept. 11 attacks and the 2008 economic meltdown. But he described the past year-plus as “unlike anything I’ve ever seen.”

“The mayor’s job is already the most difficult job in government, except for maybe the president of the United States,” Coleman said in an interview. “And life as a mayor is more challenging now than it has ever been.”

Mayors are, quite literally, the faces of their cities. Far more accessible than a governor and often with broader powers than a city councilor, mayors are uniquely proximate to the people they serve — and as a result are far more likely to directly bear the brunt of their constituents’ criticisms and frustrations when things go awry.

Few likely felt that heat more this past year than Durkan, a Democrat who grew up with a front row seat to the rough world of politics as daughter to Martin Durkan, a lobbyist, state legislator and power broker in Washington state politics.

The mayor last year proposed slashing Seattle’s police budget by $20 million, or about 5 percent, as she pursued other policing reforms in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death. But protesters and some city councilors, supportive of the Defund the Police movement, wanted a 50 percent cut. Demonstrators — including a city councilor — marched on her neighborhood last summer after figuring out her address, which had been hidden for years due to threats she received during her time as a U.S. attorney prosecuting cartels and Russian hackers.

Durkan and her family were again receiving death threats. Messages like “Guillotine Jenny” were written on her street. She personally spent tens of thousands of dollars in cleanup costs — and had to fight off a recall effort and calls for her resignation

“You can come to my house 100 times and that’s not going to stop me from doing what I think is right,” Durkan said. “But it did make things inordinately more difficult because I was worried not just about my own personal security but the security of my family.”

Then there was the president. Donald Trump loomed large as the pandemic raged and protesters took to city streets last summer, downplaying the virus while playing up the violence that was in many cases the byproduct of a few bad actors operating separately from largely peaceful demonstrations calling for policing reform.

Democratic mayors like Durkan and Lance Bottoms soon found themselves battling the president and his polarizing rhetoric on top of the virus.

“When the president tweeted about and against me, immediately I got thousands of emails, hundreds of them with misogynistic and sexist language, death threats to me and my family,” said Durkan, who is also openly gay. “You had these pressures building up in the streets by some people who were unhappy with the pace of police reforms locally on the progressive side, and then you saw the president and his supporters on the other side.”

As some protested pandemic restrictions and others protested police brutality, the politics of it all overwhelmed some mayors not used to facing such blowback in their inherently nonpartisan jobs.

Pensacola, Fla., Mayor Grover Robinson, a Republican, decried the divisiveness and politicization of health guidelines when he announced he wouldn’t run for reelection. Dodge City, Kan., Mayor Joyce Warshaw felt so threatened after voicing support for a mask mandate in a USA Today article in December that the Republican quit out of concern for her safety.

“The pressure we were getting from the public, it’s something I had never seen before,” De La Isla, the Topeka mayor, said. “But we have to remember all of it is coinciding with the presidential election that got extremely nasty. So all that division occurring because of the election was seeping into the psyche of individuals who were being told that, you know, wearing a mask was taking away their free speech.”

De La Isla said there were nights she went home and cried.

“People forget you have a family and a life. All of the stuff happening in the community was also happening to my family. It was a very trying time,” she said.

Yet the pandemic almost convinced Betsy Price, the outgoing Republican mayor of Fort Worth, Texas, to try for another term.

Price on Tuesday wrapped up a decade at the helm of her city — the longest-serving mayor in Fort Worth’s history — fulfilling a promise she made after her last reelection to spend more time with her family.

“If anything the pandemic made me potentially reconsider it, to think: ‘Do we need to stay another term and have the continuity?’ And the protests, too,” Price said. “But I decided there’s always going to be a crisis or a challenge or a reason to stay, and I just made that commitment with my family, so that’s what I did.”

Thrust into the belly of the pandemic beast, mayors turned to their counterparts near and far for professional and emotional support. Mayors in the Dallas-Fort Worth area held weekly meetings by phone to coordinate messaging and response efforts and share tips for combating a deadly virus for which there was no guidebook. Mayors in Massachusetts did the same.

The ties that bind aren’t just a product of the pandemic. Mayors have forged and strengthened relationships with their colleagues and with regional and national municipal groups for years — and have leveraged those networks to become more influential within their states and on the national stage.

“Mayors have become a political force to be reckoned with in the United States in a way that they never were before,” Rainwater said.

Yet as mayors walk out the door for good, the connections that help propel that advocacy are leaving with them, as are years and in some cases decades of institutional knowledge of their individual municipalities and lessons learned from combating the pandemic.

“The lesson in all this is always to develop a good bench, people who can step in,” Coleman, the former Columbus mayor, said. “It does shake up things a little when a mayor, especially a long-term mayor, is not going to run for reelection, because people have a certain degree of comfort.”

Price, the outgoing Fort Worth mayor, is being succeeded by her 37-year-old chief of staff, Mattie Parker, who was sworn in Tuesday evening.

“If anything, the pandemic woke up a lot of younger people who weren’t really following the impact of local government on their lives” to get involved and start running for office, she said.

Beyond shuffling the municipal landscape, the corner-office departures are also potentially disrupting regional and state political pipelines. Some mayors, like De La Isla, say they’re likely done with politics for good.

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Roberto Walker
He is an associate editor and works at the political desk. He covers a wide range of news from world politics to local politics.
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