New York’s upcoming mayoral election is a pivotal one, and not just because Mayor Bloomberg is leaving office after 12 intense years. This election also coincides with a remarkable shift in power and leadership in the country as a whole, which is radically altering and elevating the role and responsibility of mayors.
New York City’s mayor, executive of the nation’s largest city by far, should be among the leaders of this new, ambitious group of public chief executives.
It is no secret that U.S. cities face enormous challenges. The country needs to gain 10 million jobs to make up for the jobs lost in the Great Recession and to keep up with population growth; the vast majority of those jobs will be created in cities and their surrounding metropolitan areas. We also need better jobs to counter the sharp growth in poverty and near-poverty: Between 2000 and 2011, the number of poor and near-poor in the United States increased from 81 million to 107 million.
New York has not been immune to these trends. The city’s unemployment rate is 8.4%, over one-fifth of its residents live in poverty, and only about 30% of the students who graduate from its public high schools are prepared to start either college or a career.
In recent years, it has become increasingly clear that cities, suburbs and towns will need to grapple with these and other difficulties largely without help from the federal government, which is mired in partisanship and barely able to accomplish the most basic tasks, like passing a budget.
In other words, mayors can no longer be content to be good managers of public services. Instead, they must step into the void and engage networks — within the city, across the country and around the world.
This means voters should look for three essential characteristics in the next mayor.
First, New York’s new mayor has to be able to convene groups of city stakeholders who can help him or her define problems and produce solutions.
For example, when Bloomberg sought to diversify the city’s economy after the 2008 crash, his Economic Development Corporation sought input from 300 business leaders and more than two dozen community groups, asking them what New York needed to move forward. In Chicago, Mayor Rahm Emanuel turned to World Business Chicago and its network of leaders to create the Blueprint for Jobs and Economic Growth that is driving his economic agenda.
Second, New York’s next mayor has to galvanize other mayors in the United States to make progress on the issues that matter most to them. This is not easy; Bloomberg played an essential role rallying mayors on gun control and immigration, only to see the federal government dither and delay. But success is possible. Former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa created a national coalition on transit funding reform and changed federal law.
The next mayor should be prepared to take a leadership role helping cities get stuff done without engaging the federal government — by, for example, bringing other mayors together with financial experts to invent new ways of evaluating and financing infrastructure.
Finally, New York’s next mayor needs to be ready to go global. Global urbanization is the dominant trend in the world today. For the first time in history, more than half of the world’s population is now living in towns and cities.
The planet’s economy is not only about nation states; it is increasingly a network of trading cities. These cities (actually metropolitan areas) link to each other through their commercial ties, learn shared lessons from each other on how to grapple with urbanization and can leverage their power in their home nations and globally.
New York’s mayor needs an aggressive trade strategy focusing on everything from building up the city’s tradable sectors to improving ports and airports. Any candidate who says, “That’s up to the Port Authority” or makes a similar excuse simply isn’t right for the job.
The business, civic and elected leadership of Portland, Ore., has an actionable plan to double exports in the next five years, which will add more than 100,000 jobs to that region’s economy. New York City needs a similar agenda that is at once ambitious and specific.
The mayor’s job is bigger than ever — not only driving down crime and improving schools, not only managing a massive budget and staff, but thinking outside the box and outside the city’s borders. Remember that next month — and in November.
This editorial was originally published on August 26, 2013 at the New York Daily News.