The White Men's Club Leading America's Largest Cities

For a brief period beginning last December, London Breed had gained entry into a club that has, of late, almost exclusively belonged to white men: the ranks of big-city mayors.

Breed, a 43-year-old African American woman and president of San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors, had automatically become the city’s acting mayor following the sudden death of Ed Lee, who had served for seven years before succumbing to a heart attack on December 12.

Only two women have ever served as mayor of San Francisco, and both of them originally took office not by election, but after a death. The first was Dianne Feinstein, who assumed the mayoralty after the assassination of George Moscone in 1978. She stayed in office for a decade, turning her accidental ascendancy into a two-term stint as mayor, and she used that perch to launch a bid for Senate, where she is now running for her fifth full term.

Breed was the second. But she was gone just six weeks later, ousted by the same Board of Supervisors that had twice elected her as its president. In her place the Board installed Mark Farrell, who is white, to serve as temporary steward until a citywide election in June. Officially, the Board was concerned that incumbency would give Breed a leg up in her campaign for mayor over another member running, Jane Kim. Yet Feinstein was allowed to enjoy the same advantage four decades earlier, and some of Breed’s supporters thought the decision smacked of racism.

“There’s no ‘thought’ here—I know,” said Reverend Amos Brown, the civil-rights activist and longtime pastor of San Francisco’s Third Baptist Church. “I’ve been a pastor here for 42 years, and San Francisco has gotten by with the image, an untruth, that it is liberal and progressive. But it mirrors that sin, America’s original sin, of race.”

Breed is now campaigning to reclaim the mayor’s post, and if she wins the June election, she’ll once again become the only woman of color in a club that remains entirely male and overwhelmingly white.

America’s largest urban centers are its bastions of diversity and progressive politics—most are overwhelmingly Democratic, and in many of them, whites no longer make up a majority of the population. But that diversity is not represented in City Hall. Of the 15 most populous cities in the United States, all but three are led by white male mayors. The exceptions are Sylvester Turner of Houston, who is African American; Ron Nirenberg of San Antonio, who is one-quarter Filipino; and Eric Garcetti of Los Angeles, who is part Mexican American.

With Breed’s ouster, none of the mayors in the top 15 cities are women. Ivy Taylor left office as San Antonio’s mayor after Nirenberg defeated her reelection bid in June 2017. The largest city currently run by a woman is Fort Worth, Texas, which is 16th on the list; Betsy Price is serving her third term there as mayor.

The dearth of women and people of color running big cities is about more than a lack of representation atop local government for the nation’s most densely populated regions. It also cuts off a key pathway for political advancement to higher offices like governor, senator, and even president.

It was not always like this. Even just a few years ago, women or non-white men held the mayoralties in eight of the 15 largest cities and 16 of the top 25. Lee had been the first Asian American to helm San Francisco before he died. Women led Texas’s two biggest metropolises. Houston, where Annise Parker served for three two-year terms, was the largest city ever to elect a woman or an openly gay person as mayor. And with Taylor’s victory in 2015, San Antonio became the biggest city to elect an African American woman to City Hall. But men now lead both cities, and white men have in recent elections replaced black mayors in Philadelphia; Jacksonville, Florida; and Columbus, Ohio.

Outside the top 15 cities, there have been recent bright spots for women and candidates of color. In 2014, voters in Washington, D.C., elected Muriel Bowser as their second African American woman mayor. Two years later, Vy Lyles accomplished the same feat in Charlotte, North Carolina. Jenny Durkan didn’t become Seattle’s first woman mayor when she took office in November, but she was the first in nearly 90 years.

Yet in Detroit and Memphis—two majority-black cities—white men won recent mayoral elections over African American candidates for the first time in decades.

Political scientists and women’s advocacy groups attribute the lack of women mayors in the biggest cities to a pipeline problem, rooted in their longtime underrepresentation in positions of power. The drop-off in minority representation in City Hall, however, is a more recent phenomenon. Experts say there’s no single factor to explain why, and they’re not entirely sure it constitutes a trend. The voter coalitions that dominate municipal elections are unique to each city, as are the issues and challenges that animate the campaigns. In other words, the minority drop-off “may not be a long-term trend,” said Marc Morial, the former mayor of New Orleans who is now president of the National Urban League. “Sometimes it’s specific and peculiar about that election, those candidates, and those circumstances.”

Still, the reason why there isn’t one single factor could be that there are actually a number of themfrom the changing demographics of the cities themselves, to shifts in how black and white candidates assemble diverse coalitions, to restrictive voting laws and declining turnout in local elections that favor older white voters over minorities.

Learn more at CITYLAB