One of the more fascinating articles written about the Donald Trump presidency has been this one from Politico about how Trump is acting more like a mayor of America, rather than the President of the United States. You can read the piece for yourself to see if Trump is governing in the manner of some of the old school big city mayors who have had very assertive and colourful personalities which they imparted on their community and constituents.
Putting aside whether this view of Trump’s governance style is correct, it begs the question as to how actual mayors are governing these days. It seems that while this President has adopted style and mannerisms more befitting to an occupant of a city hall somewhere in small town America, mayors themselves seem to be taking on roles of statesman-like, almost presidential, leadership.
In the United States, mayors through organizations such as the United States Conference of Mayors have been talking about working around Washington to getting their priorities accomplished. Certain mayors such as Bill DeBlasio from New York, Eric Garcetti from Los Angeles, or Mitch Landrieu from New Orleans have been more vocal on issues beyond the local political arena; some are even being touted as potential presidential candidates for 2020.
While that perception may be more subdued in Canada, there is a trend these days that mayors seem to be doing their jobs in a manner more befitting of a provincial premier. Let’s take a look at Mississauga’s Bonnie Crombie and Brampton’s Linda Jeffrey.
Mississauga’s political past only left us Hazel McCallion, Crombie’s most recognized predecessor, as a comparison. As Mississauga’s mayor for over 3 decades from 1978 to 2014, McCallion presided over incredible growth of empty farmland into Canada’s sixth largest city. The city governing administration she oversaw still exists today with little change, but McCallion’s long tenure was very much in the mode of an Ed Koch or William Daley: an assertive personality driven mayoralty that was larger than life and had a positive or negative impact on Mississauga, depending on one’s point of view.
Hazel was also traditional in her method of communication to constituents. I remember emailing her office staff about an issue pertaining to city council some years ago in the twilight years of her reign, and I got an actual letter mailed to me from McCallion stating her views on my inquiry. Considering the rise of social media and other such communication methods, getting word from elected officials in this way seems incredible passe.
Since 2014, Mayor Bonnie Crombie has adopted a more streamlined, some would say professional style that almost resembles a premier’s rather than a mayor’s office. Crombie might not come from any background in governing aside from being a backbench Liberal MP, she did have a long career in business and some of those elements have shown through in her time in office.
Obvious examples include having more staff on hand, regular media advisory notices on nearly every topic from the recognition of a religious holiday to a press conference with the Prime Minister, as well as full transcripts from her communications advisor of her speeches at various events and appearances. This aspect of the operational side of her office, combined with the advent of modern means of communication, is undoubtedly a major factor in making the Mayor’s office operating more like a provincial or even a federal leader’s office.
Mayors McCallion and Crombie have been in organizations such as the Association of Municipalities of Ontario (AMO) and the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM). But McCallion mostly paid lip service to those institutions for most of her mayoralty, and her residents and others perceived her as the authority speaking on a matter rather than speaking as part of a collective regarding certain issues.
Mayor Crombie, on the other hand, has fully embraced the notion of municipal leaders providing a collective united front in calling on other levels of government to act or address issues affecting their jurisdiction, such as infrastructure, transit, affordable housing and climate change. Even 10 years ago those issues were assumed to be in the purview of the federal or provincial government, but now mayors like Crombie and Linda Jeffrey have been more outspoken on what municipalities can be doing there as well.
Brampton’s chief magistrate does come from a background in partisan legislative politics, serving as a provincial cabinet minister under the Liberal administrations of Dalton McGuinty and Kathleen Wynne. But Jeffrey’s more stoic, some would say excessively calm demeanor, hasn’t helped her much in governing Canada’s ninth largest city. Unlike in a provincial legislature she as the leader can command the votes of her caucus, Jeffrey can only do so much in her ability to corral the votes of her fellow council members. The high profile failure of getting the Hurontario LRT extended all the way up Queen Street to the Brampton GO station is a perfect example of a politician operating as a mayor with a more premier-like style not succeeding in getting her initiatives adopted.
A key component to getting thing done on a city council as a mayor is the ability to build consensus and rapport with your fellow councillors. Granted, this does not mean capitulated to every one of their demands or getting every vote every time, but comparing how much more successful Crombie has been during this council term in getting her council to vote almost in lockstep on every issue, while Jeffery has been struggling, gives the impression that one of them is succeeding in ‘whipping’ votes like a provincial leader is doing. Ironic that it is the leader who didn’t come from that background that is able to get her agenda passed.
This phenomenon of mayors acting more like premiers or a prime ministerial type figure isn’t restricted to Mississauga and Brampton. Toronto has a mayor these last few years, John Tory, also doing the same thing (although this may account for the fact that Toronto has a more complex municipal governance structure). Ironically, the late Rob Ford during his time in office, despite publicly disputing it, pretty much tried to resurrect the idea of a mayor asserting more powers while in office (some actions, such as firing of former TTC head Gary Webster and killing Transit City, came off as very unilateral actions).
Calgary’s Naheed Nenshi, mayor since 2010, has been quite active on social media, had a very successful handling of the Calgary flooding a few years ago, and is generally nationally recognized as a municipal leader and even speculation as a future prime minister. The same goes for Edmonton’s Don Iveson and Vancouver’s Gregor Robertson, who may not be on the same level as Nenshi but certainly have been speculated as moving beyond municipal politics down the road. I wouldn’t be surprised if Robertson declined to seek another term as Vancouver mayor and suddenly in 2019 we find out he’s the Liberal candidate for Vancouver Centre running for the Trudeau Liberals. There’s even a “Global Parliament of Mayors” group that congregates mayors together from different countries to tackle issues like climate change.
Overall, while Canadian mayors have had varying degrees of prominence in the fabric of Canadian politics, they have all brought to their jobs a sense of collegiality and working together with one another in a way that diverges from the traditionally historical path that people have been accustomed to mayors when it comes to leadership style.
But going back to Trump, in the end he really isn’t acting like a mayor…in the sense that we understand what mayors do now. The role of mayor has changed in the 21st century, requiring a deeper understanding of issues beyond city boundaries as well as issues of national importance. Trump is acting like a mayor in the sense of the traditional role as city booster and a leader primarily concerned with how matters affect their own city/town. In the absence of more assertive national leadership (either by deliberate inaction or ingrained limitations of their responsibilities), mayors have risen to becoming more like provincial or state-centric leaders, thereby changing the role of mayors to a more presidential, or premier/prime ministerial-like, position.