A few weeks ago, after writing Ontario, Oregon, I got in a discussion with a British user of this site about what a city was, and what an incorporated municipality was, and about the importance of local government in the United States as a whole. Something that seems not to be covered by foreign media, (or, for that matter, American media), is how big of a role local government plays in American life, both because local governments are powerful in their own right, and they are also the starting point for many politicians to come to prominence.
With that notion in mind, I tried to think of how many Presidents of the United States...the great Chief Executive and Commander-in-Chief, had started their political careers at the local level. Before making world-altering decisions, how many politicians first learned the ropes of politics by pounding their gavel at town meetings while citizens shouted about sewage service? Being well-versed in recent United States political history, I went over the careers of the chief executives dating back to the Great Depression, and couldn't find a former mayor in the bunch. There have been many career paths to the Presidency in the past 100 years, including Secretary of Commerce, 5 Star General, Ambassador to China and the usual routes of Governor or Senator. However, not a Mayor in the lot. So I had to do some research, as cruel as it sounds, and found out that there
is was one two, and only one two presidents has had ever previously served as a mayor:
Grover Cleveland, from January to November of 1882, was the mayor of Buffalo, New York. There is a bust of him in Buffalo City Hall. If my thesis was that local politics plays a large role in shaping national politics, this is a very thin piece of evidence to base it on. Grover Cleveland was not an exceptional American president, and he was the mayor of one of America's less prominent cities, and he only held that job for less than a year.
After finishing writing this, two alert readers have mentioned that I missed someone: Calvin Coolidge was also a mayor, of the town of Northampton, Massachusetts, from 1910 to 1911. While this does change the numbers, this does not change the overall picture, since Calvin Coolidge is widely considered to be America's most boring president, and a two year term as a mayor of a very small town was not an important part of his political career.
Perhaps by looking elsewhere in the executive branch, we could strengthen our case. Were there vice-presidents that were previously mayors? There indeed were. In reverse chronological order, they were:
- Spiro Agnew, the vice-president to Richard Nixon who was equally ill-fated, served as the Baltimore County executive, which is a similar job to being a mayor.
- Hubert H Humphrey, Agnew's immediate preceeder, was the for a time the mayor of Minneapolis, Minnesota
- James S. Sherman, the vice president under William Taft, was the mayor of Utica, New York, again for a single year.
- And who could forget George M Dallas, vice president under James Polk, and also mayor of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania?
While the numbers of vice-presidents who were mayors outweighs the single instance of a mayor turned chief executive, it does not do some substantially. After all, none of them were famous as mayors of major cities, and none of them were famous as vice-presidents. (Although Spiro Agnew gained some infamy
This shortage of mayors who later reached the presidency or vice-presidency is somewhat notable in itself. Even if we throw away my thesis about the importance of local politics in America, it seems that the odds would be that there would be more presidents who served as a mayor at some point. For there to be so few would make it seem that a mayorship is actually a negative factor in later success for high executive office. Why this could be would take much theorizing in itself. It could be that the very specific and somewhat technical duties of a mayor block someone off from wider political attention. It could be that the pragmatic nature of running a city mean that local politicians are not acquainted with the larger, more ideological issues that are important in national politics.
Whatever the case, the fact that only one America president served previously as a mayor, and that only in a brief and unnoteworthy fashion, is an entry point into a larger discussion about the connection, and disconnection, of national and local politics in the United States.