The Mayor Is Our New National Villain

When have you ever been proud of your city’s chief executive?

Throughout the recent weeks of protest against police brutality and the systemic racism of American law enforcement, several demonstrations here in L.A. have sprung up around the residence of the city’s mayor, Eric Garcetti, who repeatedly excuses the violence of the LAPD

This was by no means unprecedented. Back in April, with many unemployed thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, fed-up Angelenos flocked to Garcetti’s mansion to demand the cancellation of rent (the mayor had disingenuously claimed that the city could do no more to alleviate this financial burden). And well before 2020, activists were taking Garcetti to task for his abject failure in aiding L.A.’s growing population of unhoused individuals. In other words: 

For whatever it’s worth, Garcetti has plenty of company in the Despised Mayors Club. Hatred of one’s top municipal executive, in fact, may be what unites the entire ideological spectrum. Those on the left savage Garcetti and New York mayor Bill de Blasio as dithering, spineless dweebs afraid to criticize their own police forces — in de Blasio’s case, even after the NYPD doxed his daughter — and the right will always attack them as soft on crime, beholden to the snowflake SJWs.

In Minneapolis, where George Floyd was killed, Mayor Jacob Frey is caught in a similar bind: after his tears at Floyd’s casket during a memorial service were panned as performative by both sides, he got booed out of a Black Lives Matter rally for refusing to promise to defund the MPD. Meanwhile, Republicans see him as a lily-livered embarrassment for abandoning the 3rd Precinct to destruction and not cracking down forcefully on mass unrest.        

Why do we harbor such revulsion for our mayors?

It stems in part from the nature of the job, which is that of a contemptible figurehead. The mayor has a phony, feeble stature that belongs to the ribbon-cutter, the hall monitor, the commissioner of a fantasy football league. We rail against their inadequacy and laziness — their reluctance to ever lean in either direction on an issue — not only despite their lack of power but because we know they wield little, hostage as they are to warring departments and agencies, not to mention city councils full of hostile, obstructive mutants.

At the same time, this inert vibe, this manifest unhelpfulness, is a sign of their laughable ambition: They please nobody except their donors in hopes that a largely blank résumé will benefit their career. That the uncharismatic, bumbling de Blasio thought he could be president is astounding, but the same must be said for Pete Buttigieg’s campaign as “Mayor Pete,” which was predicated on the notion that his constituents in South Bend, Indiana, liked him at all. A closer look revealed the extent of anguish he’d caused in the Black community. 

Perhaps, too, it is the personal scale of mayoral shortcomings, and the petty venality of their scandals, that so irritates the citizenry. You can’t blame quotidian problems like unfixed potholes or crappy subway service on the federal government, but you sure can yell at the mayor about them. The more localized the issue — the more directly it affects the texture of where you live — the more galling it is that nothing is being done about it.

For these concerns, the buck stops with the mayor, except they tend to pass it along anyway. When video emerged of Buffalo, New York cops shoving 75-year-old Martin Gugino, a longtime peace activist, onto concrete, where he lay bleeding from the ear as they declined to render aid, the outcry was almost universal. But Buffalo’s Black Democrat mayor, Byron Brown, quickly sided with the police: “[Gugino] was in the area after the curfew,” Brown said in an interview with radio station WBEN. “One of the things that happened before was conflict among protesters and there was a danger of fights breaking out, and police felt it was important to clear that scene for the safety of protesters.”

From coast to coast, in smaller towns as well as gigantic cities, it’s as if we elect mayors purely to rage at them and, ideally, prevent them from climbing any higher. During their terms, they oversee either the continued decay of a moribund region or the cruelties of a gentrifying one, and often both at once. As in Buttigieg’s case, any supposed mayoral triumph is at the expense of the vulnerable. (See also: the Giuliani-Bloomberg legacy of stop-and-frisk policing in New York.)

The question of how we came to loathe mayors can be answered with another: Can you point to a single example of how a mayor has materially improved conditions around you? Even their compromises are a joke, as everyone studying Garcetti’s proposed LAPD budget cuts has noticed. Practically speaking, the mayor strives mostly to disappear, making minimal decisions, with no memorable events in their tenure, so that they appear to be reliable stewards of state. They run on platforms they have no serious intent of pursuing. They are political wallpaper. 

With all the talk lately of defunding and abolishing what’s broken beyond repair, we may want to put mayors on the chopping block as well. It’s not like they’ve given us reason to save them.