Why Black Democratic Mayors and GOP Governors Are BFFs

The alliance between Georgia's Nathan Deal and Atlanta's Kasim Reed—like the Chris Christie-Cory Booker detente—makes more sense than it might initially appear.
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Mel Evans/Associated Press

The paralysis of Atlanta—and its rising-star mayor, Democrat Kasim Reed—during the first of two recent storms highlighted more than just a possible managerial deficiency. The fact that Reed had spent the morning of the storm receiving an award from Republican Governor Nathan Deal—as well as Reed's post-storm refusal to blame the flummoxed governor—suggests something broader: a durable alliance between the Obama 2012 pit-bull surrogate and his conservative Republican governor. Such an alliance is less rare than one might imagine. In an age when people lament partisan polarization, one area of stubborn bipartisan cooperation endures: the seemingly counter-intuitive pacts between black Democratic mayors and conservative Republican governors.

National political observers detected a similar relationship a thousand miles to the north in 2012, when then-Newark Mayor Cory Booker tied himself in knots to pretend he was considering a challenge to Governor Chris Christie. Most New Jersey political insiders understood this to be a necessary feint—one that a playful parody film featuring the two men seemed to confirm. After Senator Frank Lautenberg died, Christie repaid Booker—and did himself a favor—by spending $25 million in state funds on a special election for Senate just three weeks before his own November election. It wasn’t enough to simply not run against each other; Christie ensured that he and Booker would not be turning out their own supporters (who would be unlikely to split tickets) in the same election.

Reed’s actions—and his reluctance to endorse Deal’s highly touted Democratic opponent, state Senator Jason Carter, grandson of a former president—suggest this is a trend worth watching, especially as we see it happening elsewhere too. For example, the mayors of Ohio’s two largest cities—Cleveland's Frank Jackson and Columbus's Michael Coleman—are working closely with Republican Governor John Kasich and declined throughout 2013 to endorse likely Democratic gubernatorial nominee Ed FitzGerald.

Given that black Americans voted for national Democratic candidates at a 90-plus-percent clip in 2008 and 2012, why would leaders from Democrats’ most loyal faction tacitly support conservative Republican governors? What exactly does each side have to gain from these political non-aggression pacts—and are they durable or likely to collapse?

From the white governor’s side, there are several things to gain:

  1. Direct short-term electoral benefits: By dividing urban black mayors from their party, a Republican governor can do slightly better in cities for his reelection campaign, either by winning a premium of black voters above the roughly 10 percent a generic Republican can expect, or by minimizing black turnout (not through underhanded Ed Rollins or Allen Raymond sort of way, but by dampening the enthusiasm of black community leaders who are often critical to urban voter-mobilization efforts).
     
  2. Indirect short-term electoral benefits: By wrapping themselves in black political clothing, these white Republican governors are pulling a sort of reverse Sister Souljah: They are using black mayors as a vehicle to show white suburban women that they are not the scary, borderline-racist kind of Republican who howls about birth certificates, Kenya, and food-stamp presidents.
     
  3. Long-term electoral benefits: For more a decade—and with special urgency since Election Day 2012—we’ve heard about the Republican Party’s acute need to diversify its electoral base. The instant elevation of Marco Rubio into a likely presidential candidate —before he was even sworn in!—and a similar phenomenon with Dr. Ben Carson are proof of the party’s desperate quest for a candidate with appeal to minorities in a rapidly evolving nation. Of course, white Republican presidential aspirants won’t cede this niche to minority candidates; indeed, one of George W. Bush’s key selling points as he positioned himself for the 2000 Republican nomination was that he had received 49 percent of the Latino vote in his 1998 re-election. (It later emerged that this figure was inflated and the actual number was 40 percent). 

    Chris Christie’s concerted efforts to win Latino and black votes (of which he won 51 percent and 21 percent, respectively, compared to Romney’s 27 percent and 6 percent) in 2013 suggest a similar thrust, albeit one that is likely obsolete now. Clearly, ambitious governors like Christie and Kasich use Democratic mayoral support—generally, the kind of tacit, “sitting-on-their-hands” support that accompanies tepid endorsements that mayors like Booker, Coleman, and Reed offer Democratic gubernatorial candidates—to burnish their electoral resumes for future national candidacies.
     
  4. Possible entrée into the Obama White House: Republican governors who may face future primaries aren’t always keen to be too closely associated with President Obama (Christie’s infamous post-Hurricane Sandy embrace notwithstanding). Forging close ties with mayors who acted as top Obama surrogates and can get calls to the White House quickly returned can come in handy for those whose public rhetoric may preclude close relationships with the Obama Administration.

Of course, benefits also accrue to the black mayor in these détentes. Here are a few:

  1. Direct economic benefits: This might include support for major projects (both public subsidies and assistance in lining up private-development financing), as well as political backing for initiatives that require state support. These create jobs and bolster the tax base in cities like Newark and Cleveland that have suffered steep declines. More broadly, Republican governors give mayors someone who can lean on legislative leaders on matters that aren’t too ideologically charged but can help the mayor’s city—often a leading state economic engine. 
     
  2. Support for urban school-reform efforts: This may come in the form of political support (urging legislators or executive branch appointees), economic backing (money for performance pay bonuses or charter-school start-up, for instance), or a hybrid of both (Christie’s alliance with Booker to attract—and spend—Mark Zuckerberg’s $100 million gift to the state-controlled Newark public schools).
     
  3. Long-term political benefits: Ambitious black mayors hoping to be the next Obama—or at least the next Deval Patrick—can take advantage of their relationships with Republican governors to provide a veneer of moderation. The goal is to avoid the fate of candidates like former Charlotte Mayor Harvey Gantt, who are seen as being too liberal for a statewide race (an impression driven in part by their color, political-science research has suggested), even if they’re not particularly liberal.
     
  4. Fundraising: Governors can quietly introduce the mayors to their donors, and/or provide a sort of "Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval" with traditional Republican business donors, giving big-city mayors access to contributors who would not otherwise be inclined to support them.

But what are the costs for each side? The answer is, not many. Republican governors have little to lose by propping up big-city Democratic mayors; Republicans have almost no chance of ever competing for office in these areas. Though extra attention to urban areas could potentially have a slight demobilizing effect on rural conservatives, the effect is probably negligible.

Black mayors also have little to lose. Though their constituents have been pressed into action around election time, local black political elites have historically been excluded from state and national party strategy, instead being belatedly pressed into action around time. And of course, white statewide aspirants have been engaged in mini-Sister Souljah acts around the country for years, distancing themselves from the party’s urban base and focusing electoral appeals on white suburban and exurban swing voters. Consequently, some black Democrats feel scant party allegiance, making it easier to cozy up to Republican governors. 

The biggest risk is that their Republican allies might lose. As mayors, they’ll be forced to travel to the state capital and supplicate to Democratic governors who can likely glean from a precinct analysis of urban election returns whether a mayor really worked to turn out voters in his home wards—and could probably ascertain a decided lack of enthusiasm from any number of actions or non-actions during election season.

Of course, these mayors wouldn’t be cozying up to the governors if they thought the Democratic candidate was likely to win. Politicians’ self-preservation instincts are as powerful as those of coyotes, who will without hesitation chew off a trapped limb in order to escape a bear trap.

Given the federal investigation swirling around Chris Christie, Cory Booker may already be detaching himself from his old ally. Likewise, given how widely panned Deal’s storm management performance was as we head into election season, Kasim Reed might want to consider gnawing off his own leg caught in the trap named Nathan Deal.

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Jeffrey Smith

Jeff Smith is assistant professor of politics and advocacy at the New School’s urban-policy graduate program. He served in the Missouri Senate from 2006 to 2009, is a columnist for City and State, and has written for SalonCNN.com, and National Journal.

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