The Misery of Being a Big-City Mayor

The best job in politics suddenly became a lot more difficult.

A pin showing Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot's face surrounded by the words "Don't hate me I'm just the mayor"
Matt Chase / The Atlantic; Getty

“I’m not going to sit here and tell you we did everything perfectly. We haven’t,” Lori Lightfoot, Chicago’s mayor, says in a campaign ad released late last year. “But we’ve tried our darndest to make sure we got it right, and when we haven’t—you pick yourself up and you listen and you’re humble and you learn from your mistakes.”

That might not be the most triumphant message for the incumbent to send Windy City voters as they decide whether to reelect her. But it is perhaps an honest one. Poll after poll has shown Chicagoans to be in a “sour” mood: A mere 9 percent believe that the city is headed in the right direction. Underwater on her approval rating, Lightfoot is not expected to win reelection next month.

It’s not just her. Eric Garcetti was term-limited and could not run for reelection in Los Angeles last year, but Angelenos probably would not have voted him in again even if he had been eligible; his approval rating had sagged nearly 20 points in the prior two years. In New York, Eric Adams’s approval rating fell more than 30 points in his first six months in office, though a majority of city voters said they still liked the guy’s style. Just a quarter of San Francisco residents rate London Breed’s performance as excellent or good, per a Chronicle poll in September; her popularity has “plummeted.” And in New Orleans, where the public is more dissatisfied with city leadership than at any time since the Hurricane Katrina era, LaToya Cantrell is facing a potential recall.

The Anna Karenina principle applies here: Each of these unpopular big-city mayors is unpopular in his or her own way. Yet sweeping national trends are stirring up public dissatisfaction with city executives across the country, driving down favorability ratings, ginning up recalls, and increasing retirements. Indeed, what had been one of the best perches in American politics is becoming one of its worst. The overwhelmingly liberal denizens of the country’s cities are disaffected and are holding their local leaders accountable for problems far beyond any one officeholder’s capacity to repair. That’s a trend that might get worse in the coming years.

Mayors, as a general point, have it good. They’re often well-liked, and not infrequently beloved. Their approval ratings tend to run high. Many of them have more formal power than, say, members of the House of Representatives do, and your average mayor has much more influence over the city she leads than the president has over domestic policy. They frequently win reelection. “Once a mayor’s in office, unless something disastrous happens, it’s hard to get rid of them,” Katherine Levine Einstein, a political scientist at Boston University, told me, discussing the frequency of long tenures among big-city executives.

Yet, at the moment, any number of mayors are struggling. Adams, Breed, and Lightfoot all have significantly lower approval ratings than the governor in their respective states, for instance, as did Garcetti before he left office. Even many well-liked mayors, such as Muriel Bowser of Washington, D.C., have watched their approval ratings drop of late.

In surveys, mayors themselves have expressed frustration as their community’s problems have become more intractable. They “feel like they’re being forced to deal with these big, macro problems, whether it’s crime, inflation, homelessness, housing costs, COVID, climate change,” Einstein told me. “They’re struggling with these issues. Their citizens feel really frustrated by these issues. But they often can’t do a whole lot about it.”

The early phase of the coronavirus pandemic burned a lot of mayors out, leading to a wave of retirements. City executives felt tasked with managing a public-health disaster far outside their normal purview; many struggled to design and implement masking-and-distancing mandates, initiatives to help small businesses, and educational policies that worked for parents, kids, and teachers’ unions. Those pressures might have eased, but new ones have taken their place.

The coronavirus crisis drags on. In big cities such as New York and San Francisco, the shift to working from home has left downtowns empty, destroying local businesses, making homelessness more conspicuous, and deepening residents’ sense of their vulnerability to crime. That exodus, now seemingly permanent, has decreased property-tax revenues and sapped public-transit systems of funds too, something urbanists are warning might turn into a “doom loop” of declining service and declining ridership.

At the same time, mayors are struggling with a surge in certain kinds of crimes. Homicides increased sharply in many American cities in 2020 and 2021, a trend that generated lots of media coverage and dampened many local officials’ favorability ratings. (Thankfully, the homicide wave has crested in many cities.) One study focused on New York found that an increase of 20 homicides in the city reduced mayoral approval by half a percentage point. “Successive months of increasing homicides could seriously damage a mayor’s standing with the public,” the authors note, with sustained increases proving “devastating.” Yet elected officials—including mayors and district attorneys—have a very limited impact on crime rates; even the police have less of an effect than you might think.

A third problem is the long-simmering housing crisis. Rents have increased relentlessly in big cities over the past two decades as a result of an undersupply of millions of units, squeezing residents’ budgets and leading to surges in homelessness while also jacking up the cost of services such as day care. Urban life has become an incessant, unaffordable grind, even for people with healthy incomes.

Mayors do seem to have some effect on housing prices, and they often have some control over real-estate development. But city executives cannot conjure up transitional housing units and affordable apartment buildings for low- and moderate-income residents. They often need to work, slowly and painstakingly, with planning commissions, city-council members, and neighborhood groups to get projects approved. And because cities typically must balance their budgets and have many claims on their dollars, mayors can’t easily raise billions to get their constituents off the streets. In Boston University’s latest Menino Survey of Mayors, three in four mayors said they were held accountable for homelessness, but only one in five said they had much control over the issue. “Limited funding is a serious obstacle to effectively reducing local homelessness,” the survey found.

The politics of housing development is tricky for mayors too: Although many city residents are desperate for more apartment construction to bring prices down, many others are NIMBYs who do not want to see their property values stagnate, long-term residents who do not want to see their neighborhoods change, or both. Stopping development makes people angry. Pushing development makes people angry. And mayors get held to task one way or the other.

Some mayors, of course, add to their own burdens: Adams recently faced criticism for having left his city for the Caribbean during a deadly winter storm, and Lightfoot has engaged in a bruising fight with the city’s teachers’ union. But mayors’ burdens are great, and have gotten greater. The overwhelmingly Democratic residents of America’s cities have high expectations. And mayors have limited resources and power to meet them. Until these places become more vibrant, cheaper, and more livable, a mayor’s job won’t be getting any easier.