“There’s no ‘thought’ here—I know,” said Reverend Amos Brown, the civil-rights activist and longtime pastor of San Francisco’s Third Baptist Church. “I’ve been a pastor here for 42 years, and San Francisco has gotten by with the image, an untruth, that it is liberal and progressive. But it mirrors that sin, America’s original sin, of race.”
Breed is now campaigning to reclaim the mayor’s post, and if she wins the June election, she’ll once again become the only woman of color in a club that remains entirely male and overwhelmingly white.
America’s largest urban centers are its bastions of diversity and progressive politics—most are overwhelmingly Democratic, and in many of them, whites no longer make up a majority of the population. But that diversity is not represented in City Hall. Of the 15 most populous cities in the United States, all but three are led by white male mayors. The exceptions are Sylvester Turner of Houston, who is African American; Ron Nirenberg of San Antonio, who is one-quarter Filipino; and Eric Garcetti of Los Angeles, who is part Mexican American.
With Breed’s ouster, none of the mayors in the top 15 cities are women. Ivy Taylor left office as San Antonio’s mayor after Nirenberg defeated her reelection bid in June 2017. The largest city currently run by a woman is Fort Worth, Texas, which is 16th on the list; Betsy Price is serving her third term there as mayor.
The dearth of women and people of color running big cities is about more than a lack of representation atop local government for the nation’s most densely populated regions. It also cuts off a key pathway for political advancement to higher offices like governor, senator, and even president.
It was not always like this. Even just a few years ago, women or non-white men held the mayoralties in eight of the 15 largest cities and 16 of the top 25. Lee had been the first Asian American to helm San Francisco before he died. Women led Texas’s two biggest metropolises. Houston, where Annise Parker served for three two-year terms, was the largest city ever to elect a woman or an openly gay person as mayor. And with Taylor’s victory in 2015, San Antonio became the biggest city to elect an African American woman to City Hall. But men now lead both cities, and white men have in recent elections replaced black mayors in Philadelphia; Jacksonville, Florida; and Columbus, Ohio.
Outside the top 15 cities, there have been recent bright spots for women and candidates of color. In 2014, voters in Washington, D.C., elected Muriel Bowser as their second African American woman mayor.* Two years later, Vi Lyles accomplished the same feat in Charlotte, North Carolina. Jenny Durkan didn’t become Seattle’s first woman mayor when she took office in November, but she was the first in nearly 90 years.
Yet in Detroit and Memphis—two majority-black cities—white men won recent mayoral elections over African American candidates for the first time in decades.