Fiorello LaGuardia, who ruled New York from 1934 to '45, besides reforming and rebuilding his city, was famous for smashing slot machines with a sledgehammer and reading the comics to children over the radio during a newspaper strike. On the other hand, Chicago's William (Big Bill) Thompson, first elected in 1915, kept a picture of his good buddy Al Capone on his office wall and once conducted a debate between himself and two white rats, which he placed onstage to represent his political opponents.
It is tempting to judge our mayors for the little things that make city life livable, the depth of the potholes, the smell of the streets, whether or not the traffic lights are in synch. But the best mayors have also been those who act on a grand scale, building bridges, saving schools, finding the funds that cities forever lack.
TIME consulted with urban experts to choose the best among the leaders of America's most challenging cities, those with populations over half a milliona crop that brings in six Republicans, 22 Democrats and one unaffiliated mayor. That cutoff excluded mayors like Randy Kelly of St. Paul, Minn. (pop. 288,000), who has slashed crime 30% in 31/2 years. Our top performers range from Chicago's imperial Richard Daley, who after 16 years is widely viewed as the nation's top urban executive, to newcomer John Hickenlooper, the beer brewer who closed Denver's worst budget gap ever without major staff or service cuts. Since good policy invites imitation, their most successful tactics may soon be coming to a city near you.