TIME consulted with urban experts to choose the best among the leaders of America’s most challenging cities, those with populations over half a million—a 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. TIME’s 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, TIME’s Editor-at-Large Nancy Gibbs writes in the introduction.
Gibbs writes: “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.”
The Best Big-City Mayors in America (in alphabetical order):
Michael Bloomberg- New York: Michael Bloomberg has brought an unprecedented level of efficiency and transparency to New York City government. Over the past three-plus years, he has trimmed a $6 billion budget deficit (in part by raising property taxes); spurred a wave of new economic development, especially in the four other boroughs besides Manhattan, so often ignored by his predecessors; taken control of the city’s ailing schools and instituted a uniform math and reading curriculum, although the jury is still out on how much that will actually enhance students’ educations; and improved the city’s quality of life by banning smoking from all restaurants and bars, cracking down on noise and creating a one-stop complaint-and-question line, 311, TIME reports.
Richard Daley- Chicago: He wields near imperial power, and most of Chicago would have it no other way. Two years ago, Richard Daley was re-elected to his fifth term with 79% of the vote. His annual budgets are routinely passed with only token opposition. He controls public housing, public schools and the city council. He is cozy with Big Business, is a master at the ward politics of fixing streetlights, and he speaks with a blunt, blue-collar brio that Chicagoans find endearing, TIME reports.
Shirley Franklin- Atlanta: Shirley Franklin isn’t standard mayor material. For starters, she’s a woman, which makes her the first female mayor Atlanta has ever had; in fact, she’s the first black woman ever to run a big Southern city. To restore faith in the city government, which was lost under predecessor Bill Campbell, Franklin shepherded through the city council a new ethics code for municipal employees. She corralled 75 private firms to conduct studies of Atlanta’s budgetary, infrastructure and homeless problems and perform a massive audit of the city government—pro bono. For her achievements Franklin was awarded the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award this year by the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation. She is the first sitting mayor to be so honored, TIME reports.
John Hickenlooper- Denver: When John Hickenlooper ran for mayor of Denver in 2003, the betting in local political circles was that he should keep his day job, brewing beer. A Democratic civic activist, Hickenlooper was best known for owning the Wynkoop Brewing Co., the city’s first brewpub, which he had opened in 1988 and built into a successful restaurant business. Not only do 75% of voters in metro Denver approve of his job performance, but 61% of folks in the region, including the Republican-leaning outlying suburbs, rate the Democratic mayor favorably as well, TIME reports.
Martin O’Malley- Baltimore: O’Malley recently announced he is leaving his band, O’Malley’s March, to concentrate on his day job. His urban innovations—primarily CitiStat, a computerized score sheet intended to make key agencies like public works, housing, transportation and police more accountable—have brought other curious mayors on pilgrimages to Baltimore. Last year Harvard University praised CitiStat for slashing overtime paid to city workers, cutting absenteeism in half at some agencies, TIME reports.
Honorable Mention: Gavin Newsom- San Francisco: For facilitating the marriage of nearly 4,000 gay couples in his city last year, Gavin Newsom is famous countrywide—and controversial. But at home in San Francisco, the mayor is simply adored. It’s the main reason Newsom, 37, who barely squeaked into office in 2003, now enjoys an eye-popping 80% approval rating in America’s ultraliberal gay mecca. But it is by no means the only factor. The workaholic millionaire restaurateur has packed more productivity into his first 15 months than many mayors manage in two terms, TIME reports.
The Nation’s Worst Big-City Mayors (in alphabetical order):
Kwame Kilpatrick- Detroit: Equally at home in senior centers and hip-hop concerts, Kwame Kilpatrick, 34, inspired Detroit voters with his energy and determination when he rode into office three years ago. But a cherry red Lincoln Navigator has put a big dent in his reputation. After weeks of denying it, the mayor admitted in January that the city paid $24,995 to lease just such a car for his wife. That outlay showed what Alan Ehrenhalt, executive editor of Governing Magazine, calls “a tin ear for symbolism,” given that Detroit’s $230 million budget deficit has prompted the mayor to eliminate 3,000 city positions and end 24-hour bus service, TIME reports.
Dick Murphy- San Diego: When he was elected mayor in 2000, Dick Murphy thought he had his hands full dealing with a troubled ballpark project and sewer spills that were shutting down San Diego’s beaches. But then Murphy, 62, a state superior court judge, became embroiled in an even bigger mess: a $1.35 billion deficit at the city’s public-employee pension fund. The crisis has so discredited him, he almost lost his job last November to Donna Frye, a last-minute write-in candidate who runs a surf shop. She actually won more votes, but some 5,500 people who wrote in her name failed to shade in an oval box, and the courts ruled the ballots invalid, TIME reports.
John Street- Philadelphia: John Street came into office in 2000 with an ambitious agenda to improve Philadelphia’s worst neighborhoods, and even his critics agree he has made considerable progress. But, says Otis White, of the public-policy consulting firm Civic Strategies, “whatever his grand visions have been, he will not be remembered for them. He will be remembered for the corruption (around him).” There has been no evidence that Street, 61, himself is corrupt, but federal prosecutors say the mayor’s close friend and fund raiser, Ron White, partially took control of city contracting and turned the process into a naked shakedown for donations to Street’s 2003 re-election campaign. White died before going to trial, but former city treasurer Cory Kemp, a member of Street’s administration, and four other defendants await a jury’s verdict. The scandals have turned Street into a lame duck a year early. “The city is in a kind of suspended animation as long as the trials go on,” says former Philadelphia Daily News editor Zack Stalberg.
The full story is on TIME.com Sunday morning at 8am.
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