Twenty years ago, half the 12 largest U.S. municipalities had a Republican mayor. When Bill de Blasio takes office in New York on Jan. 1, none will.
As middle-class residents moved out of cities and were replaced by immigrants and young people, the party lost its grip on population centers even as it increased control of governor’s offices and legislatures. The polarization has pitted urban interests against rural areas and suburbs, denying Republicans a power base.
“The New York election hopefully is somewhat of a wake-up call,” said Scott Smith, the Republican mayor of Mesa, Ariz., and president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors. “If that doesn’t get Republicans on the national level more interested, then it should.”
De Blasio’s election means that besides New York, there will be Democratic mayors next year in Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, Philadelphia, Phoenix, Ariz., San Jose, Calif., Jacksonville, Fla., and San Antonio and Dallas, Texas. A runoff will be held in San Diego in February to replace the resigned Democratic Mayor Bob Filner.
In New York, Democrats outnumber Republicans more than 6 to 1, yet voters hadn’t elected a Democrat since David Dinkins lost to Rudolph Giuliani in 1993. De Blasio, 52, won last month by the biggest margin by a non-incumbent in city history on a vow to close the growing gap between rich and poor.
With its concentration of Wall Street professionals and urban poor, New York has one of the highest income disparities among large U.S. cities, according to U.S. Census data. While more than 26 percent of households earned at least $100,000 in 2012, almost a quarter earned less than $25,000.
In all but three of the dozen most populous cities, mayoral elections are nonpartisan and candidates’ affiliations don’t appear on the ballot. Yet their party is often known to voters.
In Boston’s nonpartisan election Nov. 5, both candidates were Democrats. State Rep. Marty Walsh defeated City Councilor John Connolly, in part because opponents painted Connolly as the “Republican” after he attracted donations from that party.
Two decades ago, crime was the dominant issue in those places, so law-and-order GOP mayors such as Giuliani in New York and Richard Riordan in Los Angeles were popular.
“My motto was ‘Tough enough to turn L.A. around,’” Riordan said in a telephone interview.
Today the emphasis is on economic matters and equality — issues that Democrats champion.
“There’s this old notion that there’s no Republican or Democratic way to pick up the garbage,” Bruce Katz, director of the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution, said in a telephone interview. “That’s not entirely true.”
Voters selecting mayors care most about who can do the job, and national Republicans are more focused on dogma, said Mayor Greg Ballard in Indianapolis, the most populous U.S. city run by a Republican.
“If they campaign or govern with a basis in ideology, they’re going to fail,” said Ballard, 59, a former Marine who has supported mass transit and takes a liberal view on social issues. “Being a mayor is about getting things done, and I do wish a few more people understood that.”
National Republicans haven’t made cities a priority. While the 2012 Democratic National Convention gave prominent roles to mayors, including a keynote address for San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro, no big-city mayors were featured at the Republican convention. They, however, have increased their share of governorships to 30 from 22 since 2006. They’ve also taken the mayorships of smaller cities even as they fail to gain traction in the most populous.
The divide is dramatic in places such as Texas, where Houston, Dallas, San Antonio and Austin are run by Democrats while the state as a whole is reliably Republican. All statewide offices are held by Republicans, including Gov. Rick Perry, a 2012 Republican presidential candidate, and the party controls the legislature.