Go to the Globe and Mail homepage

Jump to main navigationJump to main content

Globe and Mail columnist Doug Saunders. RANDY QUAN FOR THE GlOBE AND MAIL (Randy Quan/Randy Quan/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
Globe and Mail columnist Doug Saunders. RANDY QUAN FOR THE GlOBE AND MAIL (Randy Quan/Randy Quan/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)


Why our mayors don't rule our world Add to ...

How do you feel about your mayor? Is she filling you with pride, turning urban blight into urbane beauty and making your city strut on the world stage? Or is he a source of personal and public shame, a stumbling embarrassment of pratfalls and crack pipes and sloth?

This is the unique thing about mayors: Unlike any other elected representatives, we feel something about them – personal pride or shame – not entirely unlike what we feel about our children as they enter the world. It may be the closest Canadians get to the feelings Americans and French have about presidents – but the leader of a republic is a father or mother figure, whereas the leader of a city is its chosen offspring.

And when these children of the city make good at home, we want to send them out into the wider world to repeat their success.

Italy has just joined the small club of countries, including France and Turkey at the moment,  that are governed by mayors: Matteo Renzi, the youthful new Italian prime minister, built his electoral platform on his five successful years at Florence’s helm. Recent history has launched a number of big-city mayors into national leadership – Jacques Chirac in Paris and then France; Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Tehran and then Iran.

A good mayor is trusted in ways that prime ministers, premiers and presidents rarely are these days – not just by citizens, but by people around the world, in the cases of places like New York and London. Good mayors tend to defy the political spectrum: I was governed in London by two great mayors, Ken Livingstone, a Marxist who encouraged high-density private property development and introduced steep fees for driving downtown; and Boris Johnson, a far-right Tory who eagerly embraced public transit, bike lanes and urban multiculturalism.

Why can’t we have this kind of politician at the national and international level? This is exactly the question asked by American political theorist Benjamin Barber in his engaging new book If Mayors Ruled The World. He proposes a “global parliament of mayors” who can guide leadership, share best practices and orchestrate international campaigns around neglected issues.

It’s a good idea and ought to become a reality. But it does lead me to wonder: With the few exceptions noted above, why do mayors often fare so poorly in national politics?

So many ultra-successful mayors who were thought to be destined for greater national things – Rudolph Giuliani of New York, Klaus (Wowi) Wowereit of Berlin, Jose Serra of Sao Paulo, Bertrand Delanoë of Paris, Antonio Villaraigosa of Los Angeles, Bo Xilai of Chongqing – have either fizzled upon contact with national politics or burned up prematurely before reaching the stratosphere. The United States has never seen a major city mayor become president, and among Canadian prime ministers, we’ve had only John Abbott, who was mayor of Montreal for two terms.

This is in good part because the set of skills necessary for success in municipal politics is fundamentally different from the one required for national leadership. The former is about carrying out bold plans with absolute authority; the latter more often about forging compromises among disparate parties in contingent circumstances.

What makes for a great mayor often makes for a terrible national politician. As a Londoner, I dreaded hearing any statement on non-municipal matters from either Mr. Livingstone (who tended to say kind things about Venezuelan and Iranian leaders) or Mr. Johnson (who might call for an end to immigration or a withdrawal from Europe). What made for strong leadership at the city level might be frightening demagoguery on the national stage.

The best municipal leaders are often benign authoritarians. As an official in Bologna once told me, “All mayors are either communist or fascist.” While often literally true in his city, there’s a germ of universal truth: Mayors often exercise powers of command that would be rare indeed in provincial or national politics.

This is rooted in one of the fundamental rules of politics: The more local it gets, the less democratic and more corruptible it is. As you move from the national to the local, the proportion of people voting declines, transparency rules and watchdog agencies decline in number, and the quantity and quality of media attention tends to diminish.

In other words, the quality of leadership is less likely to be built into the system, and more likely to depend on the character of the person at the helm. Which is why our mayors will always feel like our children – and why they’re unlikely to leave the house when they grow up.


Follow me on Twitter:

Report Typo/Error

Follow on Twitter: @dougsaunders

Next story




Most popular videos »

More from The Globe and Mail

Most popular